Wednesday, May 31, 2006

John Cheever and Swimming Pools

With their air of obligatory collective fun, there’s a sadness peculiar to swimming pools. This feeling accompanies some of my earliest memories, when my mother was a swimming instructor at a municipal pool in suburban Cleveland. I was five or six and I sat on the concrete deck beside the pool, reading comic books and watching storm clouds. I remember nothing of the kids she taught, the inevitable sunshine and laughter, focused as I was on my own boredom and misery, but I remember the mingled smells of chlorine and the limestone damp of the concrete.

This recollection came back Tuesday morning when I took my younger sons, ages 3 and 5, to their first swimming lessons of the summer, at our neighborhood YMCA. The instructors are polite, college-age girls uncertain of their authority over young children, especially with parents seated nearby. The kids jump in the water and splash or stand on the deck and cry. Mine are jumpers.

Inevitably I think of “The Swimmer” – the story by John Cheever, not the awful movie adaptation of it, starring Burt Lancaster as the title character, Neddy Merrill. Merrill decides to swim home from a friend’s suburban house, eight miles away, using “that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife.” These are not the swimming pools I knew as a kid. In fact, no one in our working-class neighborhood owned a pool. Cheever works another economic stratum, another world entirely, though the gin consumption in both worlds, as I recall, was comparable. Also comparable is the visceral sense of unhappiness and unease associated with both sorts of pools:

“Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds – some stubborn autumnal fragrance – on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.”

In eight miles, Merrill ages, unravels. Merrill’s journey begins as a lark, the romp of a boy-man, but soon darkens and grows mysterious. His home is no longer his home. Rust from the garage door handles comes off on his hands. A rain gutter has come loose and hangs in front of the front door “like an umbrella rib.” Merrill’s dawning realization that something is wrong, is deftly paced by Cheever. It is almost but not quite melodramatic and I find it devastatingly sad. The final sentence:

“He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.”

Guy Davenport, of all people, had a fine understanding of Cheever. He reviewed Cheever’s final, slender work of fiction, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, published shortly before the writer’s death in 1982. In “John Cheever in Paradise,” later collected in The Hunter Gracchus, Davenport compares Cheever to his great precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“The resemblances between these two scions of New England Puritanism are seductive. They both put Italian paganism and American innocence in an ironic and heartbreaking contrast. They shared symbolic vocabularies of light and dark, old and new, spiritual deprivation and fulfillment, nature and civilization, man and woman. Cheever saw life as a process of impulses whose power to shape our destiny becomes apparent only when we can no longer extricate ourselves from them. The world is beautiful and fun; what we don’t know in our joy of it is that what feels so good is addictive and the hangover bitter. All Cheever plots are about good intentions plunging with energy and verve into a trap. The older he got, the more he liked to think that the trap is purgatorial, is, in fact, good for us. Life has no other shape.”

How I love Davenport and his all-seeing intelligence. His verb “plunging” is perfect for describing Merrill’s descent. Davenport helps define some of the reasons why reading Cheever has always seemed both pleasant and important. Those who read him as a minor-league satirist of suburban angst do Cheever and themselves a foolish injustice. “The Swimmer” doesn’t fit Davenport’s purgatorial scheme, as some of the earlier short stories do not. It starts with forced joie de vivre, shifts into muted comedy and ends in hell.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

`A Slight Angle to the Universe'

Richard Stern has an amusing piece in The Invention of the Real on trying to arrange an interview with Jimmy Carter. His pitch to Carter’s handlers is to spend three days with the president each year of his term: “I’ll have both the propinquity and the scarcity which gives distance…I’ll be testing Lord Acton’s famous maxim in terms of sharp impressions. Monet with a pen.” The piece is dated March 17, 1977 – two months into Carter’s term, two and a half years before the start of the embassy debacle in Tehran. After months of haggling and worrisome waiting, his proposal is formally rejected and Stern, who at the time was studying Modern Greek in preparation for “a Schliemannian tour of Mycenae, Knossos, Phaestos,” is reminded of the curiously remote Carter by a sonnet, “Hidden Things,” written in 1908 by Constantine Cavafy:

“From all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there that changed the pattern
Of my actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
To stop me when I’d begun to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
My most veiled writing –
From these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
So much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
Someone else made just like me
Is certain to appear and act freely.”

That’s the Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard translation, the one I have on my shelf. I’ve always assumed the “obstacle” referred, on one level, to Cavafy’s homosexuality, and I continue to like the poem up to the final three lines, which are sentimental and didactic. In my mind, the poem has always been associated with Henry James, his “obscure hurt” and the dogged rumors of homosexuality. Carter would never have occurred to me, though Nixon probably should have. I know this is a dissenting opinion, but after Lincoln I find Nixon the most enigmatic and humanly compelling of our presidents. Read lines three and four again and think of Nixon – the twisted Shakespearean protagonist, a sweaty, insecure, almost sympathetic Macbeth.

In “Hidden Things,” Cavafy has created what I think of as a template poem, a work so suggestive, so persuasively abstract and specific at the same time, it can accommodate multiple, intelligent readings. How is it that a drab clerk in Alexandria, Egypt, could become a great world poet, one of the great celebrators of sexual pleasure, and remain interesting and important to a non-homosexual, non-Greek, non-clerk in the United States who has never been to Africa, 73 years after the poet’s death? Part of the reason is that Cavafy, as E.M. Forster wrote, “stood at a slight angle to the universe." His very eccentricity as a person – literally, away from the center – gave him a privileged perspective on humanity. I have known men and women like this – so strange, sometimes even unpleasant, yet possessing unusual insight into common humanity.

Auden claimed Cavafy as a major influence on his work despite having no Modern Greek and relying on translations. By the way, all three of the cited writers – Cavafy, Forster, Auden -- were gay, and I have no idea whether that has any significance. Auden thought of Cavafy as a poet who was indelibly himself, who couldn’t write or exist otherwise. This is from Auden’s introduction to a selection of Cavafy’s poems in English:

“What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites? Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it. Reading any poem of his, I feel: `This reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.’ That the speech of self-disclosure should be translatable seems to me very odd, but I am convinced that it is. The conclusion I draw is that the only quality which all human beings without exception possess is uniqueness: any characteristic, on the other hand, which one individual can be recognized as having in common with another, like red hair or the English language, implies the existence of other individual qualities which this classification excludes. To the degree, therefore, that a poem is the product of a certain culture, it is difficult to translate it into the terms of another culture, but to the degree that it is the expression of a unique human being, it is as easy, or as difficult, for a person from an alien culture to appreciate as for one of the cultural group to which the poet happens to belong.”

Auden hovers around the idea that art, at its best, is “the expression of a unique human being” – even if it ranks among the artist’s “most veiled” work.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

This is from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and Collect, a prose miscellany of New York City reminiscences, random notes on books and writers and, most memorably, his experiences during the Civil War nursing wounded soldiers in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The work is arranged in brief, self-contained passages, lyrical but realistic remembrances or feuilletons, without a larger narrative plan. Whitman’s prose, like his poetry, is quintessentially American – elastic, open to experience, sharp-eyed, embracing the elevated and the mundane – in a word (one Whitman loved), democratic. Think of Whitman’s prose as a distant progenitor of Saul Bellow's, especially in The Adventures of Augie March. This selection, from 1863, two weeks before Gettysburg, he titled “Some Specimen Cases”:

June 18th. —In one of the hospitals I find Thomas Haley, company M, 4th New York cavalry—a regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness—shot through the lungs—inevitably dying—came over to this country from Ireland to enlist—has not a single friend or acquaintance here—is sleeping soundly at this moment, (but it is the sleep of death)—has a bullet-hole straight through the lung. I saw Tom when first brought here, three days since, and didn’t suppose he could live twelve hours—(yet he looks well enough in the face to a casual observer.) He lies there with his frame exposed above the waist, all naked, for coolness, a fine built man, the tan not yet bleach’d from his cheeks and neck. It is useless to talk to him, as with his sad hurt, and the stimulants they give him, and the utter strangeness of every object, face, furniture, &c., the poor fellow, even when awake, is like some frighten’d, shy animal. Much of the time he sleeps, or half sleeps. (Sometimes I thought he knew more than he show’d.) I often come and sit by him in perfect silence; he will breathe for ten minutes as softly and evenly as a young babe asleep. Poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse beautiful shining hair. One time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly, without the least start, awaken’d, open’d his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn’d back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover’d near.

“W. H. E., CO. F., 2d N. J .—His disease is pneumonia. He lay sick at the wretched hospital below Aquia creek, for seven or eight days before brought here. He was detail’d from his regiment to go there and help as nurse, but was soon taken down himself. Is an elderly, sallow-faced, rather gaunt, gray-hair’d man, a widower, with children. He express’d a great desire for good, strong green tea. An excellent lady, Mrs. W., of Washington, soon sent him a package; also a small sum of money. The doctor said give him the tea at pleasure; it lay on the table by his side, and he used it every day. He slept a great deal; could not talk much, as he grew deaf. Occupied bed 15, ward I, Armory. (The same lady above, Mrs. W., sent the men a large package of tobacco.)

