Thursday, November 30, 2006

Via Negativa

What is absent is often most conspicuous. This notion has stayed with me since I reread Daisy Miller several years ago. The title character in Henry James’ novella remains a vacuum onto which Winterbourne and others project needs and desires. Daisy is no one, and then she dies. This remained a favorite James strategy, and it defines Samuel Beckett’s work at least from the time of Watt, a novel hovering around the aptly named Mr. Knott who never makes an appearance.

At least one tradition in Christianity, called negative theology or via negativa (“the negative way”), has turned God into a sort of cosmic Daisy Miller. God, by definition is ineffable and defies language, a feeble human creation. Those following the via negativa attempt to express knowledge of God by describing what He is not – a rhetorical strategy known as apophasis (“to say no”). In one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart said: “God is nameless, because no one can say anything or understand anything about him.”

This week I have randomly happened upon three poems that express this idea. “Via Negativa” is by R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest:

“Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too: but miss the reflection.”

The Scottish poet Don Paterson translated and adapted a selection of Antonio Machado’s poems from the Spanish. The final poem in The Eyes is “To the Great Zero,” Like the Thomas poem, it’s a sonnet of sorts:

“When the I Am That I Am made nothingness
and, as He deserved, went back to sleep –
day had night, and man companionship
in woman’s absence. He was bored to death.
Fiat Umbra! And on that godless Sabbath
man laid his first thought: the cosmic egg,
chill and pale and filled with weightless fog,
hovered like a face before his face.

“The zero integral, that empty sphere:
only when our heads are in the air
is it ours. So now the beast is on his feet
and the miracle of non-being complete –
let’s rise, and make this toast: a border-song
to forgetting, amnesty, oblivion.”

Paterson writes in his afterword: “The plan, in selecting from Machado’s work, was to take a leisurely stroll down the via negativa; with Machado as guide, a less bleak route than the brochures describe. The occasional outbreak of negative theology (not to be confused with negative faith) in the written word is characterized by a certain snowblindness, in that it plays – in a way that can be dangerous for the constitution of the poet, and dangerously boring for the reader – far closer to the annihilating light than other poetries.”

Finally, I read “Absence Inside an Absence,” from Chickamauga, by Charles Wright. Here are the opening lines:

“We live in the world of the voice,
not in the world of the word,
According to John the Solitary –
Our lives are language, our desires are apophatic,
The bush in flame is the bush in flame,
Imageless heart, imageless absence between the hearts.”

The idea is appealing to writers because of its implicit challenge. Our minds, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Writerly hubris drives us to fill emptiness with words – a mug’s game impossible to stop playing.

In "Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner," from Black Zodiac, Wright writes:

"Poetry's what's left between the lines --
a strange speech and a hard language,
It's all in the unwritten, it's all in the unsaid...."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

`Words Are Music, Really'

I met Tom Waits on a cold, clear January morning in 1987. A film crew had taken over the bar at the corner of Central Avenue and Quail Street, in Albany, N.Y., and rechristened it The Gilded Cage. Hector Babenco, the director, was scheduled to shoot a scene inside for his adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed. Jack Nicholson (as Francis Phelan) and Meryl Streep (as Helen Archer), were reported to already be inside as I stood on the corner, stamping my feet on the sidewalk to keep them warm and talking with photographers and other reporters.

Walking up the sidewalk, wrestling with a pin-striped suit jacket and looking as though he had just fallen out of bed, came Tom Waits, in costume as Rudy the Kraut, Francis’ doomed sidekick. His dense hair from a distance looked uniformly brown but up close, when I shook his hand, I could see it was glistening purple, green and yellow, like the feathers of starling. Waits had driven himself to the set. We talked for a couple of minutes and he signed my notebook, and then he went to work. The other reporters hadn’t recognized him, but a guy across the street shouted “Tom Waits for no man!” Waits winced.

Ironweed the film is disappointing. Babenco’s conception of what is, after all, a story about drunks in Depression-era Albany, is too grandiose, and devices that work just fine in Kennedy’s novel – the ghosts who haunt Francis – are too literal-minded and kitschy on the screen. But Waits and Nicholson are wonderful, as is Fred Gwynne as Oscar the bartender. Gwynne was the only person I have ever met who was both taller than me (I’m six-foot-six) and could convincingly wear a beret, a combination I didn’t think possible.

I spoke with Waits several more times. He was consistently friendly and thoughtful, and seemed grateful that someone knew his music pretty well, especially the recent Rain Dogs. My oldest son loves Tom Waits, and I flatter myself to think I can take some credit for his good musical taste. On Monday he sent me a link to an outstanding interview with Waits published at Pitchfork Media, a music web site. The occasion is the release of Waits’ three-disc magnum opus, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. I’ve heard two cuts and will have to wait until Christmas for the rest, but “Lie to Me” is irresistible rockabilly.

In the interview, Waits comes off as thoughtful, articulate, funny and attuned to language. Asked “To what extent has literature influenced your music?” he says:

“I'm usually more concerned with how things sound than how they look on the page. Some people write for the page and that's a whole other thing. I'm going for what it sounds like right away, so it may not even look good on the page. But I'm still a word guy. I'm drawn to people who use a certain vernacular and communicate with words. Words are music, really. I mean, people ask me, `Do you write music or do you write words?’ But you don't really, it's all one thing at its best. Sometimes when you're making songs you just make sounds, and the sounds slowly mutate and evolve into actual words that have meaning. But to begin with, most people who make songs just start out with [Waits makes noises].”

Consider the bona fide rock musicians who would have used that question as an excuse for parading their bad taste in books and general illiteracy. Instead, tactfully, without dismissing the interviewer, Waits takes a thoughtful verbal detour, and I think what he says contains lessons for many print-bound writers: “Words are music, really.”

Asked about self-mythologizing, Waits again avoids an opportunity for a lot of portentous self-congratulation:

“The fact is most of the things that people know about me are made up. My own life is backstage. So what you "know" about me is only what I allowed you to know about me. So it's like a ventriloquist act. And it's also a way of safely keeping your personal life out of your business. Which is healthy and essential. I'm not one of those people the tabloids chase around. You have to put off that smell-- it's like blood in the water for a shark. And they know it, and they know that you've also agreed. And I'm not one of those. I make stuff up. There's nothing that you can say that will mean the same thing once it's been repeated. We're all making leaner versions of stories. Before there was recording, everything was subject to the folk process. And we were all part of composing in the evolution and the migration of songs. We all reached out, and they all passed through our hands at some point. You dropped a verse or changed the gender or cleaned up a verse for your kids or added something more appropriate for your community. Anything that says `Traditional,’ it's `Hey, I wrote that, I'm part of that.’ Just like when a joke reaches you-- how did it reach you? If you could go back and retrace it, that would be fascinating.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

`It Makes It Difficult for Seriousness to be Understood'

Sometimes you have to disregard the messenger for the slipshod way he delivers the message. Thanks to Dave Lull, I read Ben Naparstek’s piece about Cynthia Ozick, published recently in the Cleveland Jewish Review and based on his interview with the novelist. Naparstek is a clumsy writer who speaks of Ozick and Philip Roth as “ranking alongside” such nullities as Doctorow and Mailer simply because all are Jewish. The headline, too, is vulgar, but Ozick is a master who speaks nearly as well as she writes, so Naparstek’s article is worth reading if only for his ample use of Ozick’s conversation:

“There used to be a high-brow, middle-brow and no-brow. That hierarchy is now absolutely erased. It makes it difficult for seriousness to be understood, welcomed and appreciated.”

And this:

“I don't trust my essays. They don't tell permanent truths in the way that fiction does. My essays haunt me because people use them as a yardstick for my fiction. I resent that. That's like writing a review and describing the looks of the writer. It's irrelevant.”

I met Ozick once, in the spring of 1987, when she took part in a conference on writing and the Holocaust at the state University of New York at Albany. Also on the panel were the novelist Aharon Appelfeld and historian Raul Hilberg. Her girlish voice surprised me. She said she would never visit Germany or buy a Volkswagen, and that bothered some people sitting near me in the audience. She autographed my copy of The Messiah of Stockholm, only recently published. Her demeanor and everything she said confirmed my love and respect for her work.

In his piece, Naparstek mentions Ozick’s Collected Stories, which I had never seen before. That’s because it was published earlier this year only in England, by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Ozick’s early reputation was built on her short fiction, and I hope an American publisher collects the stories in The Pagan Rabbi (1971), Bloodshed (1976), Levitation (1982) and The Shawl (1989). In his Paris Review interview, Guy Davenport said he would read anything written by Ozick, and as usual his judgment was unassailable.

Monday, November 27, 2006

`Homemade Dictionary'

I woke Sunday morning to an e-mail from Josh Wallaert, of Minnesota, the proprietor of Webster’s Daily, a blog of found poetry drawn from the first edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. As a tease, Wallaert included in his note one of Webster’s definitions:

“Hope [n.] A sloping plain between ridges of mountains. [Not in use.]”

Language, Emerson said, is fossil poetry. In another age, he might have called it DNA poetry – a metaphor geneticists started using a long time ago. Simply by changing its context, Wallaert redefines Webster’s definition, and our understanding of “hope” is changed a little.

