Monday, March 31, 2008


Sunday afternoon I spent digging through cardboard boxes of miscellaneous – what? Detritus of a lifetime: Photographs, greeting cards, letters, clippings from newspapers and magazines, drawings and poems from my oldest son when he was little, a commemorative pack of matches from the world premiere of Ironweed in Albany, N.Y., in December 1987. Each box is a jumbled midden of memories, meaningful only to me. My intent was to weed out what I no longer care about rather than lug it to Seattle, but I ended up discarding little. Here’s some of what I found:

A Wall Street Journal story about jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge written by Nat Hentoff, who concludes the piece like this: “I saw him at a party a few months ago playing exultant stride piano, and he still seemed to me larger than life.” The clip is dated Aug. 31, 1988. Eldridge, known as “Little Jazz,” died Feb. 26, 1989.

A drawing of a marijuana leaf on green paper, with a bar drawn across it, signifying “banned,” and the word “WHY?” beneath it. The poster is signed “To Patrick, Timothy Leary, 4-22-93.” I spent several hours with Leary that day. He was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., to debate drug policy with a former Congressman whose name I’ve forgotten. Leary wore pressed blue jeans, chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and smelled terrible. He died Memorial Day 1996.

The Spring 1994 newsletter of the New York State Writers Institute, with a story headlined “New York’s Bluebirds: Novelist William Gaddis” on the cover, by yours truly. I met Gaddis three times and spoke with him often by telephone. I finished the piece by quoting Gaddis: “The work is very much between the reader and the printed page. That’s everything the reader’s going to get once William Gaddis is gone.” He died Dec. 16, 1998.

A gift from a former girlfriend: The issues of Life magazine dated Nov. 3 and 17, 1952 – those closest to my birth date, Oct. 26, 1952, she was able to find. On the cover of the first is a photo of “The U.N.’s New Assembly Building.” On the second, a smiling Ike flashing the “V-for-victory” sign with his left hand. Mamie, in pearls, stands beside him. He died March 28, 1969; she, Nov. 1, 1979.

A memorial flyer for my former colleague Marty Moynihan, who died of renal cancer on June, 2, 1993, at the age of 47. For years Marty was film critic for the Albany Times Union. Our tastes were utterly different and we always argued over movies. The last one we saw together, we agreed, was memorably awful: Candyman.

The New York Times obituary for William Maxwell, dated Aug. 1, 2000 (Melville’s 181st birthday). He had died one day earlier. The writer, Wilborn Hampton, quotes a piece Maxwell had written for the Times Magazine in 1997: “What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead, they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke.”

A piece from The New York Times Book Review by Alfred Kazin, remembering his friend Murray Kempton, who died May 5, 1997. He writes: “Murray had a quiet, even humorous tolerance for people whose self-satisfied looks actually horrified him. So humor as well as religion – religion in the form of humor – was his mainstay.” Kazin died June 5, 1998.

I didn’t start writing this post with a theme in mind but one emerged naturally, confirming that if you live long enough you will accumulate much second-hand experience of death.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

`An Egg and an Egg-shell'

I found an excellent barber in Houston, one who seems to know intuitively what I want without me having to micro-manage every snip. She’s getting married next week in Las Vegas, where she and her soon-to-be-husband already have tickets to see Elton John. She has earned her happiness and I’m happy for her, but I’m going to miss her comb-and-scissors magic when the boys and I move to Seattle in a few weeks. I’m also going to miss her gift for food-processing language into a species of ad hoc poetry.

Her business moved last week to a new location about a mile west of the old address. It was still being set up and painted when she cut my hair on Saturday. I asked how the salon will look when finished and she said, “A little more feng-shui-ish. You know, kind of Art-Deco-ish, but not too expensive.”

No, I didn’t know exactly, but I can’t wait to see it. When I asked why she wanted to see Elton John, without hesitation she answered, “Well, he’s gay, you know, but his music isn’t gay. I mean, it’s gay like `happy’ gay, but not, well, you know…. It’s gay-ish [Her preferred suffix is `-ish’].”

In Speech! Speech!, Section 94, by the way, Geoffrey Hill writes “Great singer Elton John though.”

My barber and her husband have booked a helicopter tour of Las Vegas. I asked whether the aircraft would be equipped with slot machines. She answered: “I don’t know. They are kind of gambling-centric out there, you know, like slot machines and blackjack.”

Coleridge might have had my barber in mind when writing this passage from the second chapter of Biographia Literaria:

“Hence of all trades, literature at present demands the least talent or information;and, of all modes of literature, the manufacturing of poems. The difference indeed between these and the works of genius is not less than between an egg and an egg-shell; yet at a distance they both look alike.”

Basil Bunting, too, was on to my barber’s poeticizing. In a review published in The Criterion in 1938 he wrote:

“Every revivification of poetry has taken the same route, towards the language of the streets and the cadences of song or bodily movement.”

Poetry, he seems to be saying, ought to be street-ish.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

`Music is the Language of Heaven'

My oldest son sends compilation CDs of music he thinks I’ll enjoy. His taste is reliably good and his musical interests are broad so the discs often spend weeks in my car. For the first time in years I’m learning new music – that is, music new to me – by heart. His latest gift is heavy on Dylan oddities (“Dixie”), Dylan covers and Sam Cooke but also great live versions of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Especially fine are Buddy Holly’s “Dearest” and an alternate take of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

The best cut Joshua sent, however, is Levon Helm’s cover of the Stanley Brothers song “False-Hearted Lover Blues” off Helm's recent Dirt Farmer. It’s a classic bluegrass rant, beginning with acoustic guitar interrupted by two rim shots like gunshots. I have a weakness for story songs. In this case the whiskey-rotted speaker blames his troubles on two-timing women. The complete lyrics are here, but this is the passage I especially like:

“They'll bite the hand that feeds them
Spend all the money you can save
From your heart strings weave silk garters
Build a dog house on your grave

“When my earthly stay is over
Sink my dead body in the sea
Just tell my false hearted lover
That the whales will watch over me”

At work here is a species of surréalisme de Americane primitif, or some such thing. André Breton had nothing on Ralph Stanley. “Build a dog house on your grave” is a memorable putdown, better than the conventional “I’ll piss on your grave,” worthy of Mark Twain because it’s so unlikely: Imagine feeling enough resentment to invest time and money in building a cemetery dog house. I was floored several years ago when ABC’s Nightline profiled Helm and he casually came out with this:

“Music is the language of heaven. That's what Emerson taught us. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was playing music. I would grab an old broom and, you know, pretend that I was singing and playing.”

Who else would cherish the words of The Two Ralphs – Stanley and Waldo Emerson? I’m assuming Helm has read Emerson’s “Intellect.” Here’s the pertinent passage:

“The angels are so enamored of the language that is spoken in heaven that they will not distort their lips with the hissing and unmusical dialects of men, but speak their own, whether their be any who understand it or not.”

Before writing this post I reread “Intellect” – early Emerson, from Essays: First Series (1841) – and plucked this morsel of confident, democratic Americana:

“Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant. The walls of rude minds are scrawled all over with facts, with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions. Every man, in the degree in which he has wit and culture, finds his curiosity inflamed concerning the modes of living and thinking of other men, and especially of those classes whose minds have not been subdued by the drill of school education.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

`Piles to Drive into the Quaggy Past'

“Peewit and curlew, clint and gryke, bear garlic and may, glishy slutch and Roman Wall – these are certainties of the music. From these come variations and descant, one human being to another.”

Not Finnegans Wake but Jonathan Williams on Basil Bunting, a pastiche of Bunting’s idiosyncratic language and themes. No 20th-century poet’s work is more pleasurable to read aloud, to relish on the tongue, lips and palate. Concision is his engine, accounting for the preponderance of monosyllables and rare words. Who doesn’t enjoy saying clint, gryke and glishy slutch?

Thoughtful readers know peewit and curlew are birds (as is bunting), and a visit to the Oxford English Dictionary illuminates the rightness of the other exotics. Gryke is a “crack or slit in rock”; clint is a “hard or flinty rock; a hard rock projecting on the side of a hill or river, or in the bed of a stream; a part of a crag standing out between crevices or fissures.” The OED gives no glishy but glish is a verb meaning “to glitter, or shine.” As a noun, slutch means “mud, mire, slush” and echoes slush, clutch and slut. Bunting is a magician of sounds fierce and hard, gentle and refined. Few have so reveled in the sheer musicality of verse. Listen to this from Briggflatts, one of the last century’s supreme poems:

“Mist sets lace of frost
on rock for the tide to mangle.
Day is wreathed in what summer lost.”

Now read it aloud. Three lines, 19 words, 17 of them monosyllables, nary a trace of Latin. No stutter but a broken eloquence. This is English poetry, alive to the English past.
Bunting described Briggflatts as “an autobiography, but not a record of fact.” Read this from the fourth section of Briggflatts:

“Today's posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past
on which impermanent palaces balance.”