“J. G. lies in bed 52, ward I; is of company B, 7th Pennsylvania. I gave him a small sum of money, some tobacco, and envelopes. To a man adjoining also gave twenty-five cents; he flush’d in the face when I offer’d it—refused at first, but as I found he had not a cent, and was very fond of having the daily papers to read, I prest it on him. He was evidently very grateful, but said little.

“J. T. L., of company F., 9th New Hampshire, lies in bed 37, ward I. Is very fond of tobacco. I furnish him some; also with a little money. Has gangrene of the feet; a pretty bad case; will surely have to lose three toes. Is a regular specimen of an old-fashion’d, rude, hearty, New England countryman, impressing me with his likeness to that celebrated singed cat, who was better than she look’d.

“Bed 3, ward E, Armory, has a great hankering for pickles, something pungent. After consulting the doctor, I gave him a small bottle of horse-radish; also some apples; also a book. Some of the nurses are excellent. The woman-nurse in this ward I like very much. (Mrs. Wright—a year afterwards I found her in Mansion house hospital, Alexandria—she is a perfect nurse.)

“In one bed a young man, Marcus Small, company K, 7th Maine—sick with dysentery and typhoid fever—pretty critical case—I talk with him often—he thinks he will die—looks like it indeed. I write a letter for him home to East Livermore, Maine—I let him talk to me a little, but not much, advise him to keep very quiet—do most of the talking myself—stay quite a while with him, as he holds on to my hand—talk to him in a cheering, but slow, low and measured manner—talk about his furlough, and going home as soon as he is able to travel.

“Thomas Lindly, 1st Pennsylvania cavalry, shot very badly through the foot—poor young man, he suffers horribly, has to be constantly dosed with morphine, his face ashy and glazed, bright young eyes—I give him a large handsome apple, lay it in sight, tell him to have it roasted in the morning, as he generally feels easier then, and can eat a little breakfast. I write two letters for him.

“Opposite, an old Quaker lady is sitting by the side of her son, Amer Moore, 2d U. S. artillery—shot in the head two weeks since, very low, quite rational—from hips down paralyzed—he will surely die. I speak a very few words to him every day and evening—he answers pleasantly—wants nothing—(he told me soon after he came about his home affairs, his mother had been an invalid, and he fear’d to let her know his condition.) He died soon after she came.”

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Rob Borsellino, R.I.P.

An old friend and former newspaper colleague, Rob Borsellino, has died at the age of 58, of ALS. I worked with Rob at the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., for more than eight years. He was smart, passionate and blessed with a surfeit of energy. He once hit another writer with a rolled-up copy of the Wall Street Journal, and I only wish it had been a baseball bat. Of a particularly tiresome editor whose news judgment was dubious, Rob said, "His idea of good journalism is a three-part series on the economy of Estonia." Read his obit in his last newspaper, the Des Moines Register.

Making Connections

The wonderful Chicago novelist Richard Stern is an embarrassment of gifts. Several of his novels – especially Stitch, Natural Shocks and Other Men’s Daughters – rank among the best from the last half-century, and his Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories, published last year, is a generous assemblage of unalloyed pleasure. His unruly nonfiction is a grab bag of journalism, reviews, essays and profiles, and is always interesting, smart and funny. He has read everything and seems to have met and in some cases befriended everyone worth knowing since the end of World War II – among them, Bellow, Roth, Borges, Pound, Edgar Bowers, Donald Justice, Flannery O’Connor and Samuel Beckett.

Collected in The Invention of the Real (1982) is an impossible-to-categorize piece titled “Sulzberger and Beckett: Sketch for a Diptych.” C.L. Sulzberger’s family owned the New York Times, and for decades he wrote news and a column devoted to foreign affairs. He also published four volumes of memoirs in the 60s and 70s, and Stern read them and another “50 or so volumes of memoirs” while researching his novel about a journalist, Natural Shocks. “I stole what my style could accommodate,” Stern admits, charmingly. In 1977, he wrote a “confession and fan letter” to Sulzberger, and the two met in Paris for “a wonderful four-hour luncheon.”

By happy coincidence, Stern had met Beckett for the first time two days earlier, also in Paris, and he explains: “I thought I’d do a double portrait: one would be of a man who’d spent forty-odd years reporting the world out there, the other a man who’d spent the same time inventing a world from inside.” Here’s how Stern spells out the similarities between such dissimilar men:

“Each was a native English speaker from the English periphery (Ireland, the United States) who’d spent most of his adult life in Paris. Both were excellent linguists, both men of conspicuous intellectual and physical energy. They even had similar grizzled, blue-eyed looks (though Beckett’s face is gaunt, his eyes huge). Neither is concerned much with appearance (except, perhaps, negatively). Beckett dresses like an urchin and carries a Woolworth-style briefcase. Sulzberger paid more for clothes, and there was a blue scheme, though it looked as if it had been worked out numerically.”

The piece is less than five pages long but I find it convincing. Stern writes:

“Beckett’s work, almost entirely severed from that world [the journalist’s], is an addition to it; a new mental color. In the little bar near the Luxembourg gardens, Beckett said that the only time he’s otherwise participated in the world’s affairs was when the Nazis began killing his friends. He joined an underground network: his job, condensing intelligence reports so that, photographed, they could be fitted into matchboxes. (`Reality favors symmetries,’ wrote Borges, another modern master of the laser and the remnant.)”

I like those rare polymathic writers who gather disparate people, books, facts, ideas and nuggets of language from diverse disciplines and bodies of information, and make plausible connections. They seem to operate under the assumption that everything, if you look hard enough, is related to everything else (one of the lessons, certainly, of modern science), that the world, to the alert and observant, is nothing but link upon link in an endless matrix of relations. Stern is like this, both in his fiction and nonfiction, and so are Guy Davenport, Hugh Kenner, Aldo Buzzi and the rock critic Greil Marcus – itself a pretty unlikely linkage of writers.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Houston Skyline

I was driving on one of our insufferable freeways Thursday morning, within spitting distance of downtown Houston, at the hour the Enron verdicts were being announced somewhere in that maze of concrete, glass and steel to my left. I was on my way to the M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston, and that helped buoy my spirits. It feels as though summer arrived in Houston months ago. Already the air is thick with ozone, petroleum fumes, humidity, pollen and mendacity. I dimly remembered some lines from a Kingsley Amis poem but I had to wait until I returned home to check them (I once had a better memory for invective). The lines are from a 12-poem cycle set in Wales, “The Evans Country,” that Amis wrote in the 1960s:

“The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town center they could find;
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?”

Downtown Houston is inhumanly ugly and oppressive. Decades of architects, city planners and politicians have turned it into a social experiment with all the charm of a petri dish – a glitzy hybrid of Stalinist design and Las Vegas. In addition, Houston is the largest city in the United States without zoning laws. This cowboy approach to planning has created monstrosities and widespread vulgarity though, on occasion, the results are amusing: One mile from where I am sitting stands a former gas station that has been turned into a funeral home, with the pump islands retained. At night, the hearses park beside them. Across the street is a dollar store and yet another taqueria. Amis’ point is that ugliness on such a scale is not random but inevitable, given the values we embrace. Ruskin was railing against the same values 150 years ago. In his notebooks he wrote:

"The real reason of it is this -- that for more than a couple of centuries we have been studiously surrounding ourselves with every form of vapidness and monotony in architecture. It has been our aim to make all our houses and churches, alike; we have squared our windows -- smoothed our walls; straightened our roofs -- put away nearly all ornament, inequality, evidence of effort, and ambiguity, and all variety of colour. It has been our aim to make every house look as if it had been built yesterday; and to make all the parts of it symmetrical, similar and colourless. ... All this is done directly in opposition to the laws of nature and truth."

Amis, I suspect, would have detested Ruskin – all that visionary proto-socialism and convoluted prose. But they shared a detestation of collective ugliness, and understood that such tawdriness has a debilitating impact on the lives of ordinary people. I’m no utopian, but neither was the late Jane Jacobs, author of the still remarkable The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it she wrote:

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

Friday, May 26, 2006

Off Minor

I have read few good poems about jazz. At first this seems surprising. A music so exciting, so American and full of surprises, ought to spark a celebratory impulse, and it does, but not happily so. Many poets seem drawn to what they take to be the “jazz lifestyle” (hideous phrase) – drugs, hipster lingo, racial politics. This started a long time ago, perhaps with Langston Hughes, but it certainly reached full chorus by the 1950s and the Beats. Poems about John Coltrane, most of them hagiographies and all of them awful, could fill a sizeable anthology.

I write as someone who has spent much of his life listening to jazz. Unlike Philip Larkin, a lot of the jazz I love most dates from after the 1930s – including Coltrane. Oddly, few poets seemed to have understood the significance of the discipline and intelligence it takes to create this music. Rather, they seize the notion of improvisation, romanticize it and turn jazz musicians into a species of idiot savant. There is little worthwhile improvisation without a disciplined and encyclopedic knowledge of the music, the instrument and the vast songbook of American (and other) music. The apparent telepathy we see and hear among jazz musicians as they perform is rooted in hard work and dedication, not “natural rhythm.”

About 15 years ago, reviewing an anthology of jazz short stories, Whitney Balliett noted the sentimentality that bedevils most fiction and film devoted to the music. Eudora Welty’s often-anthologized “Powerhouse,” he says, accurately, “may be the best fiction ever written about jazz.” Forgivingly, Balliett says fiction writers – and, by extension, poets – work at a disadvantage because, “The music is ephemeral. A novelist can describe the `Appassionata’ and tell you exactly how his pianist hero plays it, but a jazz novelist must describe a music that is gone the instant it is played.” The problem is not the ephemerality of the music – that’s merely its challenge -- but the ephemerality of the poets writing about it.