Guy Davenport, in his essay “More Genteel Than God,” describes Webster’s dictionary as “the Republic’s absolute arbiter of spelling and usage” -- a notion unimaginable today when the typical e-mail (not Wallaert’s, certainly, but his is far from typical) is a working definition of illiteracy. Davenport’s piece, a putative review of Richard M. Rollins’ The Long Journey of Noah Webster, is collected in Every Force Evolves a Form. Davenport makes clear that Webster, while quintessentially American in his self-reliance and choice of projects, was a crank, a religious fanatic and a thoroughly unpleasant human being, and that these qualities are reflected in his lexicography. Davenport says Rollins was surprised to find Webster “so curmudgeonly a reactionary, so sanctimonious a fundamentalist, or so smug a pessimist.” He continues:

“It was typically American, this homemade dictionary. Like Franklin in science and Fenimore Cooper in the novel, Webster drew on a heroic New World virtu, and was given credit for this prodigious work here and abroad as an achievement of universal erudition and the purest of morals. He himself thought of it as a conservative bulwark against the tide of Jacobinism, vulgarity, and ungodliness which he felt was washing away the foundations of the young republic. Something had to hold fast. He chose to defend, purify, and set in order the one common social bond, language. If enough people wrote and spoke with a nice regard for the accurate meanings of words, all might not be lost. Webster felt that truth was in words – is not language a divine gift? – and that we owe them reverence. He hoped to lead us away from the mischief of cant and the sloth of vagueness. Not law, religion, or literature can speak meaningfully with imprecise words.”

I don’t think Davenport is denigrating these ambitions. As a writer, he is always precise, a scourge of cant and vagueness. Rather, Davenport objects to Webster turning lexicography into a hypocritical holy war: “Such a homely and useful word as piss, which was good enough for the King James Bible and Dr. Johnson, was cast by Webster into outer dark, along with other `low’ words known to everybody but henceforth banned by moral arrogance.” Here, by the way, is Johnson’s definition of the verb “to piss”: “To make water.” And the noun: “Urine; animal water.”

On my desk is the copy-- broken-spined, dog-eared, coffee-stained -- of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged I received as a gift in 1973. It contains “piss,” as well as “pissant,” “piss away,” “pissed” (“angry, disgusted,” “drunk”) and “pissed off” – in other words, Webster’s lexical progeny bowed to common sense and common usage. I still find, however, a conspicuous lacuna between “fuchsite” and “fucoid.” (After all these years, isn’t that still the first word you look up in a new dictionary?)

Despite Davenport’s misgivings about Noah Webster as man and lexicographer (“I still can see him only as Uriah Heep sniffing out naughty words in the Bible, deleting them, and congratulating himself on being more genteel than God.”), visit Josh Wallaert’s blog and enjoy these emphatically hopeful treasures:

“Crowd, n.: An instrument of music with six strings; a kind of violin.”

“Growl, n.: The murmur of a cross dog.”

“Holloa, exclam.: A word used in calling. Among seamen, it is the answer to one that hails, equivalent to I hear, and am ready.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

`The Anxiety of Language'

I found this poem, “November 22, 1963,” by Karl Kirchwey, too late to post it last Wednesday, the 43rd anniversary of President Kennedy’s killing. Kirchwey is four years my junior but we seem to recall the events of that long weekend with newsreel vividness. I was a sixth-grade crossing guard, wearing a yellow Sam Browne belt and standing at my post, flag in hand, when a driver stopped to say the president had been shot. Soon, another driver reported Kennedy had been touring a nut house in Texas when one of the nuts shot him. How odd that a surreally attenuated rumor should ring with poetic truth. Here’s Kirchwey’s poem:

“I was sitting in an empty classroom,
having already been held back one grade,
and I was writing, the anxiety
of language upon me, experience
now and then breaking through the linked dance of
symbols, as if somebody had just come
into the room with a news bulletin
from the radio, events far away.

“In the south the way was clear,
past the Adolphus Hotel,
Thomsen Furniture Mart, the
First National Bank, Walgreen
Drugs, the windows and signs of
an idea: twenty dollars
and seventy-eight cents for
a Mannlicher-Carcano.

“Above the blackboard, proper examples
of cursive script flew away on birds’ wings,
and my hand learned to trap something inside,
though I did not understand what, just as
I ran out under the long school porch that
Friday afternoon, sent home early, a
Sense of jubilee in my heart because
Something extraordinary had happened.

“Her pink suit with its black trim
was like a burned rose, or the
exclamation of brain mist
on the pavement as he grew
heavier and heavier
in her arms, and time seemed to
stand still. Through the live oak leaves,
pigeons rose, wheeled and scattered.

“Somehow I have come to live in the world
by means of certain days and events I
no longer recall, except sometimes in
fugitive traces of exultation
or shame. Certain kinds of knowledge are
intolerable, I know this now, though
history contrives, by tutelary
shapes, looped, moving ahead, to draw us on.

“Scott-Foresman Rolling Readers,
ten to a box, and the smell
of dust prickling his nostrils
like the first day of school. He
curled himself around absence
and closed his fingers gently
in the late November light
till it begot more absence.”

I like the way Kirchwey blurs memory. Further, I like the way he blurs identities, shifting Oswald’s with his 7-year-old self’s. Kirchwey gets the Dallas landmarks right, the make and cost of the rifle Oswald used (though, oddly, he omits the full price Oswald paid, $19.95, which included the cost of the scope), and the books in the boxes Oswald moved on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The poem deals less with the assassination – it is not a documentary, despite the details – than with memory and forgetfulness, and the way they impel writing: “I was writing, the anxiety/of language upon me, experience/now and then breaking through the linked dance of/symbols.”

Kirchwey writes that “Certain kinds of knowledge are/intolerable,” though the absence of such knowledge goads us in ways that remain forever powerful and obscure. That line reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s description of seawater in one of her greatest poems, “At the Fishhouses”:

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Other Burroughs, Not Edgar Rice

We associate pieties with sentimental religion, holy medals and such, when in fact they often arrive in the form of sociopathic earnestness. Take Williams Burroughs – not the sort of fellow you would have wanted living next door. Burroughs was a deviant by any standard – a thief, a wife-killer, an Olympic-class drug abuser, a sexual pervert and a man who seldom failed to indulge any hateful impulse that entered the black hole of his egotism. As a writer, Burroughs celebrated his pathologies and never transcended his pulp origins – all good career moves in an age when professors and critics use “transgressive” as an accolade.

In the November issue of The New Criterion, Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, performs a brief, deft dissection of Burroughs and his academic groupies. Under the pretext of reviewing The Yage Letters Redux, Daniels diagnoses Burroughs and his co-author, Allen Ginsberg, as “an example of how bad writing can sustain a large reputation among weak-minded intellectuals.” Such a grotesquely undeserved reputation precisely fits the definition of piety.

I’m not speaking from a clinical distance. I’ve read much of Burroughs. As a teenager, I remember a visit with my parents to a discount store in suburban Cleveland where I found a table covered with remaindered hardcovers, many of them from Grove Press – the same publisher that brought Samuel Beckett to American readers. Apparently I had already, in the late-sixties, heard of Burroughs and his notoriety. I bought The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express, and was never able to read them because they were quite literally unreadable. To my adolescent way of thinking, they represented sufficient provocation just sitting on my shelves, so there was no compelling reason to read them. A year or so later I found, on a rack in Avallone’s Pharmacy, an Ace paperback of Junkie, an early Burroughs novel published under the nom de dope “Bill Lee.” I remember only that it was written in sub-Hammett prose. Soon, I acquired a Grove paperback of Naked Lunch, complete with a blurb from Norman Mailer, the Harvard graduate slumming in pulpdom. It, too, proved unreadable in any conventional sense. Today, Burroughs, who reveled in sexual sadism, is read by students who have never read Dante or Milton. Daniels concludes his review like this:

“When [Burroughs] says that `In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or exist in dreary boredom,’ and that `all intellectuals are deviants in U.S.’ the thought does not occur to him even for an instant that part of the problem might be with him.

“A worthy subtitle of this slender book, then, might be `A Moment in the Rise of Mass Egotism.’”

Friday, November 24, 2006

`One of the People I Like Best in the World'

It’s interesting and revealing to know which prose writers are the favorites of poets. The disciplines are so different, and usually call upon divergent emotional and intellectual gifts. Some choices seem inevitable, others baffling. Take Elizabeth Bishop. Among poets, she remained fondest of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins – orthodox Christians of very different species – yet her favorites among prose writers were Anton Chekhov and Charles Darwin. Neither was a flaming atheist, yet both could be described as passive nonbelievers, rather like Bishop herself. What Chekhov and Darwin share, and what may account for some of Bishop’s fondness for them, is their eye for detail and the rigor of their devotion to facts, coupled with powerful human empathy. Neither had much use for unexamined assumptions, thoughtless pieties that turn seamlessly into bellicose dogma. As a physician, Chekhov was a scientist of sorts, with a scientist’s dispassionate interest in the real. By the way, The Voyage of the Beagle was translated into Russian and published in St. Petersburg in 1865, when Chekhov was five, and we know he read it while still in his twenties.