And this from the fifth section:

“…silence by silence sits
And Then is diffused in Now.”

The passage at the top of this post is from the introduction Williams wrote in 1985, the year of Bunting’s death, to The Collected Poems of Basil Bunting, later included in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs. It’s insightful, yes, but also loving, for Williams had known Bunting for more than 20 years, had interviewed and photographed him and shared his Glenfiddich. This is from Williams’ introduction, with his ellipses:

“There was something sidereal about Basil Bunting; something feral as well. He could be as remote as the stars he regarded over the Pennine Dales [in England’s modest mountain range, its “backbone”]. He occasionally twinkled like them, but mostly kept silence…He loved the company of the red weasel by the beck…He composed words as carefully as hill farmers build blue rag [a blue limestone mentioned by Gilbert White in his incomparable The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne] into stonewalls…Men he endured, because now and then they also got their words right – when they were being unabashed…Bunting’s severity-cum-wit; no one else seems to have it, and that’s what I shall miss most from this great man. Great, a somewhat too-human word, not often one that stars and weasels and stones bandy about.”

Beck, here, is revealing. It dates from the early 12th century. Again, the OED: “A brook or stream: the ordinary name in those parts of England from Lincolnshire to Cumbria which were occupied by the Danes and Norwegians; hence, often used spec. in literature to connote a brook with stony bed, or rugged course, such as are those of the north country.”

In other words, Bunting’s North. His responsiveness to the natural world, noted by Williams, makes him an odd duck among the Modernists. In it I hear a spiritual note.
Bunting was a sort of pagan Quaker. Here’s what he said in a 1977 interview:

“There is a possibility of a kind of reverence for the whole of creation which I feel we all ought to have in our bones, a kind of pantheism. If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. The only way to know anything is to consider yourself a student of histology, finding out as much as carefully controlled common sense can find out about the world. In so doing, you will be contributing to the histology of God.”

Back again to the OED. Histology: “The science of organic tissues; that branch of anatomy, or of biology, which is concerned with the minute structure of the tissues of animals and plants.” Histology, dismissed as mere dissection, is given by Bunting a spiritual/moral/poetic renewal of meaning: “Carefully controlled common sense.” When Williams asked in an interview, “If you did have virtues, which would you want?” Bunting replied, “Inconspicuousness, combined with enterprise.” A poetic credo condensed, typically, in four words.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

`Wise Books'

Having worked at a university for almost two years, I’ve become spoiled by ready access to a well-stocked library. The building is two minutes from my office and I visit almost daily. The librarians are invariably helpful and most are amused by my frequent patronage and book-filled tote bag bursting at the seams.

Soon we move to Seattle. My wife flies out Friday and I’ll follow with the boys in about three weeks. We took them to the Houston Public Library the day after we arrived in Texas in 2004, to sign up for library cards. I’m sure we’ll do the same at the Seattle Public Library, despite the monstrous ugliness of its new building. There’s always the miracle of interlibrary loan but I’ve grown accustomed to the accessible bounty of a university collection that has been thoughtfully assembled for almost a century. If, on impulse, I want the letter Charles Lamb wrote Coleridge on Sept. 27, 1796, five days after Mary Lamb fatally stabbed their mother, I can have it on my desk in 10 minutes. I know the floor, the row, the shelf. Despite its boosters, and despite my reliance upon it, the Internet has not yet achieved the comprehensiveness of a truly Borgesian library.

Near the end of his life, Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977), that impossible and impossibly bookish man, often published in Prose, a journal founded by Coburn Britton in 1970. In the maiden issue, which I remember reading in my first university library, Britton published Dahlberg, W.H. Auden, Harold Bloom, Anthony Burgess and Richard Howard, among others. In 1989, Steven Moore edited and Dalkey Archive Press published Dahlberg’s Samuel Beckett’s Wake and Other Uncollected Prose. It includes “A Letter to Prose,” which begins:

“My dear Coburn: In our recent festival colloquy we had occasion to mention the drying up of our oracles, good books. We agreed that wise books, like the brash deciduous willow – your phrase – should be renewed each year. A book published once is scarce in print, little- or ill-read, or only reaches a shoal of auditors. Such neglected folios or octavos lie in the calms, and are parched by the Dog Star, and must be exhumed; you might, my dear Coburn, reprint some albic passages from them in Prose.”

Few public libraries, with their frequent space-saving, time-wasting purges, are committed to preserving “wise books.” That’s left to the graces of university libraries and non-aligned bibliophiles, which reminds me of another source of anxiety: Most of my books will remain inaccessible for a week or more as they’re ferried across the continent. Soon I’ll have to select the essential volumes I’ll want to carry with me on the flight, calculating the burden-to-blessing ratio. Dahlberg continues:

“Most of the precious volumes lie upon biers in our monolithic funeral parlors called libraries, and are seldom removed from their ritual ossuaries….We have to cure our days as best we can, and a book we enjoy is more likely to be the remedy for our soul and body than the physician. When Coleridge was in the dumps, his friend, Charles Lamb, suggested that he go to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler for a sedative.”

For the remainder of the letter, Dahlberg ecstatically urges on Britton some of the many books he cherishes – The Life of William Blake, by Alexander Gilchrist; Virgil’s Bucolics; Baudelaire’s The Mirror of Art; The Letters of Eric Gill; An Essay on Landscape Painting, by Kuro Hsi; Swinburne’s A Study of Ben Jonson; Xenophon’s Memorabilia; A.B. Cook’s Zeus; Norman Douglas’ Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology.

I’ve read most of those titles but not the Douglas, which sounds interesting. The online catalog shows my university library has a first edition from 1929, published by J. Cape and H. Smith in New York City. The foreword, I see, was written by William Alexander Percy, the author of Lanterns on the Levee, who adopted his orphaned nephew, the future novelist Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer. See how books quickly grow promiscuous, spawning even more books? Here’s Dahlberg’s conclusion to his letter to Britton, which contains enough recommendations to open a good-sized library of “wise books”:

“My dear Coburn, I have merely suggested a very small phalanx of authors, but let me say, and I know how deeply you are of my mind in this, that one who does not fall into a Dionysiac passion over a profound book is a burden to the earth, and a barnacle one is not likely to get rid of, and withal such a drone, bore and sapless clodpate should be mewed up like any predacious and senseless haggard. To paraphrase Herman Melville, Cato fell upon a sword, I fell upon a book.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ormsby on Bishop

In the New York Sun, Eric Ormsby reviews the Library of America's latest offering: Elizabeth Bishop's Poems, Prose and Letters. Here's a sample:

"Certain poets come to seem our secret friends. We may not have met them; we may not have wanted to meet them. But their particular voices, as distinctive and familiar as those of our childhood, accompany us, sometimes for years. We don't turn to their poems for comfort or for wisdom, though they may offer these in abundance. We say their lines over and over to ourselves for the sheer pleasure of their words, much the way we might hum a favorite melody. Oddest of all, these lines, which memory has made magical, do not grow stale; familiarity only increases their mystery."

Knowing Things

About three years before his death in 2005, Guy Davenport wrote an introduction to a collection of photographs, A Palpable Elysium, by his old friend the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams. Since the nineteen-fifties, Williams had traveled the United States and occasionally elsewhere, taking pictures of artists renowned and obscure, from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to Edgar Tolson, a woodcarver from Campton, Ky. One of the charms and shocks of the book is seeing such figures in color. W.C. Williams died in 1963, Pound in 1972, but both, as surely as Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, have remained fixed for me in a permanent black-and-white gallery. You can see a sampling of Williams’ photographs here, including some from A Palpable Elysium.

Others captured by Williams include Thomas Merton, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, R. Buckminster Fuller, Edward Dahlberg, Stevie Smith and two writers I knew and for whom I felt great affection – Davenport (looking professorial) and Paul Metcalf (looking characteristically impish). Both are dead, as are most of Williams’ other subjects. Williams died in his native North Carolina on March 18.

Davenport was the best-educated, best-read, most knowledgeable person I’ve ever known. Within minutes of meeting him at his house in Lexington, Ky., he mentioned having recently learned that Franz Kafka’s eyes were blue. This was news to me and clearly very exciting news to him, and that’s how he shared it: Not like a pedantic know-it-all showing off his command of erudition (or trivia), but like a man who enjoyed knowing things and flattered you by assuming you enjoyed knowing things, too. His only rival in intellectual capaciousness in my experience was another of his old friends, Hugh Kenner, but I only spoke once with Kenner on the telephone. Given his formidable learning, Davenport makes a remarkable admission in his introduction to A Palpable Elysium:

“What I’ve learned from [Jonathan Williams] about people and books, poetry and art is so immense that I place him among my best teachers.”