I have in front of me The Jazz Poetry Anthology, published in 1991 and edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Poems by more than 130 poets appear in its 293 pages. Most are deservedly unknown, at least to me. There is a poem by Wallace Stevens – “The Sick Man” – that has nothing to do with jazz except that black men show up in it and they play guitar and “mouth-organ.” There’s a terrible, Langston Hughes-like poem by William Carlos Williams – “Ol’ Bunk’s Band” – that may or may not be about Bunk Johnson but that does contain a line consisting entirely of the word “drum” repeated seven times and followed by an explanation point (for emphasis, apparently)! The usual suspects make their appearance: Baraka, Corso, Kerouac, even Carl Sandburg. Somehow, James Baldwin shows up, proving his versatility: He wrote badly in prose and poetry. Balliett, by the way, describes Baldwin’s fiction as “heated and clumsy,” which reminds me of a fat guy playing tennis. Here’s a stanza from Baldwin’s contribution, “Le sporting-club de Monte Carlo,” and I’m not making this up:

“the lady is a wonder
daughter of the thunder
smashing cages
legislating rages
with the voice of ages
singing us through.”

Baldwin dedicated the poem to Lena Horne, and I’m pretty sure there’s no statute of limitations on filing a libel suit. A few poems stand up pretty well – Larkin’s “For Sidney Bechet” and Robert Pinsky’s “History of My Heart [Section I].” Out of love for Bill Evans’ music, I wanted to enjoy Bill Zavatsky’s two poems about the pianist, but both are embarrassingly maudlin, like so many poems in this volume. Most of these writers seem to confuse poetry with the earnest expression of emotion. To quote Thelonious Monk, “Well You Needn’t.”

If you can suggest a good poem about jazz, I would like to hear about it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

`A Partisan of Goodness and Beauty'

I found yet another yellowing clip from a newspaper – I seem to leave them everywhere, like hairs from a balding man’s head -- this one tucked into my copy of Mr. Cogito, by Zbigniew Herbert. In the 1993 review, from The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Dobyns looks at three books of poetry, including Mr. Cogito. In it, Dobyns, a poet and writer of crime novels, says:

“I have read Mr. Herbert since the late 60’s, and I must say there is no other living poet whose work I enjoy as much or whom I admire more.”

The Polish poet and essayist died in 1998, but otherwise I would second Dobyns’ judgment. Herbert was a poet who gently but unambiguously chided us for our flippancy. His manner is reproachful, but coolly so, and as a veteran of the worst the 20th century could devise – Nazism, Stalinism – he earned the right to reproach us. Like Mandelstam and Cavafy, he is a poet of civilization (let’s be specific: Western civilization), and his ideal is the Greek polis. This will seem peculiar to young, romantically inclined poets and readers, for whom the poet is a wild man or shaman, a perpetual outsider and sexual rebel. Herbert would have none of such nonsense. His free verse is conversational and largely unpunctuated, but you will never confuse his work with, say, Amiri Baraka’s. His sensibility is classical. Adam Zagajewski wrote of his mentor: “He took classicism to mean: Don’t complain.” Here’s the conclusion of “Report from the Besieged City”:

“cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

“we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal

“and only our dreams have not been humiliated.”

For Herbert, the City must be defended against the barbarians, who have already breached the gates. Notice how personal the poem is – the individual, not the collective, bears the burden of witness. One thinks of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” written by Cavafy in 1904. Here is a portion of a 1984 interview Herbert gave to his American translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter:

Q: “You are a pessimist?”

A: “I don't agree. I am not an optimist either. Rather, I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago.”

Q: “What is the main reason why you write?”

A: “Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”

Q: “Do you believe this system will last forever?”

A: “This system will fall apart. It might last twenty to thirty years longer. I am there, not! A despairing soldier fights better. . . .”

One can hardly imagine an American, let alone an American poet, talking that way. Jarugelski’s neo-Stalinist crackdown had come less than three years before Herbert’s interview. Five years later, Jarugelski was elected president of Poland. Six years later, he was succeeded by Lech Walesa. Hope can’t keep up with reality, especially in Poland. In his essay “Beginning to Remember,” Zagajewski wrote:

“Herbert’s empathy, on which, as on a foundation, he built his dissent against the twentieth century’s monstrous history, calls to mind yet another kind of doubleness in his poetry. Herbert’s poems are like a suitcase upholstered in soft satin; but the suitcase holds instruments of torture. His early poems and prose poems have something boyish about them, they’re delicate to the point of helplessness. But it turned out very early on that this delicacy had nothing in common with weakness, capitulation, and a cover for suffering: it is poetry, or the prelude to poetry.”

Ecco has announced it will publish Herbert’s 416-page The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, in December. American readers have been denied an overall sense of Herbert’s career as a poet. His poems have been translated and published out of sequence. For the moment, enjoy his “Why the Classics,” as translated by Peter Dale Scott and the late Czeslaw Milosz:

"1.
in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition
among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest
the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief
for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile
exiles of all times
know what price that is

"2.
generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
envious colleagues unfavourable winds
Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter and he sailed quickly

"3.
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will it be lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns"

Then consider another excerpt from the 1984 interview with the Carpenters:

Q: “When did you lose your faith in the reformability of the system? In 1949 with the beginning of Stalinism in Poland, or before 1956? After 1956? After 1968, 1970? When?”

A: “I have known this since September 20, 1939. When I came into contact with the Soviets in Lwów [Herbert’s birthplace, now in the Ukraine], as a boy. I cannot stop wondering at certain intellectuals. I had my revelations ab oculos. And not through Marx or Lenin. The city was changed within a few days into a concentration camp. This system attacks a European through smells and tastes; while I am a partisan of goodness and beauty, I don't have a model for the happiness of humanity. My advice is: compare the smell, the state of the street, people's eyes, as I did in 1939.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Wright Stuff

The work of some writers, even good ones, seems to evaporate with their death, as though body and book were one. It takes a reader to resurrect a book, and if enough readers follow his suggestion, the writer too will again walk among us. I’m thinking here of Wright Morris, who died in 1998 at the age of 88. He lived long enough to turn into a ghost long before his death, yet he published 40 books, half of them novels, the best and best known of them set in his native Nebraska. His work was not obscure or self-consciously difficult. He won the National Book Award and the American Book Award, and he worked self-consciously in a very American tradition that includes Melville, Twain, James, Hemingway and Faulkner. In fact, he wrote one of the best books about that tradition, The Territory Ahead. When I was first reading him, in the late 1960s, I was ignorant enough to think he was a very good, maybe even great writer, at least in a handful of his books, and today I think I was right.

I thought of Morris several days ago while writing for this blog. After seeing yellowed, crumbling newspaper clips in my file cabinet, I flashed on one of his photographs, “Drawer with Silverware, Home Place, 1947.” Morris was a doubly gifted man who created first-rate work in both fiction and photography. He pioneered what he called “photo-texts,” doubling as James Agee and Walker Evans, so to speak, and fashioning books out of words and pictures. “Drawer with Silverware” is a silver gelatin print that appeared in his second “photo-text,” The Home Place, in 1948. It shows forks and table knives arranged in a drawer lined with newspaper. The right side of the photo is shadowed. Some of the newsprint is legible. I think the paper is called Capper’s Weekly, and the date is from April 1939. A headline at the top seems to read “Can America Save These Children?” A one-column mugshot, obscured by knife blades except for the forehead and hair, is captioned “Hitler’s Army Chief.” In the shadow at the bottom right, another headline reads, I think, “Mother Nature is Systematic.” You could make something of these scraps of language, over-interpret them, especially in the context of post-World War II America, and especially in a book in which words and images vie for attention. But, I’m assuming they reflect what Morris found at his Uncle Harry’s farm near Norfolk, Neb., when he returned there in the spring of 1947. In the 1960s, my Aunt Stella, on a farm outside Olean, N.Y., was still lining her kitchen drawers with newspaper.

Inevitably, Morris’ photographs remind us of work by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others hired by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. All share a reverence for humble subjects, vernacular architecture and classically geometric framing. But I see no political or social subtext in Morris’ work. His Nebraska farmers and merchants, and the structures they dwell in, are not exhibits in a show titled “Agriculture in Crisis.” Morris habitually shoots people and objects in isolation, granting them a radiant centrality of attention. His pictures stir neither pity nor terror, and certainly not moral indignation. Rather, I’m touched by their mingling of stark beauty, poignancy and respect, the way I feel when I look at Shaker furniture. They often imply absence. His pictures are surpassingly artful and never artsy.

Morris’ National Book Award-winning novel is titled The Field of Vision (1956), and the photographer’s eye carries over into much of his highly visual fiction. Here’s the first paragraph of Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960):

“Come to the window. The one at the rear of the Lone Tree Hotel. The view is to the west. There is no obstruction but the sky. Although there is no one outside to look in, the yellow blind is drawn low at the window, and between it and the pane a fly is trapped. He has stopped buzzing. Only the crawling shadow can be seen. Before the whistle of the train is heard the loose pane rattles like a simmering pot, then stops, as if pressed by a hand, as the train goes past. The blind sucks inward and the dangling cord drags in the dust on the sill.”