In 1963, the poet-critic Anne Stevenson was researching the first book-length study of Bishop. In October of that year, Stevenson sent her an outline of the book and questions about Bishop’s early flirtation with surrealism. In a letter she wrote to Stevenson in January 1964 (republished in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess), Bishop quickly changed the subject:

“There is no "split" [between the role of consciousness and subconsciousness in art]. Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important. I can't believe we are wholly irrational-and I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful and solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic -- and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

Darwin shows up four times in One Art, Bishop’s selected letters published in 1994. In a Feb. 10, 1953, letter to Pearl Kazin, she writes: “I’ve been having a wonderful time reading Darwin’s journal on the Beagle – you’d enjoy it too. In 1832 he is saying, `Walked to Rio (he lived in Botofogo); the whole day has been disagreeably frittered away in shopping.’ `Went to the city to purchase things. Nothing can be more disagreeable than shopping here. From the length of time the Brazilians detain you,’ etc. etc. One wonderful bit about how a Brazilian complained that he couldn’t understand English Law – the rich and respectable had absolutely no advanatge over the poor! It reminds me of Lota’s story about a relative, a judge, who used to say, `For my friends, cake! For my enemies, justice!’”

Darwin the fallible man, the Victorian complaining about his Brazilian accomodations – this Darwin appealed to Bishop as much as the courageous man of science -- as did the scrupulous writer who occasionally penned “a forgetful phrase.” I take that as a compliment. In a June 3, 1971, letter to James Merrill, she wrote, “I’ve stopped reading about Greece, alas, and now read only Darwin (again, he is one of the people I like best in the world)….”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Armadillo

Last week, for the first time since we moved to Houston two and a half years ago, I saw an armadillo. The route between my house and office passes through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, a sort of kitschy theme park, and there, next to the curb, I saw the animal lying on its back, spiky legs sticking upward like dead weeds. The pavement around it was stained the color of rust. Its dully-shining plates gave the armadillo a mechanical look, as though all it needed to move again was a good winding of its key. Of course, I thought of “The Armadillo,” the poem Elizabeth Bishop dedicated to Robert Lowell:

“This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

"rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

"Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars –
planets, that is -- the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

"or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

"receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

"Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

"of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

"The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

"and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft! -- a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

"Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!"

Characteristically, Bishop keeps the poem’s emotional content mostly under wraps. The armadillo makes a late appearance, and the bulk of the poem deals with Brazilian fire balloons, one of those moronically dangerous celebratory customs, like Iraqis or Texans firing weapons in the air. A lesser artist would have turned the poem into a Bambi screed -- bad humans, innocent woodland creatures -- though Thumper makes an appearance.

The species native to Texas is the nine-banded armadillo – Dasypus novemcinctus. It’s interesting Bishop has a rabbit flee the fire, because the Aztec name for the armadillo is Azotochtli, or “tortoise-rabbit,” a poetically accurate hybrid. The same species is found in Brazil, where Bishop lived for many years. Why, of all her poems, did she dedicate “The Armadillo” to Lowell? If the animal represents him – “a weak mailed fist/clenched ignorant against the sky!” – could it be because Lowell had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II? And the fire balloons represent aerial bombardment? Lowell admitted he modeled his more influential, less accomplished “Skunk Hour” on “The Armadillo.”

The armadillo I saw on Kirby Drive looked more inanimate than dead. A child might have dropped it from a passing car.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The School of Winters

Somewhere a scholar is writing the history of Yvor Winters’ influence on the poets who were among his students at Stanford University. This informal School of Winters includes two of my favorite poets, Edgar Bowers and J.V. Cunningham, as well as Thom Gunn, Robert Hass, Donald Hall, John Matthias and Robert Pinsky, among many others. Now I can add Lee Gerlach to this impressive list. Gerlach is 86 years old and, like Winters, taught for years at Stanford. I’ve been reading his Selected Poems, and what Gerlach obviously shares with Bowers and Cunningham is language crafted with concision and precision, in which intellect and emotion intertwine like a double helix. Here’s Gerlach’s “Lake De Noon”:

“Sunk to the oarlocks a green boat
hangs in the clear water. Hardly a ripple,
not one breath of cool air all day long,
and I sit reading Darwin on the porch.
Look up, across the lake. Even flies rest.
Waiting for the last summer of the thirties to end.
Bluegill and sunfish lie in the sandy shallows,
breathing among the motionless, dark reeds.”

So much is left unsaid, as it should be. The sixth line casts a shadow across the rest of the poem and transforms it from than a conventional meditation on nature into something darker and more beautiful. By the end of “the last summer of the thirties,” Hitler had invaded Poland and the world was at war. Gerlach would have been 19 – 21 by the time of Pearl Harbor – and ripe for the draft. Another poem in the collection, “On Leave: 1943,” implies that Gerlach, like Bowers, saw service during the war.

As Gerlach cites Darwin, Cunningham uses Georg Cantor, the German mathematician and creator of set theory, in this epigram with a punning title almost as long as the poem: “Cantor’s Theorem: In an Infinite Class the Whole Is No Greater Than Some of Its Parts”:

“Euclid, alone, who looked in beauty’s heart,
Assumed the whole was greater than the part;
But Cantor, with the infinite in control,
Proved that the part was equal to the whole.”

In a similar scientific vein, here’s a late Bowers poem, “Ice Ages,” from a 14-poem series titled “Mazes”:

“Lonely at night, I read the book of science.
It tells that what seems permanent will change
Slowly or by catastrophe, that warm
Savannahs kind to trusting birds and trees,
Grasses and beasts, will build a house of ice,
Ice leave behind it crevice, stone, and waste.
Such harshness you have taught me. Unsurprised,
Beyond my ken I follow many worlds
Perishing in the circumstance of time,
My mind is numb and void as far as they are.”

In 2003, shortly before his death, Thom Gunn edited a selection of Yvor Winters’ poems for inclusion in the Library of America’s American Poets Project. In his introduction, Gunn writes:

“What should be emphasized about Winters’ poetry is that the leash and the training were never more important than the animal itself. Far from conservative politically, he knew very well that good poetry is more than a matter of simple good manners. The life of poetry is not just contained but is defined by its form.”

Gunn’s final point might be taken as the banner flown by this great informal school of American poets – Winters, Bowers, Cunningham and Gerlach.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Man Out of Time

Rootedness in time has always been a serious matter. I try to gauge the vintage of a movie or an unfamiliar piece of music, and when I recall a long-ago piece of personal history it usually comes with a month or at least a year, and sometimes a precise date, attached. Context accompanies memories -- geography and season. My wife is impressed with my long-term recall (less so with the short-term), but thinking of the past provokes in me a sense of vertigo, a free fall into a metaphysical abyss, a temporal counterpart to Jimmy Stewart’s spatial sickness in Vertigo. For as long as I can remember, the antidote has been pinning events to settings, and then events to other events because memory implies narrative, real or imagined. I unexpectedly found a diagnosis of my condition in 1995, when Knopf published the Sophie Wilkins translation of The Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil:

“Lucky the man who can say `when,’ `before,’ and `after”! Misfortunes may have befallen him, or he may have writhed in agony: but as soon as he is capable of recounting the events in their chronological order he feels as well content as if the sun were shining straight on his diaphragm.”

Instinctively, that’s how my mind works. It has turned me into a taxonomist of memory. Even that long, delicious reading of Musil’s masterpiece is attached to a specific place and time, and thinking of it brings back my job at the time, my underheated apartment, its mustiness and cracked linoleum, the couch and lamp.

Monday, November 20, 2006

`Art Keeps Long Hours'

First, click here to view a painting by Charles Burchfield. Next, read this poem, “On a Picture by Burchfield,” by Donald Justice:

“Write no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours.”

Now, read another Justice poem, “Sadness,” with a Burchfield reference in the fourth stanza:

Dear ghosts, dear presences, O my dear parents,
Why were you so sad on porches, whispering?
What great melancholies were loosed among our swings!
As before a storm one hears the leaves whispering
And marks each small change in the atmosphere,
So was it then to overhear and to fear.

But all things then were oracle and secret.
Remember the night when, lost, returning, we turned back
Confused, and our headlights singled out the fox?
Our thoughts went with it then, turning and turning back
With the same terror, into the deep thicket
Beside the highway, at home in the dark thicket.

I say the wood within is the dark wood,
Or wound no torn shirt can entirely bandage,
But the sad hand returns to it in secret
Repeatedly, encouraging the bandage
To speak of that other world we might have borne,
The lost world buried before it could be born.

Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.

What is it to be happy, after all? Think
Of the first small joys. Think of how our parents
Would whistle as they packed for the long summers,
Or, busy about the usual tasks of parents,
Smile down at us suddenly for some secret reason,
Or simply smile, not needing any reason.

But even in the summers we remember
The forest had its eyes, the sea its voices,
And there were roads no map would ever master,
Lost roads and moonless nights and ancient voices —
And night crept down with an awful slowness toward the water;
And there were lanterns once, doubled in the water.

Sadness has its own beauty, of course. Toward dusk,
Let us say, the river darkens and looks bruised,
And we stand looking out at it through rain.
It is as if life itself were somehow bruised
And tender at this hour; and a few tears commence.
Not that they are but that they feel immense.

Finally, consider this observation from James Merrill:

“One must conclude that style is almost everything.”

Sunday, November 19, 2006

`Profound Glee'

Directionless browsing turned up two poems about Philip Larkin. First, James Merrill’s “Philip Larkin (1922-1985)”:

“He’s gone somewhere
But left his writing,
Plain and inviting
As a Windsor chair.