Of course, I would say the same of Davenport. He always impressed me, through his books and my personal dealings with him, as a gentle man and a gentleman, someone who lived for pleasure but not of the ravenously hedonistic sort. Rather, for him as for the Greeks he so respected, to live well, to live attentively, to live a fully engaged mental and emotional life, was to live ethically (Oxford English Dictionary: from the Greek for “moral character, nature, disposition, habit, custom”). Here are his next sentences:

“Well, a kind of teacher: the best kind. A good teacher knows things in a way that makes you want to know them too.”

That distills Guy Davenport’s charisma (OED: from the Greek for “favour given, gift of grace”), his special grace: He knew much and that knowledge pleased him. Some hugely learned people appear burdened by their learning. Not Guy. He always gave an impression of lightness and agility. When you came to know him, you wished to know what he knew, and one of the things he knew was the pleasure of a well-stocked mind.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

`Soul and Mind'

Certain long-ago encounters with books, magazines and even newspapers carry with them, in memory, a sort of golden aura. One fondly recalls the work and the setting in which it was first enjoyed as “spots in time,” to use Wordsworth’s phrase, charged with an ineffable glow of pleasure. I remember, in 1985, reading Gary Giddins’ hommage to Jack Benny, “This Guy Wouldn’t Give You the Parsley Off His Fish,” in the journal Grand Street. It arrived in the mail and I took it with me to the late, lamented Third Street Cinema in Rensselaer, N.Y., and read it while waiting for the feature, Utu, to begin. I always loved Benny and Giddins’ essay is so beautifully written (it was included in his 1992 volume Faces in the Crowd), I was irritated when the film started to roll. To top it off, the movie was lousy.

I also remember reading Guy Davenport’s essay “On Reading” as it first appeared in the Fall 1987 issue of Antaeus. My oldest son was born that August, and that may have contributed to my heightened receptiveness to bliss. The journal had arrived in the mail and, for some reason, I was eating dinner alone in a Japanese restaurant housed in an A-frame structure resembling a ski lodge, just north of Albany, N.Y. Reading a favorite writer on reading is already pleasure doubled, but my pleasure unexpectedly quadrupled on Sunday when I reread the essay, collected in Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus.

In the pertinent passage, Davenport recalls how he first became aware of style in writing while reading Hendrik Van Loon’s “whimsical history of the world” (presumably The Story of Mankind), which led him to Van Loon’s biography of Rembrandt, in which he first encountered the name of Baruch de Spinoza. That reference, in turn, sent him to Will Durant, who finally sent him directly to Spinoza’s work. Davenport picks it up at that point:

“…and all fellow readers who have ever taken a book along to a humble restaurant will understand my saying that life has few enjoyments as stoical and pure as reading Spinoza’s Ethics, evening after evening, in a strange city – St. Louis, before I made friends there. The restaurant was Greek, cozy, comfortable, and for the neighborhood. The food was cheap, tasty, and filling.

“Over white beans with chopped onions, veal cutlet with a savory dressing, and eventually a fruit cobbler and coffee, I read the De Ethica in its Everyman edition, Draftech pen at the ready to underline passages I might want to refind easily later. Soul and mind were being fed together. I have not eaten alone in a restaurant in many years, but I see others doing it and envy them.”

That’s the quadrupling I mentioned: Rereading an essay by a favorite writer writing about reading a favorite book (his, mine) for the first time in a restaurant, that I first read in another restaurant. That’s convoluted but the pleasure is simple and intense.

I have a dim recollection of first reading Spinoza on West 25th Street in Cleveland, seated on a CTS bus, but no golden glow is attached to it. Like Guy, I seldom eat alone in restaurants anymore, but restaurants are the setting for several bookish memories:

Reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones for the first time in a Greek restaurant in a Bowling Green, Ohio, strip mall; Raymond Sokolov’s life of A.J. Liebling in a Rax roast-beef-sandwich joint in Richmond, Ind.; and Jack Fruchtman’s life of Thomas Paine in an Indian restaurant in Schenectady, N.Y.

Interesting that Guy writes “Soul and mind were being fed together,” not “body and soul.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fan Mail

On Easter, an anonymous reader sent a comment to Anecdotal Evidence in which he called me “fascist” and “elitist,” the tired epithets du jour. I’ve posted almost every comment I’ve received since this blog started more than two years ago, even a few that were obscene and so sloppy and ungrammatical as to be incoherent. If a reader takes the time to read my blog and takes additional time to respond to something I’ve written, he or she deserves the courtesy of being acknowledged. Sunday’s gift I deleted without posting because it managed to be inaccurate (not a crime), badly written (should be a crime) and monstrously lengthy (definitely a crime).

When the fan mail arrived, I was browsing in Guy Davenport’s third essay collection, The Hunter Gracchus (1996), and several of his sentences seem pertinent. In “Journal II,” Davenport, the most gentlemanly and least political of writers, observes:

“High-minded principles and intolerance are twins. The word liberal has over the past fifty years come to mean illiberal. Not only illiberal: puritanical, narrow-minded, mean.”

My unhappy reader expressed particular displeasure with something I had written long ago (thus flattering me with his attentiveness) about the supreme English short story writer, Rudyard Kipling. Davenport writes in “Journal I”:

“What got Kipling a bad name among liberals is his intelligence, humor, and affection. These they cannot tolerate in anybody.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

`The Faded Poor Souvenirs of Passionate Moments'

I remember the precise shape and color of a mushroom growing on the trunk of a red oak on Ackley Drive in Parma Heights, Ohio, in 1963, but I can’t remember the face of Karen Pirko, literally the girl next door and the first on whom I had a crush. I haven’t seen her since 1964 when she and her family moved to Illinois. Why is memory so frustratingly capricious? The precious evaporates while the trivial persists.

Of late, I’ve experimented with the manufacture of pleasant memories. We will move to Seattle in less than a month, after living almost four years in Houston. Calculated in another way, my youngest son has lived 80 percent of his life in a place I detest, though some memories of Texas I wish to preserve – streets canopied by live oaks, snails nestled on the fronds of sago palms, iridescent green lizards on windows and walls, and an excellent blues radio show hosted by a native of Pakistan. I’m consciously trying to fix these memories like insects in amber.

At the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), T.S. Eliot asks questions about memory similar to mine. I’ve often wondered if the images from the past he cites are his own, someone else’s or purely imaginary. Eliot’s poems and prose, without being banally autobiographical, are far more personal than readers have suspected. Here’s Eliot:

“Why, for all of us, out of all that we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer. We might just as well ask why, when we try to recall visually some period in the past, we find in our memory just the few meagre arbitrarily chosen set of snapshots that we do find there, the faded poor souvenirs of passionate moments.”

He’s on to something with “the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.” Memory is so elusively complex it defies understanding, and to a significant degree we are our memories. Who presumes to understand himself?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

`Memphis Blues Again'

My oldest son and his girlfriend have seen the Mississippi River for the first time, from the heights of Chickasaw Bluff in Memphis. A Missouri poet wrote:

“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable…”

They started a road trip last weekend in New York City, bound for North Carolina, Nashville and Memphis. It was a music-fueled odyssey. In Nashville, Joshua and Nadia savored the splendor and vulgarity of country music’s epicenter and looked without success for the old Columbia Studios on Music Row, where Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde in 1966.

Memphis was the big city for people in southwestern Tennessee and northern Mississippi – for me, the city of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters (“the king of country music,” according to Levon Helm), Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and the great storywriter Peter Taylor (his novel A Summons to Memphis won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1987). In Memphis they drove past Graceland (too expensive), Sun Studio and the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum), and visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (formerly Stax Records). I’ve never visited Memphis but they traced a good portion of my youth.

In his first collection, No Continuing City (1969), the Irish poet Michael Longley devoted a quartet of poems to Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, Bessie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke, and gave it the playfully Yeatsian title “Words for Jazz Perhaps.” Here’s “To Bessie Smith,” about the blues singer who performed at the Palace Theater on Beale Street in Memphis:

“You bring from Chattanooga Tennessee
Your huge voice to the back of my mind
Where, like sea shells salvaged from the sea
As bright reminders of a few weeks’ stay,
Some random notes are all I ever find.
I couldn’t play your records every day.

“I think of Tra-na-rossan, Inisheer,
Of Harris drenched by horizontal rain –
Those landscapes I must visit year by year.
I do not live with sounds so seasonal
Nor set up house for good. Your blues contain
Each longed-for holiday, each terminal.”

Smith died Sept. 26, 1937, after an automobile accident along Highway 61 near Clarksdale, Miss. She and her boyfriend were on their way to Memphis. Here’s a video of Smith singing “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy, who also wrote “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

`A Paradise of Great Spirits'

We move to Seattle in April and I have started the satisfying business of culling my library. I love my books and build my life around them and my family, but I also feel burdened by possessions of any sort. There’s nothing spiritual about this. I’m not renouncing anything. It’s purely neurotic, my reaction to the clutter, physical and otherwise, of my parents’ lives. I’m most comfortable in a spare, orderly space. Moving across the country is a pretext for moving closer to that spatial ideal.