No photographs accompany the text, but that feels as close to photography as prose can aspire. Yet the scene is not static. Who summons us to come to the window? Who’s on the train? Will it stop? Where are we? We might be in a Western movie, or one of Antonioni’s.

If we consult Photographs and Words, a collection of Morris’s pictures from the 1940s with an essay, “Photography in My Life,” we see a compulsive return to certain visual themes. A photo called “Eggs in a Pot” is shot from above, like the knives and forks, the direction from which a hand would press the lid. Windows appear in 32 of the 61 photos, not counting numerous doors and mirrors. “Straightback Chair” is simple and implies a complicated story. We see part of a door, light in color, with a white doorknob. Beside it stands a chair with a strip of veneer missing from the seat. The floor is covered with patterned, worn-looking linoleum. Diffuse light comes from the left, perhaps from a window, and the chair casts a fuzzy shadow. Whoever lives here is not wealthy and not desperately poor. The floor and wall are clean. The picture is used for the cover of Eric Ormsby’s For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems, published by Grove Press.

In the accompanying essay, Morris writes:

“…I was prepared to appreciate home-grown American ruins and to attempt to salvage what was vanishing. Nothing will compare with the photograph to register what is going, going, but not yet gone. The pathos of this moment, the reluctance of parting, we feel intensely.”

In the same essay, Morris writes of his 1948 photo-text, The Home Place, as it was originally published, including the photos mentioned above:

“The format would be…roughly the size of a novel, and the photographs would be cropped. These mutilations removed them, as a group, from the context of artworks, as `images,’ and presented them as `things’ and artifacts. The decision to do the book in this manner permitted no compromise. I wanted to know what such a book would be like, and I found out. The readers I had in mind – it was part of my euphoria – were those who would browse through the book like an album. Most of the readers I found objected to the distraction of the photographs, and those who liked the photographs largely ignored the text. The book was very well received, critically, and continues to find reader-lookers, but it was not bought at the time of publication and confused many reviewers about the author. Was he a writer, who took photographs, or a photographer who did a little writing? The public is ill at ease with the ambidextrous.”

Morris’ photos and some of his books have come to define some of what “American” means for me, along with Twain’s dialogue, Buster Keaton’s face and Louis Armstrong’s voice. The art of all these men was ambidextrous. Among the definitions of that word given in Webster’s Third are “unusually skillful, versatile” and “characterized by duplicity” – like Wright Morris and all the best American artists.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Waxing Roth

My review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Everyman, was published Sunday in the Houston Chronicle. You can read it here.

Blythe Spirit

At the suggestion of James Marcus at House of Mirth, I have been reading Ronald Blythe’s The Age of Illusion (1963), a social history of England from the end of World War I to the start of World War II. If that sounds like an unpromising premise, I can report that, with some 80 pages under my belt, the average laugh-out-loud frequency is twice per page, despite Blythe devoting the first chapter to the Great War and its unimaginably pointless slaughter. This era and setting I, like a lot of Americans, probably know best through novels -- Waugh, Powell, Green, even P.G. Wodehouse. Though Blythe devotes most chapters to a representative historical figure and includes seven pages of sources, his tone is closer to these fiction writers than to academic history.

The second chapter, “The Salutary Tale of Jix,” is devoted to Sir William Joynson-Hicks (1865-1932), a character new to me. Mencken would have loved him. Widely known as “Jix,” he was a Conservative politician who served as Home Secretary, a temperance advocate, compulsive talker and megalomaniac obsessed with cleaning up the morals of his countrymen. He also defended the killing of 379 Indians at Amritsar. Here’s Blythe on “Jix” and his version of homeland security:

“Gradually, the mid-Victorian busybody was evolving into a familiar twentieth-century leader. He used hypnotic catch phrases. For instance, he never said aliens, he always said undesirable aliens, and he said it so often that stupid people began to hate foreigners for reasons they couldn’t express. His worship of visas helped to turn a document of convenience into a prized possession. He saw himself as the watchdog of the sceptred isle and anyone he didn’t care for he dubbed Bolshevist and shipped back home.”

And here’s Blythe on one of Jix’s henchmen, Station-Sergeant Goddard:

"Goddard was the bluest-eyed boy in the vice squad. He had been in the police force for twenty-eight years and had specialized in raiding night-clubs since 1918. The fervour he brought to his task and the success by which he had been rewarded had taken the station-sergeant out of the ordinary chap-with-a-job-to-do category and put him among the vocationists. His nose was so keen that he could pick up the chypre-and-bubbly scent of a new club almost before the first member had sidled past its chucker-out."

James wondered if a book similar to Blythe’s had ever been written about the United States, and nominated Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station as a contender. That’s close, but Wilson was too credulous about the Workers’ Paradise, plus his sense of humor was, let’s see, limited. I’m only guessing here, but The Age of Illusion, which James describes as “wide-angled social history,” may represent a distinctly English genre, like Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (James' suggestion). We Americans are simply too serious about ourselves, regardless of our political persuasion. Even history has to be good for us, like broccoli. For all of that, parts of Blythe’s book read like a roman a clef (or histoire de clef) of the United States today. You decide who “Jix” represents and who stands in for Neville Chamberlain.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Core Samples

Sunday afternoon, with my wife at the gym and the kids playing Legos, I was looking in a file cabinet for some of the letters Guy Davenport sent me. I never found them because I got distracted by other letters, notebooks, manuscripts and clips I have preserved for no good reason. For a writer, a file cabinet is a sort of core sample of his life, and the evidence is always depressing. I think: Thousands of stories, millions of words, and for what? Some of the paper is brown and crumbling, and it reminds me of that Wright Morris photograph of cutlery in a drawer lined with newspaper. It also reminds me of a line from a Rolling Stones song: “Who wants yesterday’s paper? Who wants yesterday’s girl?”

In a file labeled “Beckett” I found a column I wrote shortly after Beckett’s death on Dec. 22, 1989. It’s embarrassing, as most old work is. I can see myself working too hard for too little effect. This passage is less shameful than most: “Many of the newspaper reports of his death, garbled with cliché and gossip, rehashed Beckett’s notorious bleakness and obscurity. Often these accounts were tinged with the sort of philistine sniggering that greeted Beckett throughout his career. The impression they leave, especially on readers ignorant of his work, is that Beckett is not worth the effort.”

All true, to some degree, but I don’t like the self-righteous pleading. Today, I would celebrate Beckett’s accomplishment, not complain about his detractors. And I would never write “philistine sniggering.” I remember sending the column to Guy Davenport, who was tactful enough to compliment my mention of Vaclav Havel, a friend of Beckett’s who had been elected president of Czechoslovakia a week after the Irishman’s death.

In the same file I found a happier memory – a piece on Beckett by one of his best critics, Christopher Ricks, published in New York Newsday on New Year’s Eve 1989. Ricks, as always, is epigrammatically quotable:

“He combined, as it is difficult to do in life as in art, two very different principles. First, a tragic consciousness that life can never really be sufficiently improved. (In the words of Mrs. Rooney in the radio play `All That Fall’: `Christ, what a planet!’) Next, a political conscience that tells us we must do our best to improve life, such as led Beckett to the acts of courage that won him the Croix de Guerre in the French resistance movement.”

And: “He married conscience and consciousness within a style of unimpeachable formal beauty, poignantly sad and piercingly comic.”

And: “He took the most eternal of subjects: death. Then he gave it a fair crack of the whip.”

Readers of Ricks’ Beckett’s Dying Words, one of the few books worthy of its subject, will recognize these ideas. Also in the file I found a review of Ricks’ book written by the fine, under-read novelist Paul West, and published in The Boston Phoenix in December 1993. West, too, is a pleasure to quote:

“Rumor was, [Beckett] lived in a furnitureless room because chairs and tables would sully the purity of space. That was a Platonic or Platonicized Beckett, an apocryphal vignette. He did not deal in such absolutes (an absolute needs nothing: Mr. Knott [from Watt] needs nothing, yet needs that recognized), but in dwindlings, deteriorations, declines, defungings, deponencies.”

I love obscure, semi-extinct words used well, as did Beckett. He has been lucky in his eulogists after all, despite my fumblings. In 1954, he concluded “Homage to Jack B. Yeats” with four simple, perfect words: “Merely bow in wonder.”

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Eloquence or Bullshit?

The distinction between eloquence and bullshit is a fine one. Even windbags can prove themselves charming, at least on occasion. Samuel Johnson was nearly always eloquent and seldom a bullshitter. In Coleridge, Johnson’s only peer among the great English conversationalists, the proportion of bullshit to eloquence is reversed. I would believe nearly anything Johnson said and would question nearly everything Coleridge said. Yet who would shun the company of either man?