“The sitter? Every sort.
Each struck that artless pose
We face our maker in. God knows
The likeness hurt.

“His signature’s
Worm-drill and gleam of cherry
-- Vacant now? Unwary
Reader, all yours.”

Merrill is conflicted over Larkin, man and poet. The first two lines read like an obliquely grim nod to Larkin’s “Aubade.” The other poem, “A Valediction for Philip Larkin,” is by Clive James, and is included in The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003. Its “Aubade”-informed opening resembles Merrill’s. With 33 five-line stanzas, it’s too long to quote in full. Here’s a sample:

“You never traveled much but now you have,
Into the land whose brochures you like least:
That drear Bulgaria beyond the grave
Where wonders have definitely ceased –
Ranked as a dead loss even in the East.”

James was in Kenya when Larkin died, on Dec. 2, 1985, and notes:

“Friends will remember until their turn comes
What they were doing when the new came through.”

I was in Albany, N.Y., sitting in the office used by reporters in the Albany County Courthouse, furnished with a table, two chairs, two computer monitors and a battered file cabinet. The cast-iron radiators banged. The floor was made of uneven planks, and the room was narrow, like a long closet. The ceiling was high, fitted with a strip of fluorescent bulbs. The room was always dim and overheated. I read Larkin’s obituary in the New York Times – news of “nothing more terrible, nothing more true,” as Larkin put it. Most of James’ poem is African travelogue, but he returns eventually to Larkin:

“Forgive me, but I hardly felt a trace
Of grief. Just sudden fear your being dead
So soon had left us disinherited.”

Larkin’s death widened the distance between us and the tradition, receding in time, of Auden, Hardy, Housman and Wordsworth. When a voice of plainspoken eloquence is silenced, frauds grow emboldened. Larkin’s leaving leaves us more vulnerable to the calculating and their na├»ve followers. James rightly honors Larkin’s clarity and craft:

“The truth is that you reveled in your craft.
Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.
You beat them into stanza form and laughed:
They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,
Except for being absolutely it.”

Saturday, November 18, 2006

`What Happened is Becoming Literature'

I stayed up too late rereading Henry Green’s slender, enigmatic Pack My Bag, a favorite among memoirs. Green was in his mid-thirties and had already published three novels when he wrote it on the eve of World War II, a convergence he makes plain from its memorable start:

"I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed."

Green is not writing a documentary; he is writing sentences. Ours is the age of the memoir, but only in the most debased sense if we can love sentences like Green’s. Confession and inspiration, the rusty staples of contemporary memoir-writing, are strictly absent from Green’s. Asked to name the qualities he most valued in a memoir, James Merrill told an interviewer:

“I haven’t read that many memoirs. One that I love is First Childhood by Lord Berners. Very casual and entertaining. At the other end of the spectrum I would put Proust: his patience with the reader, his willingness to be long-winded, to explain, his trust in language. What I most value in any book if it comes to that, is style, elegance, pacing, an observer’s eye. If you have those, your life can be dull but your book will be enthralling.”

There it is. When it comes to books, life is not enough, whether saintly or salacious. Only in a culture of exalted selfhood could anyone think otherwise. Merrill dismisses the conventional memoir formula -- “exciting life” = “exciting book” – the one assumed by rappers, sports stars and captains of industry, and reminds us that the least we expect of a book, even a memoir, is that it be well written. In his poem "For Proust," Merrill wrote: "What happened is becoming literature."

These are the memoirists I value: Darwin, Baudelaire, Berlioz, Herzen, Ruskin, Henry James, Nabokov, Walter Benjamin – and Green. Only two Americans on the list and Nabokov was a transplant. Otherwise, I think of eccentric proto-memoirists like Thoreau and Proust, who don’t conform to the genre. Aren’t The Dream Songs a memoir in the most important sense? Green, who might have thought so, writes:

"We who must die soon, or so it seems to me, should chase our memories back, standing, when they are found, enough apart not to be too near what they once meant. Like the huntsman, on a hill and when he blows his horn, like him some way away from us."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Library Books

For my birthday last month my wife gave me Hart Crane’s Complete Poems and Selected Letters, and I have nibbled at it daily, savoring his words and prolonging the pleasure. The Crane volume is the latest addition to the Library of America, which since 1982 has been publishing our literary inheritance in compact, attractive, definitive editions. Their Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Lincoln, Twain, Grant, Henry and William James, Henry Adams, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens and Raymond Chandler are the editions on my shelves, the ones I rely on.

Inevitably, the bottom scraping and pandering to non-literary interests has commenced. Projects like this, of course, must perpetuate themselves and justify their existence. That means cash, and cash means politics, so there are constituencies to coddle that have nothing to do with literary merit. In recent years we have seen the LoA canonize James Baldwin, Paul Bowles, Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, H.P. Lovecraft, Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck, to name only the most offensively unnecessary authors in the LoA catalog. All of these writers, judging from the libraries and bookstores I patronize, are readily available in other editions, so the LoA can’t justify their inclusion as a form of literary reclamation. What these writers have in common is their appeal to people with little or no interest in literature, and little or no literary taste. Lovecraft, for instance, is unreadable, and his inclusion demeans others on the LoA shelf, such as Melville, Nabokov and Singer. Presumably, the LoA’s editors decided to enfranchise the adolescent boys who still read Lovecraft’s pulpy rubbish. The danger is that less sophisticated, more credulous readers might assume that any book wrapped in the LoA’s distinctive black covers carries the imprimatur of the Literature Police.

For induction into the LoA I nominate Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore, Edward Dahlberg, A.J. Liebling, William Maxwell, John Cheever, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, William Gaddis and Guy Davenport. Do I hear any other nominations? I know the LoA has published a Berryman Selected Poems as part of its American Poets Project, but it’s a skimpy offering and its value is reduced by the inclusion of A.R. Ammons, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emma Lazarus, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg in the same series.

The LoA’s declared mission is “to help preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions.” There’s no question they have fulfilled the “durable and authoritative” part, but they must have let Bowles & Co. squeak in using that slippery “most significant” clause.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

`A Long Intimacy Between Strangers'

Two of John Cheever’s five novels open with descriptions of small town train stations. The same scene often shows up in his stories, usually as commuters shuttle between Manhattan and the suburbs. Beyond their useful realism, Cheever seems to associate trains and train stations with an earlier, smaller-scaled, more pastoral America. He’s nostalgic but his nostalgia is tempered by his awareness of loneliness and corruption. Here’s the first paragraph of The Wapshot Scandal (1964):

“The snow began to fall into St. Botolphs at four-fifteen on Christmas Eve. Old Mr. Jowett, the stationmaster, carried his lantern out onto the platform and held it up into the air. The snowflakes shown like iron filings in the beam of his light, although there was really nothing there to touch. The fall of snow exhilarated and refreshed him and drew him – full-souled, it seemed – out of his carapace of worry and indigestion. The afternoon train was an hour late, and the snow (whose whiteness seems to be a part of our dreams, since we take it with us everywhere) came down with such open-handed velocity, such swiftness, that it looked as if the village had severed itself from its context on the planet and were pressing its roofs and steeples up into the air. The remains of a box kite hung from the telephone wire overhead – a reminder of the year’s versatility. `Oh, who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder?’ Mr. Jowett sang loudly, although he knew that it was all wrong for the season, the day and dignity of a station agent, the steward of the town’s true and ancient boundary, its Gate of Hercules.”

The next paragraph is even better, but I’ll quote only the first two sentences:

“Going around the edge of the station he could see the lights of the Viaduct House, where at the moment a lonely traveling salesman was bending down to kiss a picture of a pretty girl in a mail-order catalogue. The kiss tasted faintly of ink.”

The omniscient narrator adds to the sense of collective sadness and wonder that hangs over the scene and much of the novel, especially when he briefly shifts into the first-person plural: “part of our dreams, since we take it with us everywhere.” Here’s the opening of Bullet Park (1969):

“Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark. Beyond the platform are the waters of the Wekonsett River, reflecting a somber afterglow. The architecture of the station is oddly informal, gloomy but unserious, and mostly resembles a pergola, cottage or summer house although this is a climate of harsh winters. The lamps along the platform burn with a nearly palpable plaintiveness. The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter. We travel by plane, oftener than not, and yet the spirit of our country seems to have remained a country of railroads. You wake in a Pullman bedroom at three a.m. in a city the name of which you do not know and may never discover. A man stands on the platform with a child on his shoulders. They are waving goodbye to some traveler, but what is the child doing up so late and why is the man crying? On a siding beyond the platform there is a lighted dining car where a waiter sits alone at a table, adding up his accounts. Beyond this is a water tower and beyond this a well-lighted and empty street. Then you think happily that this is your country – unique, mysterious and vast. One has no such feelings in airplanes, airports and the trains of other nations.”