Culling books is also important because I’ve never thought of my library as permanent or definitive. It has always been evolving, expanding and shrinking as my tastes and needs change. If a book has outlived its usefulness, I give it away. In this sense, my library is a reflection of who I am today but not necessarily who I’ve been in the past. The book I’ve owned the longest, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, dates from 1960, when I turned 8. The newest, A.J. Liebling: World War II Writings, I bought last Saturday.

Earlier I said my life is built around books and family. For that reason I’m not stricken with the more pathological strains of bibliomania. Books are conduits to life, not barriers. Without family, in solitude, I might disappear forever into books. I’ve known several such obsessive readers. One of the volumes I’m not likely to give away is Martin Buber’s Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments. Buber (1878-1965) was an Austrian-Israeli philosopher whose books, especially I and Thou and the collections of Hasidic tales, I devoured when young. The final piece in Meetings is “Books and Men,” which addresses the apparent dualism of the human and bookish worlds:

“If I had been asked in my early youth whether I preferred to have dealing only with men or only with books, my answer would certainly have been in favor of books. In later years this has become less and less the case. Not that I have had so much better experiences with men than with books; on the contrary, purely delightful books even now come my way more often than purely delightful men. But the many bad experiences with men have nourished the meadow of my life as the noblest book could not do, and the good experiences have made the earth into a garden for me. On the other hand, no book does more than remove me into a paradise of great spirits, where my innermost heart never forgets I cannot dwell long, nor even wish that I could do so. For (I must say this straight out in order to be understood) my innermost heart loves the world more than it loves the spirit.”

Here’s the conclusion of Buber’s fragment:

“I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human being looking at me.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

`Something Worth Saying'

No laws govern taste. Tastes are disturbingly anarchic – thus, the prevalence of bad taste. Taste is democratic; art is not. Art without laws, without formal strictures, is often but not always bad art. Often but not always, my taste runs to the formal. I relish the definition of novel writing given me by William Gaddis: “problem-solving.” Much of my favorite art says little or nothing (or little or nothing that can be extracted and remain viable, like DNA) and makes no pronouncements but goes about the business of solving problems – formal problems.

J.V. Cunningham’s poetry and prose, with a concision that enhances intent, always embody form, while his life span (1911-1985) coincided with the breakdown and general repudiation of form. His definitive statement of this theme comes in his essay “Several Kinds of Short Poems” (1964):

“I do not, for example, ordinarily think of poetry as vision, although I know it sometimes is, and so I have no vision. I have no intuition into the heart of things; I have no special way of seeing. I think of poetry as a way of speaking, a special way of speaking. As a poet I speak in meter, and sometimes in rhyme; I speak in lines. It follows naturally that I am a formalist and that anything that can be said in metrical lines is subject for poetry, even vision, and that anything worth saying should sometime be said. This last adds a principle of value, the principle of what is worth saying as distinguished from what is not. And to this, formalism adds another principle of value, for the aim of the formal is the definitive. A poem, then, on this view is metrical speech, and a good poem is the definitive statement in meter of something worth saying.”

William Blake and Allen Ginsberg have “vision.” Cunningham has craft and something to say. His poems are good, sometimes great – “the definitive statement in meter of something worth saying.” By my count, that places four constraints on the writing of first-rate verse – exacting standards for a craft frequently practiced by drudges and dilettantes. Consider the second verse in Poems and Epigrams (1960):

“Illusion and delusion are that real
We segregate from real reality;
But cause and consequence locate the real:
What is not is also reality.”

And the fifth verse in the same sequence, titled “Towards Tucson”:

“In this attractive desolation,
A world’s debris framed by a fence,
Drink is my only medication
And loneliness is my defence.”

For variety’s sake, here’s a lovely exercise in metrical variation and, incidentally, a celebration of existence, by the largely forgotten John Hall Wheelock. This is from “Anima,” collected in his 1961 volume The Gardener:

“The silence there
Had a certain thing to say could not be said
By harp or oboe, flute or violoncello
Or by the lesser strings; it could not be said
By the human voice; but in sea-sounds you heard it
Perhaps, or in the water-dripping jargon
Of summer birds: endless reiteration
Of chat or vireo, the woodcock’s call,
Chirrup and squeegee, larrup, squirt and trill
Of liquid syrinxes – bright drops of song
Spangling the silence.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

`Whimsical Whirligig? Or Spiritual Crisis?'

One of my favorite essayists was no essayist at all, at least according to the fickle strictures of literary reputation. J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) was a poet, one of our best. He worked in traditional forms and was a masterful epigrammist. His poems fuse wit, formal rigor and a Jesuitical gift for fine moral distinctions. Most of The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976) is devoted to his academic specialty, Renaissance literature in English, particularly Shakespeare. Unexpectedly, as one is reading Cunningham on, say, Dunbar or Donne, the personal, like a revelation, flashes forth.

This time, Emily Dickinson sent me to Cunningham. I was reading her Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, in the edition I’ve had for about 35 years. I couldn’t remember having read No. 749, dated by Johnson around 1863:

“All but Death, can be Adjusted –
Dynasties repaired –
Systems – settled in their Sockets –
Citadels – dissolved –

“Wastes of Lives – resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs –
Death – unto itself – Exception –
Is exempt from Change –”

The theme is familiar – death’s dominion – but it struck me as an oddly optimistic declaration, at least as regards the mortal world, our world. In evanescence is solace, of a sort, though not the sort we mostly crave. I remembered that Cunningham had an essay about Dickinson, “Sorting Out,” and wondered if, of her 1,800 surviving poems, he mentioned this one or at least indirectly illuminated it. What I returned to was this grand opening salvo:

“I am a renegade Irish Catholic, from the plains of Montana, upper lower class, a onetime scholar in Latin and in the English Renaissance. Consequently, I speak without authority on a nineteenth-century New England spinster, of the American governing class, schooled in the feelings and expectations of revivalistic Calvinism, and an admirer of Emily Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That I have anything new to say seems unlikely at this date in Dickinson studies; even a new untruth – but we shall see. I shall at least be novel in what is not said.”

This is funny in at least two ways. Cunningham paints himself as the Mick bull crashing into the WASP China shop. The essay, delivered as a lecture at Mount Holyoke College in 1967, is a prescient satire of the idiocy of identity politics. Tuesday morning on the radio I heard a black woman tell her white interviewer he had no right to an opinion on Barack Obama because – oh, to hell with it. Cunningham’s prickly essay didn’t help much with No. 749, but it’s consistently sharp, funny and celebrative of Dickinson. When Cunningham is unable to find a consistent religious point of view in her poems – in fact, he reveals a veritable Walt Whitman sampler of fruitful contradictions – he writes:

“Is this simply whimsical whirligig? Or spiritual crisis? It is, in fact, a prolongation of that adolescent crisis, already referred to, of incomplete conversion, in a context of emotional Christianity yet open to all the destructive anti-Christianity of nineteenth-century thought.”

A marvelous reading of Dickinson, and no faulting-finding implied. It roots Dickinson in her time and place without condescending to her queer genius by presuming to explain it. This is Cunningham’s typical mingling of brilliance and humility. As a critic, he’s no headhunter though his readings are always sharp. It’s notable that he writes most about writers and works he admires. There’s an occasional cockiness to his humility. At the start of his introduction to the Collected Essays, Cunningham announces:

“There is less to be said about literature than has been said, and this book adds a little more.”

Yes, 463 pages more. One of his most satisfying pieces is the brief “Technology and Poetry,” written as a lecture in 1970. The title is chilling – vaguely apocalyptic in a safely professorial sort of way -- but Cunningham, by returning tangentially to Dickinson’s long affair with death, a form of highly ritualized flirtation, makes it at once personal and public. He closes the paragraph with a selection from his “Epigrams: A Journal” (from The Judge is Fury, 1947):

“Consider the social act of death. This has so changed in my lifetime that any competent anthropologist would be forced to conclude that a whole society had been destroyed and replaced by invaders. Death is no longer ritualized. Men no longer train themselves to die a good death. We have no Ars Bene Moriendi. And when did you last see the black armband, the purple wreath? Formal mourning is out of style. This with the dissipation of Christianity, also in my lifetime, has profoundly affected poetry. One may come to the consequence sparely as in this epitaph for oneself [how many of those did Dickinson write?]:

“When I shall be without regret
And shall mortality forget,
When I shall die who lived for this,
I shall not miss the things I miss.
And you who notice where I lie
Ask not my name. It is not I.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

`Walk Away from This Road Show'

Ron Slate has handed me with a convenient excuse to lobby again for W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, published by Princeton University Press in 2000. Edited by Arthur Kirsch, the volume collects the talks Auden gave between October 1946 and May 1947 at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In a comment he made on a recent post, Slate quotes Auden:

"Julius Caesar has great relevance to our time, though it is gloomier, because it is about a society that is doomed. Octavius only succeeded in giving Roman society a 400-year reprieve. Our society is not doomed, but in such immense danger that the relevance is great. It was a society doomed not by the evil passions of selfish individuals, because such passions always exist, but by an intellectual and spiritual failure of nerve that made the society incapable of coping with its situation."