Bullshit is not synonymous with lying, and it’s not always deplorable. I have this on good authority. Harry Frankfurt, the retired Princeton philosopher, last year published On Bullshit. Here’s what he says:

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

This perfectly describes Coleridge. Like the laudanum he prodigiously consumed, Coleridge’s conversation intoxicated and consoled him. Read his Biographia Literaria, or Table Talk, two hefty volumes of Coleridge speaking compellingly on any subject, “his eyes not on the facts at all,” as recorded by friends and relations. In the Table Talk entry for July 1, 1833, Henry Nelson Coleridge, the poet’s nephew, reports him saying:

“Johnson’s fame now rests principally upon Boswell. It is impossible not to be amused by such a book. But his bow-wow manner must have had a good deal to do with the effect produced; for no one, I suppose, will set Johnson before [Edmund] Burke – and Burke was a great and universal talker…. The fact was, Burke, like all men of Genius who love to talk at all, was very discursive and continuous – hence he is not reported; for he seldom said the sharp short things that Johnson almost always did, which produced a more decided effect at the moment and which are much more easy to carry off…. Burke said and wrote more than once that he thought Johnson greater in talking that in writing – and even greater in Boswell than in real life.”

What Coleridge says of Burke’s conversation, of course – “discursive and continuous” – is a precise description of Coleridge’s own mode of discourse. And in his indirect paring away at Johnson’s reputation, by way of Burke, we can hear the small-spirited hectoring of an insecure man. Between them, Johnson and Coleridge, in addition to their other accomplishments, written and oral, set the highest standard for Shakespeare criticism. Both were giants.

In the second volume of his biography of the poet, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, Richard Holmes musters ample evidence of Coleridge’s volubility. On July 10, 1834, Henry Coleridge, in his final Table Talk entry, reports his uncle saying:

“I am dying, but without expectation of a speedy release. Is it not strange that very recently by-gone images, and scenes of early life, have stolen into my mind, like breezes blown from the spice islands of Youth and Hope – those twin realities of this phantom world! I do not add Love – for what is Love but Youth and Hope embracing, and so seen as one? I say realities; for reality is a thing of degrees, from the Iliad to a dream…”

This, if an accurate transcription, is poignant eloquence, not bullshit. Fifteen days later, Coleridge, age 61, died. Here’s Holmes’ eloquent description:

“At 6:30 a.m. on 25 July 1835 he slipped into the dark. He was talking almost up to the end. As he closed those extraordinary eyes, he told [an old friend, Henry] Green that his mind was clear and `quite unclouded.’ Then he added with growing interest, `I could be witty…”

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Nature Boy

So often, I have been slow to recognize good work. I came late to R.S. Thomas, though I knew of his poetry years ago. Other late discoveries that make me feel foolish and dull: George Santayana, J.F. Powers, Anthony Trollope, Penelope Fitzgerald – and especially John Clare. What I knew was the misleading reputation of the poet rather than Clare himself. Stray, half-remembered mentions of Clare in Edward Blunden, Patrick Kavanagh and Theodore Roethke – the latter mistakenly lumping him with Smart and Blake – led me to lazily pigeonhole him among the romantically insane.

Jonathan Bate, in John Clare (2003), one of my favorite biographies of recent years, changed all that. Published at the same time was “I Am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, edited by Bate, who gives us a delightful poet teetering between minor and major status. In “Pastoral Poetry,” first published decades after his death, which occurred 142 years ago today, Clare wrote aptly of his own work:

“So would I my own mind employ
And my own heart impress
That poesy’s self’s a dwelling joy
Of humble quietness.”

Clare is the truest nature poet among his contemporaries. He knew more about cowslips and badgers than Keats and Shelley combined. He worked as a farm laborer, and was so desperately poor for most of his life that he sometimes could not afford paper. He spent more than 20 of his final years in lunatic asylums.

How pleased I was to learn that R.S. Thomas was an admirer of Clare and his work. Here’s how Bate describes the reverence of one poet for another:

“But he remains above all the poets’ poet. R.S. Thomas, the Anglo-Welsh poet and priest who served in parishes among a North Wales peasantry whose working lives were not so very far from the world of Clare’s own community, began his tribute poem by making the traditional link between lunacy and the moon. Written for the 1993 bicentenary of Clare’s birth, which coincided with Thomas’s own eightieth year, the poem elides the full moon and the high forehead of the balding dome of the older Clare’s head in the 1844 Grimshaw portrait. It then looks back to the youthful Clare whose feeling for nature was the purest kind of love. In the vision of R.S. Thomas, the lunatic, the lover and the poet are indeed of imagination all compact:

“`Young, he was in his own
sky, rising at mornings
over unbrushed dew,
with no-one to introduce
him to earth’s bustling creatures
but his love. It was love
brought him, as it brings
all of us in the end, face
against glass, to demand
brokenly of the anonymous: Who am I?’

“But even during the long asylum years Clare knew – at least he knew for most of the time – who he was:

“`A silent man in life’s affairs
A thinker from a boy
A Peasant in his daily cares
The Poet in his joy.’”

Genius often recognizes genius before the rest of us do. I remember reading a few years ago that Arnold Schoenberg admired Duke Ellington immensely, which was doubly pleasing for me because I admire both of them. The same is true of Thomas and Clare. By the way, the Thomas poem, “Lunar,” comes from No Truce with the Furies, and the Clare lines come from his poem “The Peasant Poet.”

Friday, May 19, 2006

Waiting for `Blind Delight'

Richard Wilbur is a poet I have always admired more than enjoyed. Technically, he is a master, a craftsman like the late Anthony Hecht, who could take on any subject, in any form, at any length. That may be a partial explanation for why my mind tends to skid over his poems, like a giraffe on ice. The surface is so dazzling, so artfully polished, I’m unable to gain traction long enough to peer into the depths, assuming there are any depths. That sounds condescending, and that’s not how I intend it. In his poems, prose and interviews, Wilbur seems so reasonable, polite and well-adjusted. That’s all in contrast to Hecht, a poet of his generation, whose technical pyrotechnics seem at war with the inhumanity that is often his subject. That tension, not merely the high level of accomplishment, is why I so frequently return to Hecht’s poems and why they remain reliable sources of pleasure and consolation. To put it bluntly, Wilbur’s poems are nearly always pleasant but they seldom threaten to change me, or even stay with me very long. It says something that I’ve been reading him for 40 years but have never committed any of his lines to memory.

The first of the 13 new poems Wilbur placed at the start of Collected Poems 1943-2004, “The Reader,” is a useful example:

“She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some bright Natasha in the ballroom door –
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.”

The theme is one I have often addressed – an older reader returning to the books of his or her youth, with the attendant sense of double vision. The books the woman in the poem reads seem to be the great novels of the 19th century – Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and less defined titles that suggest, to this reader, Austen and James. The re-reader’s perspective, with the advantage of knowing the outcome of the plot, resembles a deity’s. The point, the “true wonder,” is that the smitten reader will persevere with a lengthy narrative despite the absence of conventional suspense, will still turn “enchanted to the next bright page.”

I am reminded of an observation made in another 19th-century novel -- George Eliot's Daniel Deronda:

"Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: -- in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures."

I have no argument with anything in Wilbur's poem. In fact, it recapitulates my own frequent experience of rereading, and I do like the final two lines. They are, as I said above of Wilbur, “pleasant.” But, they leave me unchanged and teach me nothing new. I am waiting for the sensation of “blind delight.” I am waiting for his exaltation of the "sold fact."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

`Deeper Things'

The oldest of my three sons is 18 and busy reading some of the same books I read when I was that age or a little younger – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (at this moment, The Idiot), Bellow – and reading them with the same happy doggedness I did. Of Bellow he has read Henderson the Rain King, The Adventures of Augie March and The Victim, and I have been urging him to begin Seize the Day, the most Russian of his novels, as James Wood has said. With Bellow, as with Shakespeare and James, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. Generally, it’s the title I have most recently read, which for the moment means this 1956 novella.

There’s a moment early in Seize the Day I have always loved. Tommy Wilhelm, separated from his wife and children, obsessed with pleasing his father, soon to fall for a con man’s pitch, lives in a faded hotel on the Upper West Side. He is feckless and adrift, almost innocent:

“He folded over the Tribune with its heavy, black, crashing sensational print and read without recognizing any of the words, for his mind was still on his father’s vanity. The doctor had created his own praise. People were primed and did not know it. And what did he need praise for? In a hotel where everyone was busy and contacts were so brief and had such small weight, how could it satisfy him? He could be in people’s thought here and there for a moment; in and then out. He could never matter much to them. Wilhelm let out a long, hard breath and raised the brows of his round and somewhat circular eyes. He stared beyond the thick borders of the paper.

“`…love that well which thou must leave ere long.’

“Involuntary memory brought him this line. At first he thought it referred to his father, but then he understood that it was for himself, rather. He should love that well. `This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong.’”

Wilhelm, of course, is remembering Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

The couplet Wilhelm remembers, in reverse order, suggests the ironic carpe diem theme of the title. The story’s next sentence tells us Wilhelm remembers Shakespeare because he is under the influence of Dr. Tamkin, one of Bellow’s power brokers who, in this case, intends to fleece Wilhelm in an investment scheme. Tamkin refers vaguely to poetry, the classics and his own, in a manner that charms Wilhelm. He recalls another wayward, unidentified scrap of poetry – “Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor…” -- from Milton’s "Lycidas." Bellow’s prose is often as intricate and allusive as Joyce’s, and Milton’s image shows up again in the final, great sentence of Seize the Day:

“He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”

Wilhelm realizes he has been taken, pursues Tamkin but ends up pushed into a chapel where the funeral of a stranger is underway. He explodes with grief – for the dead man, for his life, for humanity. Another mourner, unaware that Wilhelm has no idea of the identity of the corpse, says, admiringly, “Oh my, oh my! To be mourned like that.”