It might be an Edward Hopper painting, wreathed in darkness, ordinariness turned wistfully sad: “The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter.” Train stations by nature are scenes of departure and leave-taking. They are inherently sad and their anonymity and the transience of the human scenes they witness exaggerate this sadness. I was reminded of this last weekend when my wife and I watched a great noir from 1952, Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, which begins and ends in train stations. Donald Justice said in a poem, “Sadness has its own beauty, of course,” and Cheever arranges his sentences seamlessly, gracefully shifting person and tense, moving from the specific and mundane (river, lamps, man and child) to the almost-cosmic, threading them into his narrative without breaking the melancholy spell. Prose like this confirms what the English novelist Henry Green wrote in Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait:

“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of stone.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

`The High Ones Die, Die'

I was browsing aimlessly among the library stacks when a comforting realization occurred. In front of me were shelves holding volumes by and about John Cheever; behind me, within arm’s reach, Saul Bellow; and also behind me but further to the left, John Berryman – a remarkable generation of American writers, born in 1912, 1915 and 1914, respectively. My timing was fortuitous, for I discovered them as a teenager, in the nineteen-sixties when all were thriving (as writers, if not as human beings), and all remain among my favorites. I remember my excitement when Mr. Sammler’s Planet was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. I also remember, a year or two later, arguing with an English professor who claimed Jerzy Kosinski was a greater writer than Bellow, and Steps a greater novel than Mr. Sammler’s Planet. That professor is still around but has morphed into a writer of unreadable avant-garde fiction.

The link among them was Bellow. He was friends with the others and eulogized both. To my knowledge, Berryman and Cheever were not acquainted. Of Berryman, in his foreword to the poet’s posthumous novel, Recovery, Bellow wrote:

“He knocked himself out to be like everybody else – he liked, he loved, he cared, but he was aware that there was something peculiarly comical in all this. And at last it must have seemed that he had used up all his resources. Faith against despair, love versus nihilism, had been the themes of his struggles and his poems. What he needed for his art had been supplied by his own person, by his mind, his wit. He drew it out of his vital organs, out of his very skin. At last there was no more. Reinforcements failed to arrive. Forces were not joined. The cycle of resolution, reform, and relapse had become a bad joke that could not continue.”

I still find Bellow’s eloquence heartbreaking, 33 years after I first read Recovery. Read the entire foreword, included in Bellow’s nonfiction collection, It All Adds Up, for reminders of earlier, happier times. The volume also includes the eulogy he wrote in 1982 for Cheever – another alcoholic, like Berryman, but one who recovered and thrived. Bellow praises his friend as a “self-transformer,” a writer who, against human odds, continued to grow:

“For me no one makes more sense, no one is so interesting, as a man who engages his soul in an enterprise of this kind. I find myself, as I grow older, increasingly drawn to those who live as John did. Those who choose such an enterprise, who engage in such a struggle, make all the interest of life for us. The life John led leaves us in his debt. We are his debtors, and we are indebted to him even for the quality of the pain we feel at his death.”

What an honor and a terrible sadness to outlive your brilliant friends and to write their eulogies. In his journals Cheever called Bellow a “real explorer” (not how my Kosinski-admiring prof could ever think of him), and Berryman claimed The Adventures of Augie March helped energize Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman himself was a frequent and proficient eulogizer. He dedicated “Dream Song 36” to William Faulkner, who died in 1962. Here’s the first stanza:

“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
I sent my grief away. I cannot care
Forever. With them all again & again I died
And cried, and I have to live.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

`A Pitfall Covered With Flowers'

Theodore Dalrymple devotes a lengthy essay in City Journal to one of his heroes, Samuel Johnson. In a mendacious age, it’s hard to imagine a more pertinent and less fashionable writer. Like many of us, Dalrymple loves equally Johnson the man and Johnson the writer:

“When I look at Johnson’s death mask, I think I see something of his tremendous character and intellect in the huge and craggy features, a rough nobility and a profundity of being, a face that bears the same proportion to the average human visage as the Himalayas do to the Cotswolds: but of course I recognize the objection that I find reflected there only what I was predisposed to find.”

We can think of Johnson as a litmus test of humanity. To embrace him is to recognize ourselves in him. He was profoundly flawed. His company was alternately charming and impossible, depending on his internal climate of the moment. He was like us, but infinitely more articulate and gifted, as Dalrymple suggests:

“What Johnson said of the London of his time, that it contains all that human life can afford, seems also true of his own life. Johnson is a good but flawed man, always trying to be, but not always succeeding in being, a better one: he is proud, he is humble; he is weak, he is strong; he is prejudiced, he is generous-minded; he is tenderhearted, he is bad-tempered; he is foolish, he is wise; he is sure of himself, he is modest; he is idle, he is hardworking; he is opinionated, he is consumed by doubt; he is spiritual, he is carnal; he is hopeful, he is despairing; he is skeptical, he is credulous; he is melancholy, he is lighthearted; he is deferential, he is aware that he has no superior in the world; he is clumsy of body, he is elegant of mind and diction; he is a failure, he is triumphant. We never expect to meet anyone who, to such a degree, encompasses in his being all human vulnerability and human resilience.”

Coincidentally, I thought of Johnson the night before I read Dalrymple’s essay, while reading “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor’s final story. At the age of 14, O.E. (Obadiah Elihue) Parker sees a tattooed man at the fair, and the sight transforms his life:

“Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”

Self-absorbed and always self-seeking, Parker has never indulged in a self-reflective thought. He moves by instinct, following obscure impulses as they lead him. In his Rambler essay for July 9, 1751 (No. 137), Johnson wrote:

"It is common for those who have never accustomed themselves to the labour of inquiry, nor invigorated their confidence by conquests over difficulty, to sleep in the gloomy quiescence of astonishment, without any effort to animate inquiry or dispel obscurity. What they cannot immediately conceive they consider as too high to be reached, or too extensive to be comprehended; they therefore content themselves with the gaze of folly, forbear to attempt what they have no hopes of performing; and resign the pleasure of rational contemplation to more pertinacious study or more active faculties."

Parker certainly sleeps in “the gloomy quiescence of astonishment,” at least until he crashes a tractor into a tree and instinctively yells, “God above!” I’m not describing influence; more an elective affinity. O’Connor knew and admired Johnson, especially his Lives of the Poets. His name shows up five times in her published letters, The Habit of Being, always in a positive light. We know from Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, that her personal library included Dr. Johnson’s Prayers (edited by Elton Trueblood) and a two-volume Lives of the Poets, as well as Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Johnson and O’Connor would have agreed that evil was a mystery to be endured, not a problem to be solved, and that self-delusion is endemic among humans. On April 14, 1750, Johnson wrote in The Rambler (No. 8):

"When a man finds himself led, though by a train of honest sentiments, to wish for that which he has no right, he should start back as from a pitfall covered with flowers. He that fancies he should benefit the public more in a great station than the man that fills it will in time imagine it an act of virtue to supplant him; and as opposition readily kindles into hatred, his eagerness to do that good, to which he is not called, will betray him to crimes, which in his original scheme were never proposed."

Monday, November 13, 2006


Of a character in her story “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor writes: “Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”

Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter live in the South, in a small town, probably in Georgia. The story’s center of gravity shifts from Mrs. Hopewell to her daughter, the grotesque and grotesquely self-named Hulga, but in O’Connor’s fallen world there’s enough perdition to go around. If her vision seems excessively cruel, it’s only because she sees in the Mrs. Hopewells of the world what most of the rest of us choose to ignore or dismiss with Mrs. Hopewell’s own favorite platitude: “It takes all kinds to make the world.”

In “Grant Wood’s The Good Influence,” a brief essay he collected in The Hunter Gracchus, Guy Davenport writes of a drawing Wood made to illustrate Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street:

“Once we have the iconographic information that this all too typical Midwestern American woman is a specific character in a satirical novel (she is a widow and has spoiled her son, who is a lout), we see her for what she is: a gossip, a hypocrite, a self-righteous critic of other people.”

She is, in short, an Iowan Mrs. Hopewell and, depending on the rigor of our self-honesty, she is also a part of each of us. O’Connor’s sentence describes a fictional, albeit vividly familiar character, while Davenport glosses Wood’s rendering of a character in a novel, but the passages harmonize. They are written in a tradition we can trace at least to Theophrastus – concise portraits of moral types, a form congenial to satire.

It’s pertinent that both writers were Southerners. O’Connor was born in Georgia and lived there most of her life. Davenport was born in South Carolina and lived the last 40 years of his life in Kentucky. Both were at home in small towns, always reliable hot houses of gossip, and both internalized their otherwise very different religious upbringings. In such a setting, sin – defects of character, if you will – is as conspicuous as Hulga’s wooden leg, if only we can see it.

All politics really is local, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, but only in the most literal sense, for what goes on in our feverish minds is about as localized as local can get. Another Irishman said satire is a glass in which beholders discover everybody's face but their own. Unless, of course, we choose blindness.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

`Written with Zest'

Thirty-eight years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my creative writing teacher loaned me a short-story anthology she had been assigned a few years earlier in college. I read the book cover to cover as though it were a continuous narrative but I remember with certainty only one story in the book: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a title which until then I had known only as a song Bessie Smith had recorded in 1927. The author, of course, was Flannery O’Connor, who had already been dead for four years when I read her story. She died at 39, the same age at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had died earlier in 1968. O’Connor has now been dead longer than she was alive.