Slate adds:

“You wrote a few days ago about grievances. I fear a politics based on allaying grievances, since its force of emotion may disguise its failure of nerve to deal with the complexity of situations, to compromise, and to see through its own good intentions.”

Later in the same paragraph cited by Slate, Auden lays out the responses to a similar cultural/political cul-de-sac as embodied by characters in Julius Caesar:

“The play presents three political responses to this failure. The crowd-master, the man of destiny, Caesar. The man who temporarily rides the storm, Antony. And Caesar’s real successor, the man who is to establish Roman order for a time, Octavius. Brutus, who keeps himself independent, is the detached and philosophical individual.”

We can play the parlor game of assigning public figures to each of the roles, but most of us, I suspect, identify with Brutus. Auden writes:

“Hamlet knows he’s in despair, but Brutus and other characters in Julius Caesar don’t know. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard emphasizes that unconscious despair is the most extreme form of despair….”

Walker Percy used the same observation by Kierkegaard as the epigraph to his first novel, The Moviegoer, and Binx Bolling, the title character, cites Shakespeare when he says, “the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.”

One despairs of a culture in which the dominant mood is one of aggrieved entitlement. We see it in politics but the malady is endemic and seemingly invisible, like air. We see it in schools, offices, literature, advertising and popular music – Americans impatiently awaiting their just deserts. I’m reminded of the least-read of Marilynne Robinson’s four books – Mother Country (1989), a nonfiction work devoted to the environmental degradation caused by the British nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Here’s her conclusion:

“My greatest hope, which is a very slender one, is that we will at last find the courage to make ourselves rational and morally autonomous adults, secure enough in the faith that life is good and to be preserved, to recognize the grosser forms of evil and name them and confront them. Who will do it for us? E.P. Thompson? Greenpeace? The Duke of Edinburgh? The Washington Post? We have to walk away from this road show, consult with our souls, and find the courage, in ourselves, to see, and perceive, and hear, and understand.”

Robinson earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare's Henry VI.

Monday, March 17, 2008

`Leading Light'

“This might seem bleak, but [Zbigniew] Herbert doesn't mean it as a ponderous revelation. His tone is truly ambivalent, intimating horror even as he revels in beauty. He allows each place and time its tragicomedy, its identity, its humanity, its conditions. He writes with compassion for human folly, and his descriptions of particulars ring with charm and personal zaniness.”

Thanks to Brian Sholis for passing along a link to Tess Taylor’s thoughtful celebration of Zbigniew Herbert at Barnes & Noble Review. Nominally a review of the essay collection Barbarian in the Garden (Polish edition, 1962; English, 1985) and The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (English, 2007), it reads like one reader’s enthusiastic sharing of a formerly private pleasure, as though Taylor were calling friends and strangers alike and urging them to read Herbert. I’m particularly gratified by the attention she devotes to Herbert’s essays, which also include those in Still Life with a Bridle (English, 1991). A survivor of the 20th century’s two-headed monster, Nazism-Communism, Herbert, despite a world of excuses, never succumbed to nihilism and remained a great lover and preserver of Western Civilization. The ambivalence cited by Taylor is on display in the final sentences of “A Stone from the Cathedral” (Barbarian in the Garden):

“The construction sites of unfinished cathedrals stand desolate. No one is interested any longer in arches and intricate vaults. The sons of those who sculpted an angel’s smile turn cannon balls.”

The only essay in Barbarian in the Garden devoted to a single artist is “Piero della Francesca.” If you savor symbolism, consider that Piero died on the first Columbus Day – Oct. 12, 1492. Herbert judges him virtually a saint of humanism. Here’s the conclusion of his essay:

“Tradition holds that he went blind towards the end of his life. Marco di Longara told Berto degli Alberti that as a young boy he walked the streets of Borgo San Sepolcro with an old, blind painter called Piero della Francesca.

“Little Marco could not have known that his hand was leading light.”

Herbert was no stuffy academic or critic. His essays are acts of regeneration for an age increasingly stricken with amnesia. All history, in Herbert’s hands, is contemporary. As Taylor writes:

“His tour of the long-ago-and-faraway beauties and cruelties of Western civilization hovers as a prolonged, never wholly resolved allegory for the complexity of a present --any present -- in which both things, art and cruelty, are still taking place. In this way, four decades later, the book remains as fresh as when it was written.”

We observe the 10th anniversary of Herbert’s death at age 73 on July 28 – a fitting excuse, if we need one, to remember a great writer from the last century. The Polish government, once the scourge of Herbert and all true Polish artists, declared 2008 the Year of Zbigniew Herbert. Two years after his death a third collection of essays, Labirynt nad morzem (Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore), written in the late nineteen-sixties, was finally published in Poland. Let’s hope some enterprising publisher honors us – and Herbert’s memory – with an English-language edition.

Dziękuję, Zbigniew.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

`Civilisations Do Collapse'

Theodore Dalrymple has a splendid piece in the Spectator on the "malevolence" of book sellers and the sort of threat faced by Prof. Peter Kien in Elias Canetti's Auto-Da-Fe. Here's a sample:

"I have the not altogether unsatisfying impression that civilisation is collapsing around me. Is it my age, I wonder, or the age we live in? I am not sure. Civilisations do collapse, after all, but on the other hand people grow old with rather greater frequency."

`His Own Dispositions'

The 280th and final aphorism in Eric Hoffer’s second book, The Passionate State of Mind (1955), is a culmination of sorts, in a collection with seemingly little plot or conventional narrative drive. It may also stand as the truest sentence Hoffer ever wrote, a distillation of his self-schooled mental adventures and an ironically “happy ending”:

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Few young people or the immature of any age could formulate such a thought or concede its conclusion. My sense is that happiness is beside the point – but so is unhappiness. I’ve learned from experience I’m most likely to fleetingly know happiness when I stop chasing it and do the next appropriate thing. Happiness, in short, is not a goal but an occasional byproduct of right living. Samuel Johnson intuited this in The Rambler #87, on Jan. 15, 1751:

“Little would be wanting to the happiness of life, if every man could conform to the right as soon as he was shown it.”

The corollary of dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of happiness is to forego happiness and substitute more accessible surrogates such as power and wealth. Has a wealthy or powerful man ever been convinced he possessed sufficient wealth or power? Johnson understood this as well, in The Rambler #203, on Feb. 25, 1752:

"It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation."

Finally, Johnson grasped that happiness is not a quality that exists autonomously in the world, like a bottle of elixir on the shelf waiting to be consumed. Rather, it is a quality of mind, a willingness to align oneself with the drift of the world. This is from The Rambler #6, on April 7, 1750:

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind; and ... he, who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing, but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove."

It’s significant that both Johnson and Hoffer were not men of privilege. Both worked for their livings, with no sense of entitlement. Both were deeply learned and self-taught. Both knew the rare worth of happiness.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I was about to tell a reader I don’t normally visit political blogs or any sort of political web site until I realized that was not strictly true because politics pollutes nearly everything, even blogs that are putatively literary. The reason, of course, is that politics as practiced is a species of religion -- a debased religion, rooted in discontent and self-righteousness, but one that offers the solace of a self-contained, self-consistent understanding of the world, one that elevates the believer and heaps abuse on apostates. This accounts for the ubiquity of anger and incivility, especially when writers are emboldened online by the safety of anonymity.

In his first book, The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer wrote of the mass movements that had recently savaged the world – Nazism and Communism – and of course he presciently described the metastatic growth of radical Islam, which Theodore Dalrymple rightly termed “Marxism’s successor.”

On a deeper level Hoffer was not writing about politics at all but about human nature and its bottomless capacity for general nastiness. This is where political pollution and online fanaticism come together. In Chapter XV, “Men of Words,” Hoffer diagnoses Angry Blogger Syndrome:

“What ever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity…There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day.”

That hits close to home. Vigorous self-policing is unpleasant and exhausting, and self-deception is as human as the opposable thumb. Read the following passage from Hoffer and count off the people you know, online or down the hall, whom it describes:

“However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal. His pity is usually hatched out of his hatred for the powers that be.”

I find no references to Samuel Johnson in Hoffer’s work. Hoffer was an enthusiastic autodidact, widely read but with surprising gaps in his reading. The last passage quoted recalls what Johnson wrote in his 1774 pamphlet “The Patriot”:

"...But the greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent."