Such scenes, such thoughts, have been on my mind of late. Philip Roth’s Everyman, his latest, starts with the funeral of the title character and ends with his death. Much of Sabbath's Theater takes place – shockingly, hilariously, heart-breakingly – in cemeteries. Roth’s Patrimony chronicles his father’s illness and death, and there’s the title, from Yeats, of The Dying Animal (2001). Consider the final scene in Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s 1975 novel, also set in a cemetery, not to mention the title character in Ravelstein (2000), dying of AIDS.

The elegiac impulse, the recognition of death as life-defining, is strong in both writers, though Bellow’s interests were teleological – remember his interest in Rudolph Steiner in Humboldt’s Gift – and Roth remains a problematic nihilist with deep human feelings. My oldest son recently read Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time and last until he injured himself. I don’t know if he’s ready for the later, darker books, though on the basis of my review of Everyman he says he intends to read it.

"I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life," says Tommy Wilhelm. Me, too, to a degree, and so is my son.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

`Hasty, Inaccurate, and Superficial'

Acknowledging that someone we dislike or find distasteful has done something worthy of our admiration and deserves our gratitude is always an unpleasant experience. I double up with a similar moral cramp when a person I don’t respect compliments me. Internally, I’m thinking, “Who are YOU to praise ME?” This amounts to a working definition of self-centered touchiness.

Tuesday morning, seated in my dentist’s waiting room, I found myself agreeing with Virginia Woolf and even finding in her words an explanation for what I am trying to do with this blog. On a whim I had pulled The Common Reader from the shelf before leaving home. It’s the 1948 American edition, combining the first and second series of Woolf’s literary essays in a single volume. I made a vague resolution to read “Swift’s Journal to Stella” while waiting for the hygienist to floss my teeth until the gums bleed.

I have never cared for Woolf’s fiction. I have tried, since at least 1971, when a professor of 18th-century English literature, a lover of Swift and Sterne (Which wag said they should have swapped names?), rather surprisingly recommended her to me. At that time, my literary gods were Joyce, Beckett, Borges and Nabokov at their most radical and self-reflexive. Beside them, Woolf seemed like very thin porridge, and she still does. She had a gift for pretty phrases, but her manner seemed – and seems – effete, self-regarding and beside-the-point. She said silly, snobbish things about Joyce and Ulysses.

What ambushed me in The Common Reader, before I could get to the Swift essay, was Woolf’s page-and-a-half, two-paragraph introduction, which I can’t remember having read in many years. She acknowledges the source of her title as Johnson, and proceeds to make good, solid sense:

“There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s `Life of Gray’ which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. `…I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.’ It defines their qualities; it defines their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.

“The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.”

I have no illusions about distributing poetical honours, except the most personal sort. Pleasure, long habituated and always certain, is my motivation when I read. Anecdotal Evidence is a vehicle for sharing pleasure with others. I feel grateful for the arrival of the blog – its utility, low maintenance and accessibility – and for my life having intersected with its existence. “Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial?” You bet, like my assessment of Virginia Woolf. An essay, in the original, raw, Montaignan sense, was an attempt, a try, a shot in the dark, and the best blogs, the ones I depend on for pleasure and insight, are modeled on essays, not rants or reviews. So are mine.

Thank you, finally, Virginia Woolf.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Jays

Most of our meals are accompanied by the sound and often the sight of blue jays. The window next to our kitchen table faces a neighbor’s house with a low, steep roof the jays favor for hunting insects among the fallen leaves, sticks and pine needles that accumulate there. Also, jays are the only birds bold enough to challenge the squirrels at the neighbors’ bird feeder, hanging from the branch of a magnolia in their front yard. The mourning doves and more timid species feed on seeds that drop to the ground.

I have been reading The Singing Life of Birds, by Donald Kroodsman, though “skimming” is a more honest verb. While he is an earnest, exhaustively systematic researcher, Kroodsman writes ploddingly and is incapable of self-editing. He reports virtually everything that happens while he stalks and records birds in the field, regardless of how marginal its relevance or interest. He makes the taxonomic point that jays and other corvids, like crows, are songbirds, though the sounds they produce make that difficult to accept. He calls them “a songbird without a song.” It’s impossible to quote Kroodsman at length with a clear conscience, but here goes:

“I’m convinced there’s something deep and rich here, that spending time studying the pairs at a few nests and listening to these jays awake will provide a window on their minds. It is to understand their minds, after all, that is my goal, as I use their sounds only as a tool to that end.”

Kroodsman, like most writers about birds, uses the adjective “raucous” to describe the sounds of the jay. I don’t hear that. To me, jays sound as though they are kvetching – if not about a squirrel or a trespassing human, then about existence in general. They remind me of a group of old men I used to see playing chess, or at least kibitzing while others played, in Washington Park, in Albany, N.Y. Thoreau memorably described the blue jay’s song as an “unrelenting steel-cold scream,” and that too seems exaggerated. Their fearlessness and irritated loquacity make jays more conspicuous than other birds, as though they were permanent guests on talk radio.

To hear the calls of jays and other birds, go to the web site of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which describes itself as “the world’s largest archive of animal sounds.” The sounds of only a handful of species are available online, free of charge, but the Cornell collection has recordings of sounds produced by 160,000 species of animals, including about 67 percent of the world’s birds, and a growing assortment of insect, fish, frog and mammal sounds. When I played the eerie moan and quill-rattle of a porcupine, my cat ran under the bed.
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about jays:

No Brigadier throughout the Year
So civic as the Jay.
A Neighbor and a Warrior too,
With shrill felicity
Pursuing Winds that censure us
A February Day,
The Brother of the Universe
Was never blown away –
The Snow and he are intimate –
I've often seen them play
When Heaven looked upon us all
With such severity
I felt apology were due
To an insulted sky,
Whose pompous frown was Nutriment
To their Temerity.
The Pillow of this daring Head
Is pungent Evergreens –
His larder -- terse and Militant –
Unknown -- refreshing things –
His Character -- a Tonic –
His Future -- a Dispute –
Unfair an Immortality
That leaves this Neighbor out –

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Blues

It was Mother’s Day and my wife was not feeling well, so I took my two youngest sons to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Only for the second time we visited the Cockerell Butterfly Center, a three-story cone of glass and steel housing a half-acre of rain forest. Like magical realism come to life – but lovelier, not at all whimsical or heavy-handed -- the center is home to 1,500 or 2,000 butterflies from 60 species. Most are native to Central and South America, a few from Asia, and I noticed a homegrown monarch. My 3-year-old watched the ragged cloud of butterflies above us, silhouetted against the sky, and said, “Look, Dad. They look like birds, pretty birds.”

We sat on a bench and butterflies landed on our heads and arms. You feel nothing – so much weightless beauty. At the exit is a full-length mirror, and a signs warns: “Watch for stowaways.” My favorite name for one of the Asian imports: rice paper.

I remembered this passage from Nabokov’s sad, funny Pnin:

”A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again.”

I love “blue snowflakes.” Nabokov was a lepidopterist as well as a novelist of genius. His specialty were the “blues” he mentions in Pnin, and I was lucky enough, while living in Albany, N.Y., to often see and write about the Karner blue, an endangered species named for an old railroad stop in the Pine Bush – a habitat just west of Albany mentioned by Melville in Moby-Dick and now surrounded by suburban development. The Karner blues have a wingspan of about 25 mm. The caterpillars live only on blue lupine, a specialization that makes their survival even more precarious. Nabokov named all the genera, species and subspecies.

In 1975, Robert Dirig, an entomologist at Cornell University, wrote to Nabokov about his research into the Karner blue and the Pine Bush. Nabokov wrote back, clearly delighted, and said he remembered the Pine Bush “as a sandy and flowery little paradise.” That’s how I remember it, despite the hum of the nearby New York State Thruway – a rare convergence of natural beauty and artistic genius. Nabokov died in 1977.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Only in the Novel

I have finished reading Philip Roth’s new novel, Everyman, and have filed the review I wrote for a newspaper, so my job is done, but Roth’s book, which is without conventional suspense because it opens with the funeral of the title character and closes with his death, will not leave me alone. There is nothing disturbing about this sensation; in fact, it’s reassuring, because the best fiction goes on nagging us, reproaching our weaker, less worthy selves, despite our best efforts to ignore it or even scratch the persistent moral itch it leaves behind. Novels like Everyman add another echo to what Cynthia Ozick wisely calls “the din in our head.”

That phrase is the title of an Ozick essay on the potential of the novel, and it lends its name to her latest collection of essays. She writes:

“What does the novel know? It has no practical or educational aim; yet it knows what ordinary knowledge cannot seize. The novel’s intricate tangle of character-and-incident alights on the senses with a hundred cobwebby knowings fanning their tiny threads, stirring up nuances and disclosures. The arcane designs and driftings of metaphor – what James called the figure in the carpet, what Keats called negative capability, what Kafka called explaining the inexplicable – are what the novel knows.”