I stayed up too late reading the story, in bed, with the aid of a gooseneck lamp, on a school night. I read it like a thriller, and I found it shocking and thrilling, as I still do. O’Connor is a writer with a rare gift for disturbing or offending some part of the sensibility of almost any serious reader. She still makes me uncomfortable, with my pride, glibness and failure to believe. In 1952, she published Wise Blood, her first novel. Ten years later, two years before her death from lupus, she added an author’s note to the second edition:

“The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way. It is a comic novel about a Christian malgre lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

In college, an English professor, a former Trappist monk, dismissed O’Connor’s style as flat and uninteresting. Compared to Nabokov’s prose, which the professor (and O’Connor, for that matter) admired, O’Connor’s seems superficially pedestrian, lacking a pyrotechnic dimension. I let the professor’s casual comment fester (why do we remember such things, and why do they seem to matter?) and I let O’Connor slip into the realm of remembered but conveniently ignored writers. This was a tribute of sorts. I’m reading her again, for many reasons, not least because once I started I couldn’t stop. Her vision is astringent. It makes no excuses for anyone and exposes most of the rationalizations and other arrangements we make in order to get through life a little more placidly. Convenience means nothing to O’Connor. Later in the same note to Wise Blood, she writes:

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

`O the Heavy Change'

On Thursday, I spoke with an engineering professor at the university where I work who was an undergraduate here in the early nineteen-sixties. He was sitting in the campus football stadium on Sept. 12, 1962, when President John Kennedy vowed the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And he was here 14 months later when the president was murdered in Dallas.

“The next day, most of the professors gave us a ride – no classes. Not Grob,” said the professor, referring to Alan Grob, now retired after 40 years teaching English literature.

Instead, Grob delivered his lecture on Milton’s “Lycidas.” The memory is almost 43 years old, and the professor’s eyes, I noticed, were wet. “That was one of the most memorable events in my life. I’ll never forget it,” he said, and I wonder, do students still hear these words?

“Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas?”

How many English majors, not to mention engineers, can still conjure these lines when someone dies, whether or not a national leader?

“But O the heavy change, now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!”

Friday, November 10, 2006

`Passionate Parochialism'

In his biography of Karl Kraus, Edward Timms praises the “passionate parochialism” of the great Viennese satirist. Kraus is unimaginable without the Vienna of Freud and Wittgenstein, a hothouse of late 19th- and early 20th-century culture. For 37 years, Kraus almost single-handedly wrote, edited and published Die Fackel (The Torch), a newspaper that savaged the hypocrisy and corruption of the city. Timms’ use of “parochialism,” normally a term of contempt, implies that the local, the geographically specific, can fuel creativity and wit, and need not imply backwardness or benighted provinciality. It also implies that Vienna, like New York, Paris or any megalopolis, is as likely to prove itself “parochial” as Montpelier, Ohio, or Utopia, Texas.

“Parochial” originally meant “of a diocese,” and shared an etymology with “parish.” The word is from the Greek – “para,” meaning “near,” and “oikos,” meaning “house” – near the house, in the neighborhood, local. It shifted from ecclesiastical usage to a more general and ultimately negative connotation. Today, except in the context of “parochial schools,” the words implies unenlightened, unsophisticated. This says something, I suppose, about the secularization of Western culture but, taking a cue from Timms, I’d like to reclaim “parochial” as a neutral or even laudatory term. Who is more “parochial” (the last time I’ll use quotes) than Thoreau, who bragged that he traveled much in Concord? Or Faulkner?

Guy Davenport (of Lexington, Ky.), in his essay (first published by the Asphodel Book Shop of Cleveland, Ohio, with a cover photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard of Lexington, Ky.) on the poet Jonathan Williams (of Scaly Mountain, N.C.), said, “There is no American capital; there never has been. We have a network instead. A French poet may plausibly know all other French poets by living in Paris. The smallest of American towns contains major poets, and all other kinds of artists. In no other country does such a distribution of mind appear.”

Davenport noted that Flannery O’Connor and Oliver Hardy lived in Milledgeville, Ga., and Eudora Welty lived in Jackson, Miss. Cleveland, my home town, once was home to Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson and Charles Burchfield. In her essay “The Regional Writer,” O’Connor said:

“The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.”

That’s a concise redefinition of parochial, in the sense I intend: “reading a small history in a universal light.” That’s Faulkner in an elegantly phrased nutshell. Davenport, in the 1969 essay cited above, said, “If you know where Charles Ruggles lives, Ray Bradbury, Michael McClure, or Edward Dorn, you may count yourself learned indeed.” And very parochial.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

`Allegory of Genius'

In September 1988, in a low-ceilinged club called the Rolls Touring Company in Troy, N.Y., I went to see Doc Watson sing and play his guitar. He sat in the corner, a few feet from his nearest listeners, and played two sets without a microphone. He wore blue jeans that sagged in the seat and a blue work shirt. I interviewed him between sets in the room behind the bar where they stack the empties.

His answers to my questions were polite but curt. He was 65 and looked tired. Three years earlier, his son and musical partner, Merle Watson, had been killed in a tractor accident on their farm in North Carolina, and I had heard that Doc had never shaken his depression. Things were not going well until I asked about his earliest memory of hearing music. I figured he would mention a church choir, but instead Watson brightened and talked about the tube radio his father bought the family. And who did he listen to?

“Louis Armstrong! He was my favorite. He was the big time! Still is,” Doc said. Two things struck me: A white boy, born in 1923 in Deep Gap, N.C., grew up loving a black singer-horn player, and the memory had the power, half a century later, to reanimate a tired, unhappy man for a few moments. He opened the second set with “St. James Infirmary.”

I thought about Doc Watson while reading Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, a sequel of sorts to All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961- 1971, published in 1985. Most of the earlier book consists of record reviews Larkin wrote for The Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971. Larkin was born in England, seven months after Watson. The first jazz he heard was performed by English swing bands, but soon he and friends like Kingsley Amis fell in love with the American originals. Jazz Writings includes Larkin’s earliest known work on jazz, an essay titled “The Art of Jazz,” written in 1940 when he was 17. In it, he’s already lauding Armstrong, Ellington, Beiderbecke, Bechet and Pee Wee Russell. His taste is flawless.

Based on the first book, Larkin earned a reputation as a moldy fig for whom jazz died around 1940, about the time he was writing that essay for his school magazine. He became notorious for dismissing the “Three P’s” of Modernism: Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound and Charlie Parker, but never underestimate the pleasures of baiting the highbrows. Larkin was subversive, a favorite term of encomium for those same highbrows. In Jazz Writings, Larkin’s taste in jazz is broader and more generous than we had expected. He even ranks John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as a Daily Telegraph “Record of the Year” in 1965, and describes it as “a four-part attempt by the sheets-of-sound father of the New Thing to say `Thank You, God’ in his own angular fashion, moving from frenzy to faith in doing so.”

What’s striking about Larkin’s sensibility, however, is the fierceness of his devotion to Armstrong, consistent across more than five decades. Like Watson and millions of their contemporaries, Armstrong represented musical joy. He was the antithesis of humorlessness, one of those rare convergences of genius and popularity.

In his review of two Armstrong books, published in the Guardian in 1971, Larkin wrote:

“…in spite of the world-wide recognition as an international figure, we may still be only on the threshold of understanding his true significance. Of course he was an artist of Flaubertian purity, and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness. But has anyone yet seen him as the Chaucer, say, of the culture of the twenty-first century? While we are wondering whether to integrate with Africa, Armstrong (and Ellington, and Waller, and all the countless others) has done it behind our backs.”

Then Larkin approvingly quotes from a 1966 interview Armstrong gave Life magazine:

“But I always let the other fellow talk about art. ‘Cause when we was doing it, we was just glad to be working up on that stage.”

In his 1984 review for the Observer of John Lincoln Collier’s notorious hatchet job of a biography, Larkin writes:

“It is tempting to say that one could do without any twentieth-century artist sooner than Louis Armstrong, for while the rest were pulling their media to pieces, Armstrong was giving jazz its first definitive voice, one that has changed the character of popular music down to the present day. His life became an allegory of genius transcending the accidents of poverty and race…”

In addition to the two reviews just cited, Larkin refers 26 times to Armstrong in the book, rivaled in frequency only by Duke Ellington. Again, exuberance trumps politics and prejudice.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

`I'm Tempted to Let Him Rot'

Yesterday, I posted a link to a review by Theodore Dalrymple of The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers. In it, Dalrymple quoted Philip Larkin’s christening of the Welsh poet-priest as “Arsewipe Thomas.” This irked a reader, who wondered about the source of the line. He told me in an e-mail:

“Every time I try to make accommodations for Larkin I come across something like this. I’m tempted to let him rot.”

I understand the sentiment without sharing it. In 1992, with the publication of his Selected Letters, Larkin unleashed a posthumous shit storm of politically correct outrage. Readers and critics can be forgiven for sometimes confusing man and poet (the man wrote most of the letters), but the stench of self-righteousness clings to the affair. Larkin joked and ranted, sometimes savagely, about blacks, Asians, women -- most anyone. Like other men, he was many men. No boorish lout wrote these lines from “Church Going”:

“….someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”

A lout, however, sometimes wrote the letters. Thomas shows up five times in Larkin’s published correspondence – once neutrally, four times disparagingly. On April 25, 1956, Larkin wrote to his friend Robert Conquest, the poet and historian:

“And Arse Thomas getting the Heinemann [Award]. Oo the bible-punching old bastard.”

On Feb. 20, 1962, in another letter to Conquest, comes the phrase quoted by Dalrymple:

“Our friend Arsewipe Thomas suddenly was led into my room one afternoon last week, and stood there without moving or speaking: he seems pretty hard going. Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort.”