Friday, March 14, 2008

`Dream of No Heaven But That Which Lies About Me'

Thoreau, an enthusiastic consumer of travel literature, dryly noted, “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.” In fact, he probably traveled farther than most middle-class Americans of his day, visiting Cape Cod, Maine, Niagara Falls, Quebec and Minnesota. Even on his final, desperate journey to the upper Midwest, hoping for relief from the tuberculosis that soon would kill him, Thoreau deemed travel a form of exploration, internal and external, not recreation. On March 11, 1856, six years before his death at age 44, he had written in his journal:

“I fear the dissipation that traveling, going into society, even the best, the enjoyment of intellectual luxuries, imply. If Paris is much in your mind, if it is more and more to you, Concord is less and less, and yet it would be a wretched bargain to accept the proudest Paris in exchange for my native village. At best, Paris could only be a school in which to learn to live here, a stepping-stone to Concord, as school in which to fit for this university. I wish so to live ever as to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, every-day phenomena, so that my senses hourly perceive, my daily walk, the conversation of my neighbors, may inspire me, and I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.”

Temperamentally, I’m inclined to follow Thoreau’s example. One can’t imagine him in Paris but he would have seen more and seen it more intensely than most visitors to the French capital. That’s how I’ve tried to live for the last four years in Houston and how I intend to live in Seattle, our next stop and a place I’ve never visited.

My wife has accepted a job as a senior writer/editor with, and will fly to Seattle in less than two weeks. My younger sons and I will remain in Houston at least through the end of the school year, and until we can sell our house. Washington will be the fifth state in which I’ve lived, and the third in less than four years. This seems satisfactory because most of my essential belongings are packed in my skull.

The point of Thoreau’s journal entry above is that we ought to live deliberately, as he wrote elsewhere, regardless of geography. I’ll need a job in Seattle, probably as a writer, and I’m confident I’ll find one. I look forward to exploring the city’s libraries and bookstores, and perhaps I’ll meet some of its readers and writers. I met none in Houston but I met them, nevertheless, thanks to the Internet. In the chapter titled “Civilization” in Society and Solitude (1870), a collection of lectures reworked as essays, Emerson, whose land Thoreau lived on at Walden, writes:

“But when I look over this constellation of cities which animate and illustrate the land, and see how little the government has to do with their daily life, how self-helped and self-directed all families are, -- knots of men in purely natural societies, societies of trade, of kindred blood, of habitual hospitality, house and house, man acting on man by weight of opinion, of longer or better-directed industry…when I see how much each virtuous and gifted person, whom all men consider, lives affectionately with scores of excellent people who are not known far from home, and perhaps with great reason reckons these people his superiors in virtue and in the symmetry and force of their qualities, -- I see what cubic values America has, and in these a better certificate of civilization than great cities or enormous wealth.”

Hugh Kenner, in Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (1973), quotes portions of Emerson’s passage and glosses them like this:

“Communities, so structured, are metaphysical, not geographical. If I can get to Munich in the time it once took a man on foot to reach the horizon, there is no reason why the people with whom I feel community should not be distributed world-wide…The nuclear neighborhood was natural when place defined community of interest: on the frontier, on the waterfront, in the village where men use one another’s produce. But, `The world,’ Bucky says today, `is my backyard.’”

In other words, “I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

`The Sentences Have Hooks in Them'

I enjoy stories of readers reborn through encounters with books. Such literary epiphanies are rare and probably will grow rarer as fewer people are open to such experiences. Fewer read and fewer read books potent enough to elicit life-changing reactions. And fewer readers still, even when transformed by books, are equipped to adequately describe these unnoted miracles.

During the Great Depression, an unschooled migrant worker followed the harvests in California and collected library cards from towns up and down the state. Late in 1936, he resolved to try placer mining for gold near Nevada City. Suspecting he might become snowbound, he wanted to outfit himself with sufficient reading for the winter. “I had to acquire a taste for a good sentence – taste it the way a child tastes candy --” he says, “before I stumbled into writing.” He picks up the story here:

“I needed something to read, something that would last me for a long time. So I stepped over in San Francisco to get a thick book. I did not really care what the book was about – history, theology, mathematics, farming, anything – so long as it was thick, had small print, and no pictures. There was at that time a large secondhand bookstore on Market Street [in San Francisco] called Lieberman’s, and I went there to buy my book. I soon found one. It had about a thousand pages of small print and no pictures. The price was one dollar. The title page said these were The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were, but I did not know Montaigne from Adam. I put the book in my knapsack and caught the ferry to Sausalito.”

The writer and reader is Eric Hoffer, in his essay “Automation, Leisure, and the Masses,” collected in his fourth book, The Temper of Our Time, published in 1967. That’s about the time I discovered Hoffer, through his syndicated column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This revelation -- a longshoreman writing clear, incisive prose that I not only read but clipped from the newspaper and pasted into a scrapbook – was the modest genesis of my career in newspapers. Now it occurs to me that I owe more to Montaigne than I realized. Back to Hoffer:

“Sure enough, I got snowbound. I read the book three times until I knew it almost by heart. When I got back to the San Joaquin Valley I could not open my mouth without quoting Montaigne, and the fellows liked it. It got so that whenever there was an argument about anything – women, money, animals, food, death – they would ask, `What does Montaigne say?’ Out came the book and I would find the right passage. I am quite sure that even now there must be a number of migratory workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley still quoting Montaigne. I ought to add that the Montaigne edition I had was the John Florio translation [published in 1603]. The spelling was modern, but the style seventeenth century – the style of the King James Bible and of Bacon’s Essays. The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new. Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once, in a workers’ barracks near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said, `Anyone can write a book like this.’”

In 1955, Time reviewed Hoffer’s second book, The Passionate State of Mind, and the headline was “Dockside Montaigne.” The magazine’s anonymous reviewer, in fluent Timespeak, describes Hoffer as “a pink-faced, hornyhanded San Francisco dock worker who pays his dues to Harry Bridges’ longshoremen’s union and preaches self-reliance more stalwartly than Emerson.”

Just to round the circle, here’s a sample of what Emerson wrote in “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic.” Much of it goes double for Hoffer:

“The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression. Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting and keeping the middle of the road.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

`The Mind Skating Circles Round Itself'

After his performance at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration, Robert Frost became the first grownup poet I read voluntarily. I was eight and watched the show on television in Miss Shaker’s third-grade class. My parents were New Deal Democrats, strong for Kennedy, so literary/political endorsements went both ways. Soon I had a copy of the Collected Poems, the green-covered edition from Holt, Rinehart & Winston, but the infatuation was short-lived. I lost interest and never recovered it. Frost’s poems lacked the daring and spiritual depth of the poet whose work took their place in my heart by the time I was in junior high school – T.S. Eliot. That relationship, though sometimes rocky, has endured.

I read Frost long and devotedly enough to commit some of his lines to memory. I don’t denigrate his work, but I seldom return to it for pleasure or sustenance. Nor have I read his recently published Notebooks and Collected Prose. In general, I’d rather read Randall Jarrell on Frost than Frost himself. Today, I most enjoy his wit. A volume titled Robert Frost on Writing, published by Rutgers University Press in 1973, caught my eye on the library shelf and a quick browse turned into a pleasingly unexpected reconciliation of sorts. Frost made me laugh a couple of times. He can be refreshingly cranky, with no wish to please anyone. He’s a Yankee comedian like Thoreau, another austere New Englander (though born in San Francisco). In 1935, Frost wrote a preface to E.A. Robinson’s King Jasper, shortly after Robinson’s death. He admired the late poet and considered him a friend, and in the preface he addresses the subject of style:

“The style is the man. Rather say the style is the way the man takes himself; and to be at all charming or even bearable, the way is almost rigidly prescribed. If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness….One ordeal of Mark Twain was the constant fear that his occluded seriousness would be overlooked. That betrayed him into his two or three books of out-and-out seriousness.”

If only Frost had not betrayed himself into “out-and-out seriousness,” particularly in the later poems. I enjoyed this from a March 10, 1924, letter to the once-ubiquitous anthologist Louis Untermeyer:

“A novelist seems to be the only kind of writer who can make a name without a style: which is only one more reason for not bothering with the novel. I am not satisfied to let it go with the aphorism that the style is the man. The man’s ideas would be some element then of his style. So would his deeds. But I would narrow the definition. His deeds are his deeds; his ideas are his ideas. His style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds. Mind you if he is down-spirited it will be all he can do to have the ideas without the carriage. The style is out of his superfluity. It is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward.”

Later in the same letter Frost writes:

“At bottom the world isn’t a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue with someone to let someone know that we know he’s there with his questions: to disarm him by seeming to have heard and done justice to his side of the standing argument. Humor is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

`A Very Strange Reader'

Our junior-high-school English teachers drilled home the self-evident fact that speakers in poems and narrators in fiction are not to be identified with the poets and novelists who created them. A text is a discrete world, one that coexists and overlaps with ours but remains autonomous. Works that violate this law of epistemological sovereignty we dismiss as didactic, self-indulgent, crude or boring. In other words, autobiography-in-disguise.