I love those “cobwebby knowings.” To cite James: In The Portrait of a Lady, the title’s darker meaning, like a photograph in a tank of developer, only gradually emerges. Gilbert Osmond is a collector of things. He is forever reminding us of his exquisite good taste (in art, in daughters, in wives). He aestheticizes life. As the scene of the novel shifts from England (which immediately reminds Isabel, an American, of a novel – she is susceptible to the lure of art) to Italy, we enter a world filled with paintings, sculptures, picturesque ruins, ceramics, opera and Mr. Rosier’s “bibelots.” Osmond’s is a decadent world in which even marriage is merely a “magnificent form” (his words).

For Osmond, Isabel is another bauble in his collection; not an autonomous human being but a “portrait of a lady.” Osmond creates for his wife a sort of Platonic nightmare, in which the merely real (human) can never live up to the cold rigors of the ideal (nonhuman). He wishes to hang her unchanging portrait in a mausoleum-like museum. Osmond is not a “portrait of the artist.” He is James’s cautionary portrait of a perverse, life-denying aesthete who corrupts the artistic impulse. In Chapter LI, we catch our only glimpse of Osmond actually doing something physical: He is copying the image of an antique coin, an act that more closely resembles counterfeiting than artistic creation.

James’ irony in bringing together Isabel and Osmond is harsh. Isabel starts out wanting nothing more than to be free. Her passion for unencumbered freedom is so fierce, she turns down attractive marriage proposals from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood to preserve it. Isabel’s devotion to freedom is doomed because it is too theoretical. She gives little thought to the plans and plots of others and the impact they may have on her. She is ripe for the machinations of life’s Machiavellians – Osmond and Madame Merle.

What I remember most vividly from Portrait is Osmond copying that coin – in itself, a harmless act, but in James’ hands a chilling symptom of Osmond’s moral and aesthetic sterility. From Everyman, my most vivid memory is the title character teaching painting to fellow seniors in his New Jersey retirement community, and trying to comfort one of his students who has cancer and whose husband has recently died. He sits beside her on the bed and, for once, sex is not on his mind. Everyman is death-obsessed, and his gentleness and tact with Mrs. Kramer is touching and causes us, as readers, to reevaluate this severely flawed but hardly evil man. Never again will I think about death, a specific death or in the abstract, without thinking of Roth’s Everyman. He augments one's moral and imaginative inner landscape.

Ozick finishes her essay optimistically:

“The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread – where, in an age of machines addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel; in the novel’s infinity of plasticity and elasticity; in a flap of imaginary wallpaper [a reference to passages quoted earlier from Turgenev and Woolf]. And nowhere else.”

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Misunderstanding

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that among R.S. Thomas’ lesser poems is one titled “Henry James,” from Frequencies (1978):

“It was the eloquence of the unsaid
thing, the nobility of the deed
not performed. They looked sideways
into each other’s eyes, met casually
by intention. It was the significance
of an absence, the deprecation
of what was there, the failure
to prove anything that proved his point.

“Richness is the ability
of poverty to conceal itself.
After the curtains deliberately
kept drawn, his phrases were servants moving
silently about the great house of his prose
letting in sunlight into the empty rooms.”

The poem hinges on James’ supposed over-reliance on paradox, a strategy he seldom employs, at least not with the glibness and predictability Thomas suggests. Especially in his mature work, from at least the 1870s, James was too careful, too appalled by the prospect of satisfying vulgar expectations, to permit mere cleverness, like a cheaply resolved joke, to rule his voice. In an essay titled “Henry James and the Battle of the Sexes,” Wendy Lesser says, “For James, the idea of deciding anything `once and for all’ is forbidding, terrifying, impossible.”

Thomas’ least worthy swipe is that final phrase, “empty rooms.” It’s an old libel against James – that his prose was grand but his themes were disproportionately insubstantial. Perhaps Thomas never read The Golden Bowl, which critic John Bayley has called a profound meditation on “the idea that love—love of art, love of life, love of persons—in the end meant intimacy without knowledge, a taking on trust.” If we know a little about Thomas, his life and works, we can understand why this would be anathema to so bitter an imagination.

Thomas underestimates James and the rigors of his moral imagination. Too bad he probably never read these lines from an essay James wrote about his friend, Ivan Turgenev, the great Russian novelist:

"Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand."

Thomas would have agreed.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Doctor and the Priest

Dr. Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, about whom I have written enthusiastically, has published in the May issue of The New Criterion a review/essay titled “Reading R.S. Thomas,” which is precisely what I have been doing this week. The good doctor, now retired and living in France, once lived in North Wales, which was Thomas’ turf, both geographically and poetically. Daniels, the former prison doctor, and Thomas, the Anglican priest, share some of Swift's predisposition to saevo indignatio:

“R.S. Thomas’s hatred of modernity and all its works slides into bitter misanthropy and a severe limitation of human sympathy. He hates the sinner at least as much as the sin, or perhaps his nationalism is not so much the consequence of love of Wales as of hatred of the England that represents what he most hates.”

Thomas’ anger, however, his failure of compassion and empathy, even try Daniels’ indulgence. Daniels does something every sane man does periodically: He visits a cemetery, in this case the graveyard of the Church of St. Hywyn, in Aberdaron, where Thomas was vicar for 11 years. Daniels notes that Thomas, in his autobiography, “derides the tombstones of the dead as vainglorious, exhibitionist, pompous, and redundant.” So, Daniels takes a closer look at the 19th-century stones in Thomas’ old churchyard, with their heartbreaking inscriptions, and concludes. “Yet only a man without much common feeling could fail to be moved by some of the tombs in the very churchyard where he was the vicar for eleven years.”

Daniels goes a step further and, after reading the stone of a 13-year-old boy who died at sea in 1843, finds a newspaper account of the sinking of the unseaworthy Monk Steamer – something Thomas himself could easily have done. Daniels concludes:

“R.S. Thomas could not say of himself, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, ” then adds, “Yet it wouldn’t be true, either, that Thomas was unfeeling: on the contrary, he was deeply passionate. His response to the beauty of the world, of its creatures, is that of a mystic.”

Ostensibly, Daniels’ piece is a review of Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000, the work Thomas published in the years before his death in 2000. In fact, it’s a hybrid of travelogue, review and what I’ll call memoir for lack of a more precise term. In Thomas, Daniels seems to sense a kindred spirit, a man no stranger to self-division. Thomas was a priest, a lover of the natural world, especially his native landscape, and a poet of rare concision and exquisite beauty. But, Daniels notes, “Men did not live up to his standards. They ran after the transitory and failed to notice the eternal glory that surrounded them.”

We might say the same of Daniels, except for the modifier “eternal,” for he is a thoroughly secular moralist, a descendent of La Rochefoucauld, Samuel Johnson and Orwell the essayist. As a physician, he has sworn to “do no harm,” to render care as it is needed, yet he castigates the very people it was his job to care for – English prisoners and slum dwellers. Daniels, like Thomas, must often have acted out of an obligation to be professionally compassionate, all the while torn by the self-generating nature of so much human suffering. I intend none of this critically. Doctors and priests willingly assume impossible responsibilities, burdens far beyond most of us to bear.

At the end of the essay, Daniels recounts an argument he and his wife had while visiting Bangor, Wales. They were, he says, “shamed into reconciliation” after observing an old, almost-blind woman led into a shop by her middle-aged, mentally handicapped son. They obviously have little money. What will happen to the son, Daniels and his wife wonder, when the old woman dies?

“How vulgar, trifling, and stupid seems all the self-infliction of the world, when life is tragic enough, tragic in its very essence, without it.”

We must, of course, judge both men first as writers, as Daniels ultimately does with Thomas:

“Suddenly we see that Thomas’ misanthropy is disappointed love, not free-standing hatred, and that he feels passionate sympathy for his fellow-beings:

“`And courage shall give way
to despair and despair
to suffering, and suffering
shall end in death. But you
who are not free to choose
what you suffer can choose
your response.’”

Thursday, May 11, 2006

`Beautiful'

Sometimes, context is everything. I am reviewing Philip Roth’s Everyman for the Houston Chronicle, and one of the many aspects of the novel I am not addressing is the epigraph from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” By placing four lines from the third of the poem’s eight stanzas at the beginning of his death-haunted book – haunted in a specifically 21st-century fashion, in part because of medical progress – Roth reinterprets the familiar words:

“Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs.
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow…”

Recall, these were the words of a would-be doctor who was dead from tuberculosis at 25. He wrote this and the other great odes in May 1819, and died 21 months later. The third line quoted can be read as romantic clairvoyance, but pulled from the rest of the ode and planted in a Roth novel about death, the romance of “easeful death” evaporates. This “immortal Bird” suddenly becomes hopelessly mortal. This reads grimmer, bleaker than the Keats we think we remember, and more like Samuel Beckett.

It turns out Beckett knew the poem well and bestowed upon it a word scarcely in his critical vocabulary – “beautiful.” John Montague, the Irish poet and story writer, was a friend of Beckett’s. In a piece he published in The New York Times in 1994, more than four years after Beckett’s death, Montague recalled a night of drinking Irish whiskey in Paris in the 1980s:

“Job done, we rest a while, glasses in hand. He shows me the books he has been reading, old favorites; The Oxford Book of French Verse, which he probably studied at Trinity College, Dublin, under his beloved Rudmose Brown, who introduced him to contemporary French literature. And The Penguin Book of English Verse, with a few later volumes of his own and, to my embarrassment, my recent essays, The Figure in the Cave, wedged between.