To Judy Egerton, on March 5, 1966, he wrote:

“Two very posh friends of Jocelyn came up, one bearing a Hasselblad camera, They’d just been visiting R.S. Thomas so naturally they thought I was marvelous. At least I hope they did.”

And to C.B. Cox, on Feb. 23, 1972:

“I am interested to hear of your plans for CRITICAL QUARTERLY – is it in those chaste pages that you intend to launch these polemic? Jolly good stuff: better than counting the colons in R.S. Thomas.”

Disparaging, yes, of course, but funny. And, in the case of “Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort,” very funny. I know nothing about the source of Larkin’s disdain for Thomas, and for many other poets, but I feel no need to reconcile them. I don’t expect writers I admire to admire each other, any more than I expect my friends to get along. With Larkin and Thomas as fixed points, I can triangulate my own position regarding poetry, religion and other matters. I love the work of both men, both give me great comfort and pleasure, but literature is not a Montessori class. Not everyone behaves as we would like them. Writers bitch and moan and carry on badly, then they stun us with their grace.

After I responded to my reader, he wrote back: “I realize that I need to make some sizable concessions for [Larkin]. Reading him, at times, has paid off. It's a struggle though. Despite their differences, there are some striking parallels between Larkin and Thomas.” He included “Sorry,” a poem by Thomas:

“Dear parents,
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.

“It was not the bone buckled;
You gave me enough food
To renew myself.
It was the mind's weight
Kept me bent, as I grew tall.

“It was not your fault.
What should have gone on,
Arrow aimed from a tried bow
At a tried target, has turned back,
Wounding itself
With questions you had not asked.”

My reader was thinking, of course, of “This Be the Verse,” Larkin’s most famous poem:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

“But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dalrymple on Thomas

One of our best essayists, Theodore Dalrymple, reviews a biography of one of our best poets, R.S. Thomas.


Jane Hirshfield, fortunate poet, was a friend to Czeslaw Milosz from their meeting in 1987 until his death in 2004. She was 34 when they met; he, 76. She was an American Buddhist; he, an embattled Polish Catholic. Hirshfield discusses her unlikely friendship with Milosz and his wife, Carol, in this story at the Poetry web site, and in her most recent book, After, she includes a four-page elegy to Milosz, “Letter to C.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Living memory holds the dead as a hand holds water,
As a dry window keeps the traces of rain.
And still we speak.

“I write in these lines what I hear myself saying to others –

“that you wanted most, it seemed, to preserve
the dresses and potions of women, an unmetaphysical spider and cat.
Against the age’s erasures
praising a blacksmith’s forge, a dish of olives set on a table.

"Other writers you praised by rebuking,
though I recall no complaint against Whitman,
whose capacious lists and tenderness must have seemed
to you the path of a mirroring soul, if less singed by self-judgment.”

I like Hirshfield referring obliquely to specific Milosz poems, including the great “Blacksmith Shop.” I like her homely images, and I like her mention of Whitman, who must have eased Milosz’s long American exile. In his introduction to a Polish translation of Hirshfield’s work, Milosz wrote:

"The subject of her poetry is our ordinary life among other people and our continuing encounter with everything Earth brings us: trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Much depends on whether we can treasure each moment in this way, and whether we are able to respond to cats, dogs, and horses with a friendliness equal to that we bring to people. The sensuality of her poetry equally illuminates the great Buddhist virtue of `mindfulness.’”

In Polish, the Hirshfield collection is titled Uwaznosc – “mindfulness,” which Milosz defines in Milosz’s ABC’s as “a stance of attentive good will toward nature and people, so that we notice in every detail what is happening around us, instead of passing by in distraction.” Then he mentions the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his essay “Interbeing,” which lends all of this a pleasing personal circularity. In 1975, Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan published The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist-Christian Awareness. In a letter he wrote me in 1993, Berrigan suggested I adopt a stance of "mindfulness" toward the world, recommending it as “the foremost Buddhist virtue.” He also urged me to read more Thomas Merton, who briefly met Nhat Hanh in 1966, at the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky. In “Letter to C.,” Hirshfield writes:

“Near the end, you could not lift you head,
But offered a visitor this:
`At least I am conscious.
I have been arguing all morning with your Puritans, I must tell you,
In their strange hats.’

“It is good to think you fought to the last with those who would narrow the mind.”

Monday, November 06, 2006

`At Some Point the Mind Will Not Suffer Improving'

Only recently have I learned of the ghazal, a 10th-century Persian poetic form consisting of couplets, often rhymed, practiced throughout much of the Muslim world. The history of the ghazal is longer and more complex and various than the sonnet in the West. At least since Goethe, Western poets and songwriters have toyed with the form, and I just re-encountered it in Lee Gerlach’s first book, Highwater, published in 2002 by Handsel Books. Gerlach was born in 1920, and his book is slender but dense with quiet and a lifetime’s experience. It’s the opposite of improvisatory or casual. His poems are deliberate in the sense Thoreau intended when he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

At the heart of the book is a series of 45 unrhymed, untitled ghazals that remind me of Wallace Stevens and, more rarely, Rilke. I have no idea how these poems measure up a ghazals. As poetry, they deserve and demand rereading – a serious life’s work asks no less. Here’s No. 43:

“At some point the mind will not suffer improving.
Wants nothing more, becomes obstinate.

“It lives in the perceiving of its old weathers,
It rises from bed content to be what it was.

Yet, if it were truly weary, it would slump back
And not stand up like a cathedral in the desert

With no parishioners, no one coming to worship,
The bats in the belfry hanging in leathery sleep.

“The morning is brilliant, impossible to describe,
More like the last thought than one that might come.”

I like that final line of monosyllables that enacts the inevitable slowing down of thoughts, like breath, before sleep. This is poetry, measured and contemplative, for grownups. Lately, I’ve been able to read only poetry, little prose. My brother told me on Sunday he is reading, for the first time, Wallace Stevens’ poems and Beckett’s How It Is. Lucky guy.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

`A Poet Down to His Teguments'

In his final year, Samuel Beckett gave brief poems in English to two friends. To James Knowlson, future author of Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, he wrote four untitled lines:

“Go where never before
No sooner there than there always
No matter where never before
No sooner there than there always.”

And to his publisher, John Calder, he sent “Brief Dream”:

“go end there
one fine day
where never till then
till as much as to say
no matter where
no matter when”

The first line of the first poem contains an unfortunate echo of the kitschy Star Trek intro, though it’s probably safe to assume that the formidably allusive Beckett intended no allusion. Both poems concern death and both begin with “go,” but not a commanding, propulsive “go,” but one that is paradoxically passive and resigned. The same verb shows up in the familiar, final phrases of The Unnamable: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” In How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, his friend Anne Atik, wife of the painter Avigdor Arikha, writes:

“Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry’s presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.”

Beckett could recite volumes of poetry from memory, and his taste was exquisite – Dante, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Yeats. He had other admirations that shouldn’t surprise us: Swift, Sterne, Osip Mandelstam, Saul Bellow, Johnson’s biographer W. Jackson Bate. Significantly, even in old age, Beckett favored the ever-youthful John Keats, who was 25 years and four months old when de died. Atik tells us:

“Sam would quote from Keats; loved `full-throated ease,’ `To take into the air my quiet breath’ and `While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad’ (from `Ode to a Nightingale’); agreed that Shelley’s `Pourest thy full breast/In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’ enacted a similar ecstasy of birdsong, but, while admiring it, would come back to Keats’s `full-throated ease’ and the Letters. We didn’t talk about or read from the Letters until the 1970s, when I first read them. I mentioned the `Negative Capability’ passage to Sam, who of course had read it when he studied Keats; when I came to `when a man is capable of being uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ he became tense with attention, suddenly sitting bolt upright as though pierced by an electric current, and asked me to read it again at the table, and repeated excitedly, `irritable reaching after fact and reason – that’s it, capable of being in uncertainties.’ He didn’t have to explain why he found this so important; the link to his own work was so obvious.”

In the two late Beckett poems cited above, I hear attenuated echoes of Keats. Listen to the sixth stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”:

“Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--
To thy high requiem become a sod.”

By happy coincidence I have been re-reading Beckett’s poetry at the same time I have been reading The 64 Sonnets, all of Keats’ work in that form published for the first time in a single volume, by Paul Dry Books in 2004. Keats closes a sonnet he wrote in March 1819 (“Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell”), less than two years before, with this couplet:

“Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser--Death is Life's high meed.”

Beckett, I think, would have approved. In this context, a synonym for “meed” is reward.

Friday, November 03, 2006


One of my English professors devoted much energy, in class and out, to defending and reclaiming the reputation of John Keats. He was offended that Keats had been turned into a sylph-like nancy boy. This was 1971, the year Rod Stewart sang “I couldn't quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats.” For my professor, then about 35 years old, Keats was a virile, tough-minded poet whose music was rivaled only by Shakespeare’s and possibly Milton’s. Today, I know he was right but back then I found his vehemence amusing and a little embarrassing. I hadn’t yet learned the therapeutic worth of riding a hobbyhorse.