An occasional corollary of this dictum, often identified with the once-dominant New Criticism, is that authorial biography is extraneous to the work. Knowing that William Faulkner was an Olympic-class drunk won’t help you plumb the convolutions of Absalom, Absalom! Put that way, I have no argument with the idea. Years ago I slogged through Joseph Blotner’s two-volume Leviathan of a Faulkner biography, and it added nothing to my love for The Sound and the Fury or contempt for A Fable.

I’ve noticed among some litbloggers a revival of this theme in a more strident form – namely, that literary biography is little more than tarted-up gossip. Knowing the particulars of a writer’s life contributes nothing to our understanding or appreciation of his work. In most cases, I would agree, but that’s not why I read literary biography. The best literary lives – and superior biographies in general – stand as works of literary art. Consider Boswell’s Life of Johnson, J.Y.T. Greig’s David Hume, Donald Frame’s Montaigne: A Biography, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, Richard Holmes’ lives of Shelley and Coleridge, Robert D. Richardson’s of Thoreau, Emerson and William James, and Jonathan Bate’s reclamation of John Clare.

I might add that I prefer Holmes’ Shelley: The Pursuit to anything Shelley ever wrote, and while I love Dubliners and Ulysses, I’m content never again to read Richard Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce. It’s a clumsy, plodding, endless affair, and the one time I interviewed Hugh Kenner, in 1994, he was still laughing at Ellmann’s credulousness in the face of Irish blarney. But there’s another, more compelling reason to read first-rate lives of first-rate writers, and the poet Richard Tillinghast, in the preface to his prose collection Poetry and What is Real, articulates it with satisfying directness:

“A poem is best read, at first anyway, on its own – with no need of biographical or historical background, no guide other than a dictionary. But throughout my life as a reader, I have consistently wanted to learn about the authors of my favorite books and poems. For me it would in fact be a very strange reader who did not want to know things about the authors of his or her favorite books….One thing we all have in common is that each of us is living this mysterious thing called life, and we want to know how other people manage it – what their conflicts and compromises, failures and triumphs have been.”

From Samuel Johnson – his works and life – I have learned much about how to be a man and a writer, how to live with unhappiness and adversity, how to dwell in vanity while striving, without hope, for humility. This is not gossip. A “very strange reader,” indeed, would deny Johnson’s enrichment of my life and the lives of many others. (See “What Makes Doctor Johnson Great?” by Theodore Dalrymple.) Johnson himself endorsed the notion in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:

“I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.”

Monday, March 10, 2008

`You Are Bound to Acknowledge the Gift'

Why read so much poetry if you only write prose? The short answer: precision, concision, musicality, metaphor. Mostly I read poets, ancient and modern and especially in-between, whose work favors these traditional poetic virtues, whether Chaucer or Les Murray. The dull poets – Allen Ginsberg, for instance, Charles Olson, Pablo Neruda – I got out of my system a long time ago. Whatever small interest they possessed was extra-poetic and their verse is slipshod prose, at best, and a prose writer can learn from it only by negative example, what to avoid.

I'm reading David Solway: Essays on His Works, edited by Carmine Starnino and published in 2001 by Guernica Editions of Toronto. Its final piece is a 1998 interview with Solway conducted by Starnino, also a Canadian poet-critic, who asks him about his use of the phrase “ethical fervour” to describe poetry. Solway replies:

“…I use the word `ethical’ and not `moral’ because there is a distinction. A moral force is what I would associate with the principle of right conduct in general. An ethical fervour is something very different, and may not necessarily express itself as arranging distinctions between right and wrong. An ethical fervour, for me, is a commitment to that inexplicable, overwhelming, self-justifying passion that enables us to identify ourselves not only with any given program or project, but with life itself. It is really an expression of the near-inexpressible gratitude for being alive. Gratitude for the ability to read, the ability to think, to observe this universe, and to participate in it in some way or another. It is such an enormous gift as to be monstrous.”

Solway’s words are terribly moving, and I wish I had said them. I'll go another step and suggest that superior art is always a song of gratitude, a great thanksgiving for the gratuitous gift of being. Starnino asks another question: “And so the poetry is an acknowledgement or response to this life-force?” Solway answers:

“More than that. Poetry is the attempt to come to terms with the divine. That is really the litmus test, the touchstone that enables you to tell the difference between a poet and a poetaster. There are very few poets; there is an infinite number of poetasters. The difference is that the poet worships, the poetaster merely writes. However unfashionable it is to say this, poetry is a form of prayer. You’ve been breathed into by God. You have been literally `inspired.’ And you are bound to acknowledge the gift.”

In “Praise (II),” one of those great in-between poets I mentioned, George Herbert, puts it like this:

“Small it is, in this poore sort
To enroll thee:
Ev’n eternitie is too short
To extol thee.”

Sunday, March 09, 2008

`Recall the Hum of the Mosquito'

On Jan. 9, 1856, Thoreau wrote in his journal, describing winter in Concord:

“The weather has considerably moderated; -2 degrees at breakfast (it was -8 degrees at seven last evening); but this has been the coldest night probably. You lie with your feet or legs curled up, waiting for morning, the sheets shining with frost about your mouth. Water left by the stove is frozen thickly, and what you sprinkle in bathing falls on the floor ice. The house plants are all frozen and soon droop and turn black. I look out on the roof of a cottage covered a foot deep with snow, wondering how the poor children in its garret, with their few rags, contrive to keep their toes warm. I mark the white smoke from its chimney, whose contracted wreaths are soon dissipated in this stinging air, and think of the size of the wood-pile, and again I try to realize how they panted for a breath of cool air those sultry nights last summer. Realize it now if you can. Recall the hum of the mosquito.”

This morning, my brother, who lives in Cleveland, wrote in an e-mail (pardon the idiosyncratic orthography):

“It snowed for 48 hours .The best looking aftermath features are the snow dunes on top of every house. It looks like frank gehry village or a winter fun in scandinavia poster. Best snowfall ever. I went out driving two times and didn't want to come home, there is so much to look at. There is a snow drift in the backyard that starts by the porch and rises to 5 feet by the time it reaches the fence. across the creek on the opposite hill there are huge overhangs of snow just like in avalanche movies unbelieveable.”

`Full of All Knowledge'

Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along a link to R.S. Thomas’ “The Country Clergy,” a poem published 50 years ago this month in the Times Literary Supplement. I’ve been reading The English Poems of George Herbert, the new edition edited by Helen Wilcox and published by Cambridge University Press, and Thomas has been much on my mind. Herbert and Thomas were poets and Anglican priests, and for both their dual vocations blurred and resonated. As Mick Imlah points out, Thomas had already been a “country clergy” for 20 years by the time he wrote his poem. He seems to be contrasting himself with the humble, obscure rural clergy elsewhere in Wales, those who, unlike him, “left no book.” In a slightly later poem, “Country Cures,” published in The Bread of Truth (1963), Thomas writes:

“There are places, where you might have been sent
To learn patience, to make your soul
In long hours by the poor light
Of a few, pale leaves on a tree
In autumn or a flower in spring;
Lost parishes, where the grass keeps
No register and life is bare
Of all but the cold fact of the wind.

“I know those places and the lean men,
Whose collars fasten them by the neck
To loneliness; as I go by,
I hear them pacing from room to room
Of their gaunt houses; or see their white
Faces setting on a blank day.”

There’s more sympathy here for his fellow clergy, for the loneliness, perhaps the futility of their lives. They remind me of the lonely, secular country people in Winesburg, Ohio. In “The Priest,” from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968), Thomas returns to this theme:

“The priest picks his way
Through the parish. Eyes watch him
From windows, from the farms;
Hearts wanting him to come near.
The flesh rejects him.

“Women, pouring from the black kettle,
Stir up the whirling tea-grounds
Of their thoughts; offer him a dark
Filling in their smiling sandwich.

“Priests have a long way to go.
The people wait for them to come
To them over the broken glass
Of their vows, making them pay
With their sweat’s coinage for their correction.

“He goes up a green lane
Through growing birches; lambs cushion
His vision. He comes slowly down
In the dark, feeling the cross warp
In his hands; hanging on it his thought’s icicles.

“`Crippled soul,’ do you say? Looking at him
From the mind’s height; `limping through life
On his prayers. There are other people
In the world, sitting at table
Contented, though the broken body
And the shed blood are not on the menu.’

“`Let it be so,’ I say. `Amen and amen.’”

In The Country Parson. His Character and Rule of Holy Life (1652), a posthumously published prose work, Herbert echoes Thomas devotion to nature and rural life, but he is also more demanding in his expectations of clergy:

“The Country Parson is full of all knowledge. They say, it is an ill Mason that refuseth any stone; and there is no knowledge, but, in a skilful hand, serves either positively as it is, or else to illustrate some other knowledge. He condescends even to the knowledge of tillage, and pastorage, and makes great use of them in teaching, because people by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not.”