“`I've been reading Keats's `Ode to a Nightingale.’ It's very beautiful.’

“It happens to be a poem that I heartily loathe, with its smarmy Cockney view of beauty, but this is not the time for sparring matches, even if fueled by Jameson's. His barriers are down, his sympathies simple, he has gone back to the pleasant discoveries of boyhood. I say instead that I have never heard him use the word `beautiful’ except in connection with Yeats. He nods. `Ah, yes, yes, beautiful, too.’”

Montague manages to condescend to Beckett – “pleasant discoveries of boyhood,” indeed, but I hope the story is more than blarney. In her memoir How It Was, Beckett’s friend Anne Atik reports:

“Sam would quote from Keats; loved `full-throated ease,’ `To take into the air my quiet breath’ and `While thou art pouring forth they soul abroad’ (from `Ode to a Nightingale’)…”

I’ve tracked down at least one more bit of evidence that Beckett knew the ode well enough to quote from it. This comes early in Act II of his play Happy Days, in which Winnie says, “Ah yes…then…now…beechen green…this…Charlie…kisses…this…all that…deep trouble for the mind.” “Beechen green” comes from the ninth line of “Ode to a Nightingale”: “Of beechen green, and shadows numberless.”

As Beckett writes in Molloy: “But I was not made for the great light that devours, a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end, to shine it on the empty shadows.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On the Cusp

David Ferry is best known as a translator – Horace, Virgil, Gilgamesh – but is also a fine poet. Yesterday morning I was rereading one of my favorites among his deceptively casual poems, “In the Garden,” in his collection Of No Country I Know. The situation is simple, a version of suburban pastoral: Ferry is seated in his sunlit backyard, surrounded by flowers, reading Edward Thomas; his daughter, nearby, is reading The Mayor of Casterbridge. Some writers would intend for us to draw portentous conclusions from the choice of reading matter, but Ferry makes no fuss about the books. It’s as though he were cataloging the contents of a photograph and just happens to observe the titles. It is a convincing poem of happiness and serenity – very un-Hardy-like, but its timing late in the summer, on the cusp of autumn in the north, lends it a subtley bittersweet quality. Here are four lovely lines from near the middle of the 55-line poem:

“There is something springlike and free about the littleness,
Oddness, and lightness of this combination of things,
Observed here at the very tag end of summer,
In my good fortune.”

The mood of the poem and its attention to details of wind, sunlight, grass and flowers sent me back to Edward Thomas, whom I have not read in a long time and have probably read with insufficient attentiveness. He always seemed a little soft to me, romantically pre-Modernist in his diction and his frequent choice of melancholy themes. He lacked the flinty edge of his friend, Robert Frost. When I think of a Thomas poem – the quintessential Thomas poem – a young man, a vagabond, is walking alone through the English or Welsh countryside.

Thomas was a rarity – he didn’t start writing poems until he was 36. All of his 143 poems were written between December 1914 and January 1917, when he shipped to France as part of the Royal Garrison Artillery. On April 9, 1917, the day after Easter, the first day of the Battle of Arras, Thomas was killed when a German artillery shell exploded nearby. Few poets so memorable have had so little time to write.

I pulled down The Poems of Edward Thomas, published by Handsel Books in 2003, with a useful introduction by Peter Sacks. I suspect I have underestimated Thomas. I have tried to filter out what I know of his life and death and not let that soften my reading. Here is a beautiful and characteristic poem, “October”:

“The green elm with one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one. –
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
The blackberry and gorse, in des and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.

“The late year has grown fresh again and new
As Spring, and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.”

The poem was written in October 1915, a year and a half before Thomas’ death. It is difficult not to let the shadow of this knowledge fall across the poem, especially its final lines. Ferry’s poem seems to distantly echo “October”: the careful naming of flowers (see the listing for the memorably named tormentil at botanical.com); the suggestion of spring in late summer or autumn; the similarity of Ferry’s ``In my good fortune” and Thomas’ “But if this be not happiness, who knows?” It’s less a matter of influence than a sharing of a perennial mood, of gentle sadness. Don’t be put off, as I was, by the poeticisms, especially the inversions. This is beautiful work.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

For the Birds

I have been browsing in The Bedside Book of Birds, edited by Graeme Gibson, which is the sort of book I periodically vow never to read again, at least until after I buckle down with Murasaki Shikubu’s The Tale of Genji. Then I weaken and read one entry and pretty soon I’m like the runaway slave in Faulkner’s “Red Leaves,” who can’t stop eating the ants walking past him on a log. In a beautiful stroke of anachronism, Faulkner even likens the ant-eating slave to a guest at a cocktail party inhaling the cocktail peanuts.

My trouble with the bird book – that is, my enjoyment -- started with the epigraph from John Ruskin:

“I have made a great mistake. I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing.”

Ruskin made plenty of mistakes in his life – pedophilia springs to mind – but collecting rocks was not among them. His complete works amount to 39 volumes, not counting letters and journals, so even by Victorian standards he was no lay about. His wishing he had taken up birds is like Melville regretting that he dropped those scrimshaw lessons.

The second epigraph is from Theodore Roethke – in this case, eight lines of refried Yeats – so I’ll spare you that, but the third is from the delightful Gilbert White (1720-1793), the English vicar best known for The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne:

“The language of birds is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant.”

This is both good ornithological speculation (White was one of those gifted amateurs who, in the past, contributed so much to science) and very suggestive when applied to writing. Also, it makes me want to reread White.

Much of the rest of the book doesn’t rise to these elevated standards, I’m afraid. I don’t plan to read every selection --I do have to get started with Lady Murasaki – but Gibson includes too much folklore for my taste, probably in a misguided effort to achieve “diversity.” I don’t care about Micmac legends. Most of the worthy entries, some of them unexpected, come from writers we already know well and esteem -- Darwin, Bruno Schulz, Redmond O’Hanlon, Flann O’Brien, Mandelstam, even Elias Canetti. The choicest find, for me, is a writer named Charles Edward Douglas (1840-1916), identified as a Scot who explored New Zealand. His passage, hilarious in the midst of so much nature-solemnity, reminds me of Edward Abbey. It’s titled “The Mountain Kiwi”:

“I have very little to say regarding this bird, as I have only seen two of them, and being pushed with hunger, I ate the pair of them, under the circumstances I would have eaten the last of the dodo.

“It is all very well for science, lifting up its hands in horror, at what I once heard called gluttony, but let science tramp through the Westland bush or swamps, for two or three days without food, and find out what hunger is. Besides at the time, which was many years ago, I was not aware that it was an almost extinct bird. Had I known so, I would at least have skinned it and kept the head and feet.”

That’s a voice I can trust and I want to hear more of. The bibliography indicates Douglas’ words come from Mr. Explorer Douglas, published in 2000 by Canterbury University Press, N.Z.

Monday, May 08, 2006

No `Exalted Moods'

As I get older and increasingly unable to compromise over the essential, I have less patience with hot air, pretty phrases and what Orwell called “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” I don’t read newspapers much, even though I’ve worked for them most of my life and at one time read six or seven daily. About television and radio, what is there to say? I cannot abide language that is not weighed and assayed, like gold ore.

I am drawn to writers who are stringent, harsh, parsimonious with words – Samuel Beckett, most obviously, but also Swift, Samuel Johnson and Waugh. This accounts, I suppose, for my growing love for and reliance on two poets, close contemporaries – J.V. Cunningham and R.S. Thomas. Their tightness with language is matched by an asperity of manner. They respect me enough not to condescend with simple-minded platitudes, and they expect me, as a reader, to do my share of the work. They are not happy-talking, fun-loving writers, which makes them unacceptable in today’s culture. Their manners are poor but they are always polite. The news they bring is not uplifting, though its honesty and clear-sightedness is invigorating. I trust them, the way I trust doctors and auto mechanics who don’t sugarcoat the inevitable unpleasant diagnosis.

Here is J.V. Cunningham, from a 1952 essay, “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition”:

“I mean by poetry what everyone means by it when he is not in an exalted mood, when he is not being a critic, a visionary, or a philosopher. I mean by poetry what a man means when he goes to a bookstore to buy a book of poems as a graduation gift, or when he is commissioned by a publisher to do an anthology of sixteenth century poems. Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition.”

“Not in an exalted mood” is priceless. “Metrical composition” – how many poets know what that means? Cunningham writes in plain-spoken American, with a whiff of the 17th century. Thomas is also plain-spoken; his tone, angry and prophetic but never self-righteous. Here is “A Poet,” from Destinations, published in 1985 when he was 72:

“Disgust tempered by an exquisite
charity, wrapping life’s claws
in purest linens – this man
has history to supper,
eats with a supreme tact
from the courses offered to him.

“Waiting at table
are the twin graces, patience
and truth, with the candles’
irises in soft clusters
flowering on thin stalks.

“Where did he come from?
Pupating against the time
he was needed, he emerged
with wings furled, unrecognized
by the pundits; has spread
them now elegantly
to dazzle, curtains drawn
with a new nonchalance
between barbarism and ourselves.

“Patron without condescension
of the art, he teaches flight’s
true purpose, which is,
sensitive but not too blinded
by some inner radiance, to be
in delicatest orbit about it.”