Among the Xeroxed assignments he handed out in our English Romanticism class was an excerpt from The March of Literature, by Ford Madox Ford. I had already read The Good Soldier and seen the famous photograph of Ford posing with Joyce, Pound and arts patron John Quinn, but otherwise knew little about him. The passage helped transform my understanding of both Keats and Ford. I’ve looked it up again:

“Before Keats alone, of all these poets – except perhaps Christina Rossetti – the impatient prose writer must sheathe his scalpel. Before the century closed – and even in the hands of Landor – prose had become the only keen instrument of the scrupulous writer. But the verbal felicities and labours of Keats placed him not infrequently beside any prose writer that you like to name. And in words he was a perfectly conscious and perfectly self-critical artist. Thus, in the manuscript of Endymion you can still see how he first wrote the agreeable but not exquisitely inspiring six lines:

“`More forest-wild, more subtle-cadenced
Than can be told by mortal: even wed
The fainting tenors of a thousand shells
To a million whisperings of Lily bells;
And mingle too the Nightingale’s complain
Caught in its hundredth echo; ’t would be vain…’

“but he crossed them out and substituted:

“`thou art as a dove
Trembling its closed eyes and sleeked wings
About me’

“This is art.”

Ford’s tone, as always, is conversational. He speaks as though he knew Keats and watched him revise Endymion. But his critical insight is nonetheless acute. That’s one of the lessons Ford’s example teaches: Criticism need not be written as though it were a computer program. There’s room for the personal, the emotional, the discursive – so long as it’s rooted in close reading.

The March of Literature was published in1938, and Dalkey Archive Press returned it to print in 1994, with an introduction by Alexander Theroux. The almost-900-page book, subtitled From Confucius to Modern Times, is so willfully idiosyncratic it seems written by a visitor from another world, and in a sense it was. In the last years of his life, this friend of the Rosettis, collaborator with Conrad, champion of Stephen Crane and Henry James, and Modernist co-conspirator with Pound and Joyce, assembled his rambling monument while serving as visiting lecturer in literature at Olivet College, Michigan. The book was his last. A year later, on the eve of World War II, Ford died at the age of 65.

The March of Literature is reliably tart, anecdotal, digressive and always amusing, like having a kindly, voluble uncle who has read every book every published, and who knew half the authors. In his dedication, which doubles as an introduction, Ford states his goal is restoring to young people “a lost art – that of reading.” Instead of academics, colleges ought to employ “artist-practitioners”(like himself) to instill a love of books in college students:

“For it is your hot love for your art, not your dry delvings in the dry bones of ana and philologies that will enable you to convey to others your strong passion.”

Despite the porno-sounding phrasing, Ford -- an aging, ailing, overweight, money-strapped Modernist – remains an enthusiast of the written word. Later in the dedication he rightly calls himself “an old man mad about writing.” So here are the paragraphs immediately following the Keats passage cited above:

“As against Keats, Shelley is diffuse. It is impossible to dissociate these two whose careers on earth seemed indissolubly intertwined. The splendours, the almost supernatural beauty of the active mind of Shelley will obviously forever gild his poems and blind one to the mediocrity of thousands of his inferior lines. But the gold is an exterior gold; we bring it ourselves to his shrine, and his shining soul only very seldom illuminates his poems from within. He is almost never natural; he is almost never not intent on showing himself the champion of freedom, the Satan of a Hanoverian Heaven. And even when he is natural his sheer carelessness will spoil – for the impatient prose writer – his most satisfactory poems. Take

“`I awake from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
And the winds are breathing low
And the stars are burning bright:

“`I awake from dreams of thee
And a spirit in my feet [haunted feet?]
Has led me, who knows how,
To thy chamber window, sweet…

“The poem is beautiful, but imagine the meanest short-story writer introducing into it that `who knows how?’ It gives the effect of a large piece of red hot iron suddenly put into water. A writer should precisely `know how’ things happen in his prose or verse. If he does not he should not write.”

Some scholars have attempted a reclamation of Shelley based on his mushy-headed politics (“unacknowledged legislators of the world!”). The “radical Shelley” has an obvious appeal to crackpot academics. I would rather reread Richard Holmes’ biography of Shelley than read the sensitive old plant himself, and Ford probably would have, too. Good sense always trumps posturing.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I was touched by James Marcus’ recent post about the death of Molly. James and I have commiserated and agree we are cat men. I admire the way he worked in a mention of the second-most famous cat of the 18th century, Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry. The most famous, of course, is Samuel Johnson’s Hodge. Here is Boswell’s account in his Life of Johnson:

“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, `Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, `but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

“This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. `Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, `But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’”

Hodge’s renown grew after Nabokov used the second of Boswell’s paragraphs as the epigraph to Pale Fire. The passage neatly differentiates the characters of Boswell and Johnson, and may explain my preference for the latter. Boswell admits to an “antipathy” to cats, while Johnson, like any good-hearted person, feels only “indulgence” for Hodge, and experiences “a sort of kindly reverie” when thinking of his cat. To their credit, the English have commemorated a bronze statue of Hodge in front of the house he and Johnson shared.

Jeoffry was immortalized by Smart in Of Jeoffry, His Cat,” a 73-line section of Jubilate Agno often published as a separate poem. The manuscript of the entire poem was not discovered and published until 1939. Jubilate Agno is written in free verse, making it a discordant and refreshing anomaly in the 18th century. The rhythms are biblical and remind us of Whitman or Ginsberg. With three exceptions, every line in the poem begins with “For” or “Let.” Read aloud, the effect is hypnotic, like a chant, and Smart’s mental illness often manifested itself in the form of religious mania. These are the lines James quoted:

“For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.For, tho' he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.”

Portions of Jubilate Agno and his other great work, “A Song to David,” were written during Smart’s confinement in an insane asylum. “Of Jeoffrey, His Cat” might be judged cute and anthropomorphic, especially if you share Boswell’s antipathy, but I view it as a masterpiece of tonal control, summed up in one of my favorite lines: “For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.” So is the poem, and so are Johnson and Smart. Though he had little use for Smart’s poetry, Johnson championed the man. Here’s Johnson discussing Smart, as reported by Boswell:

“Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question."

More Boswell on the subject:

“Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a mad-house, he had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr. Burney. -- BURNEY. `How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?’ JOHNSON. `It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.’ BURNEY. `Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.’ JOHNSON. `No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the alehouse; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.’”

Johnson could be ferocious but his empathy was deep. Living in fear of losing his own sanity, he refused to condemn Smart for sharing the same propensity. Johnson’s first sentence quoted above -- “Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world.” – reminds me of a well-known line from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time”:

“What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?”

Whereas Johnson is common-sensical and passes no judgment, Roethke romanticizes mental illness. There’s nothing noble about being crazy. It was from Roethke, in the late 1960s, that I first learned of Smart. A veteran of nut houses, Roethke wrote “Heard in a Violent Ward”:

“In heaven, too,
You’d be institutionalized.
But that’s all right, --
If they let you eat and swear
With the like of Blake,
And Christopher Smart,
And that sweet man, John Clare.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Neglected Books

Most books, of course, deserve to be neglected. Good books are rare. But consider that Moby-Dick was largely neglected for 70 years, and the same was true of Faulkner, until Malcolm Cowley helped conjure his return. Today, academics swarm over Melville and Faulkner, like Lilliputians over Gulliver, though from the perspective of the common reader, who reads out of love, this too might constitute neglect. Edward Dahlberg, himself neglected almost to oblivion, wrote in his essay “Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream” (collected in Alms for Oblivion):

“Herman Melville, who died in 1891, has been interred by the currish literati…Canting, stuffed praise of deceased writers is starved malice; whenever a critic tells such falsehoods about our past he shows his hunger and envy, and instead of providing us with a more opulent Parnassus, he parches the American Elysium.”

Any good book without readers is neglected – “interred,” as Dahlberg says -- though neglect has many causes. Sometimes, readers and critics are unprepared. Consider The Recognitions, William Gaddis’ novel from 1955. It was published to widespread bafflement and scorn, though a few discerning readers understood the magnitude of Gaddis’ accomplishment, claimed the book as their own, and set up an informal Gaddis cult. Robert Coover once told me that two books had steeled his youthful resolve to write fiction – The Adventures of Augie March and The Recognitions. Only in the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of Pynchon, Gass, Barth and Coover, could readers begin to recognize, understand and honor The Recognitions.

The Neglected Books Page, run by Brad Bigelow, is one of my favorite web sites. I go there and get lost for hours. That’s how I discovered David Hume, by J.Y.T. Greig and Action, by James Guetti, and Clem Anderson, by R.V. Cassill. Only the Hume biography is a great book, but all are well-written, diverting and worthy of salvage. Bigelow links to more than 50 years of sources, including Rediscoveries, a volume edited by David Madden in 1971, which I trolled through shortly after it was published and which includes such formerly neglected books as The Recognitions, Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Sparrows, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, and Daniel Fuchs’ Homage to Blenholt.

Elsewhere on the site you’ll find mention of a sentimental favorite, The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith, which I discovered in 1975 and have read several times. You’ll also discover well-known neglected writers, a happy oxymoron: Malcolm Lowry, Flann O’Brien, Christina Stead and the collected works of the late Danilo Kis.

Thanks to Bigelow, you can no longer complain about having nothing to read. He also accepts e-mail suggestions for neglected books. Perhaps I missed them on his site, but let me nominate The Pleasure of Ruins, by Rose Macaulay; Normandy Revisited, by A.J. Liebling; and The Old Forest, by Peter Taylor.