Thomas’ poems are famously full of “some other knowledge” – ornithology, theology, Kierkegaard, poetry, Welsh history and science, especially physics. In 1967, Thomas edited A Choice of George Herbert’s Verse. In the introduction he writes that Herbert “demonstrates both the possibility and the desirability of a friendship with God. Friendship is no longer the right way to describe it. The word now is dialogue, encounter, confrontation, but the realities engaged have not altered all that much.” Often, I have the feeling Thomas is laughing up his sleeve. He was an impossible man, as well as a great poet. In 1994, six years before his death at age 87, Thomas told an interviewer he had “lost the ability to read Herbert.” He said:

“I cannot get on `matey’ terms with the Deity as Herbert can.”

Thomas was never “matey’ with a soul, not even his own.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

`Gratuitous Delight in Words'

The poem begins as a conceit worthy of a bright child, one that might have been turned by Maurice Sendak into a book. This is Eric Ormsby’s “Song for an Ironing Board”:

“I ride an ironing board to reach the stars.
I prick it with my spurs of spatulas.
It neighs and ripples the old scorch-scars
of its back and flanks. It whinnies,
and I rear back, snorting steam.
I bridle my ironing board with wrinkled bras.
I rein it in with underwear.
How it stamps and paws its trestle!

“O many's
the dawn I've ridden forth with the gleam
of a fresh-pressed collar and jousted with legions
of wrinkles and mutinous pleats.
The unstarched world's Cimmerian regions
yield to my singeing hoof-beats.

“I ride an ironing board to reach the heights
beyond all rumpledoms of wrinkled wash
where the shirtwaist alone shines triumphant.
I ride an ironing board as the iron's lights
like clangorous horse-shoes knicker and clip.
I ride an ironing board that gallops to my lash.
It rears like Hannibal's last elephant,
Alp-traumatized, and trumpets. It’s fireproof lip
psalmodizes –
O my war-stallion, snort-eloquent!”

I cite this poem because I’ve been reading A Lover’s Quarrel: Essays and Reviews, by the Canadian poet-critic Carmine Starnino. Much of the poetry Starnino assesses is unfamiliar to American readers because of its Canadian origin. I was going to say there’s no need to worry about security on the U.S.-Canada border but that’s not quite true. Some of the lousiest Canadian poets have managed to infiltrate southward and set up sleeper cells – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Erin Mouré and the violently unreadable Anne Carson. But some good poets, David Solway, Irving Layton and Ormsby in particular, have earned their green cards, so to speak. Starnino lauds Ormsby’s “acoustic prestidigitation” and “showmanship,” saying they are “crucial to the success of Ormsby’s ambition: turning the ironing board into language, and that language into poetry.”

In contrast, the American poet Ted Kooser also wrote a poem titled “Song of the Ironing Board” which begins:

“So many hands lay hot on my belly
over the years, and oh, how many ghosts
I held, their bodies damp and slack...”

I’ll spare you the rest. A first reaction: It’s not poetry. Even by the standards of indifferent prose, Kooser’s lines are lifeless and unmusical in a flat, aw-shucks, putatively plain-talkin' American way. (Ormsby, by the way, was born in Georgia and grew up in Florida.) They tout their terrible sincerity and sensitivity, the twin curses of much contemporary verse. Ormsby’s poem, Starnino says, “reminds us that poetry can’t exist without some gratuitous delight in words. For poets like Ormsby artlessness is often a stingy substitute for afflatus.” He continues:

“Ormsby’s art is rehabilitative: words, muffled by monotony of use, are given a noisier life in his poetry. I love his drive to uninhibit our language, to write against the grain of its common denotative usage in the hope of returning to it some of its lost potency. And so what I feel when reading `Song for an Ironing Board’ is the pleasure of writing; of reanimating whatever in language is humourless and procedural with jubilation and possibility.”

Friday, March 07, 2008

`I Can't Part with One'

I volunteered as a chaperone for my 5-year-old’s field trip to the zoo on Thursday, and vowed to myself all week I would not pack a book along with our lunches and water bottles. My resolve melted at the last minute and I grabbed Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters and shoved it into our backpack. I’m already reading Cynthia Ozick’s new story collection, Dictation, and the new edition of The English Poems of George Herbert, beautifully edited by Helen Wilcox, and The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Étienne Gilson, but I’m reviewing the Ozick and don’t want distractions while reading it, and the 740-page Herbert weighs too much, and a neo-Thomistic critique of Descartes doesn’t mix well with a busload of preschoolers, so I grabbed a book I already know and could read in discrete chunks, between the wailing bouts of tired children. Besides, Dr. Chekhov always makes excellent company.

He didn’t let me down. On the return trip, on a bus with 40 cranky kids and their even crankier teachers and chaperones, I took heart from these sentences, in a letter Chekhov wrote to Maria Kiselyova on Jan. 14, 1887:

“I accept that the writing profession will always be vulnerable to all kinds of rogues sneaking into its ranks, and therefore it will never be possible entirely to eliminate restraints and truncheons. But no matter how hard you cogitate you will never be able to invent a better policing system for literature than criticism and the individual conscience of the writer himself.”

Additional “affirmation” arrived when we returned home in the afternoon and discovered the ever-reliable Dave Lull had sent me a link to a Christopher Hitchens piece in City Journal. Hitchens, it seems, is a fellow bibliomania sufferer:

“Some kind friends argue for a cull, to create more space and to provide an incentive to organize. All right, but I can’t throw out a book that has been with me for any length of time and thus acquired sentimental value, or that has been written by a friend, or that has been signed or inscribed by its author. I also can’t part with one that might conceivably come in handy as a work of reference, however obscure.”

Thursday, March 06, 2008

`The Real Philistines'

On primary election day in Texas, I read "At the Forest's Edge" by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) in the March issue of The New Criterion. I have voted only once in my life and for the subsequent 28 years have felt guilty about doing so. I dread the coming, every four years, of the presidential sweepstakes and the candidates’ empty, promise-filled voices. Daniels’ essay came as a palliative on an especially grim Tuesday. As I walked my 5-year-old across the schoolyard that morning, a smiling toady armed with pamphlets stopped me and asked, “Are you voting or just taking your kid to school?” I thought of George Herbert’s line in “Affliction (IV)”: “My thoughts are all a case of knives.” Her dismissive “just” primed me for Daniels addressing the inevitable philistinism of Mass Man, with Freud and José Ortega y Gasset as guides:

“Mass man does not have to be poor or stupid. He can be both highly paid and highly intelligent, in a narrow way, and he can also be very highly educated, or at least trained; indeed, as knowledge accumulates, and as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to master more than the very smallest portion of human knowledge, so connected thought (of the kind of which mass man is incapable) becomes rarer and rarer. Mankind collectively knows more than ever before, says Ortega, but cultivated men grow fewer.”

I was gratified to see Daniels begin his essay with an anecdote from Simon Leys, the pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian essayist, Sinologist and early critic of Mao and the evils of his Cultural Revolution. His Chinese Shadows, published in English in 1976, opened a lot of Western minds, though not enough. With approval, Daniels quotes Leys’ punchline:

“At that moment, I was struck by an obvious fact that has never left me since: that the real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty -- they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness.”

Among Leys’ lesser-known books is Broken Images, a collection of essays translated into English in 1980. In the title essay, he seems to be addressing me personally in this already endless election year:

“No policy is ever more implacable than one which aspires to make mankind happy….If there is one great lesson to be drawn from the blighted hopes of our age, it is that politics ought to tone down its ambitions. This means assigning it a more modest function, a humbler status: its job is to `do the housework’ as Camus said, not to force recipes for perpetual happiness down the throats of mankind.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

`Casting About for New Methods'

David Yezzi writes a thoughtful review of Geoffrey Hill’s most recent collection, A Treatise of Civil Power, in the March issue of The New Criterion. In passing he identifies a rare quality embodied in Hill and, I would add, other first-rate poets – Basil Bunting, John Berryman, Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, among others:

“Some poets dote on their signature styles. Drawn by Siren-calls of praise to produce poems similar in shape and tone to those that made their names, they adopt a formal cautiousness that betrays an indifference to form. The effect on their work can be disastrous, stultifying, each book a slough of enervating repetition and embarrassing self-parody. Other writers (Joyce was one) never settle for comfortable modes; having wrestled one style to ground, they are immediately off, questioning previous strategies and casting about for new methods.”

As Hill writes in “On Reading Crowds and Power,” his meditation on Elias Canetti’s book, included in the new collection:

“But think on: that which is difficult
Preserves democracy; you pay respect
To the intelligence of the citizen.”

`Hard Simplicity'

Some writers we swallow whole, anaconda-fashion. We consume everything, sequentially or hopscotching about; juvenilia, unpublished, uncollected or unreadable; commentaries, biographies, bibliographies. It’s passion, not reason, and verges on the pathological. That’s how I’ve read writers as various as Montaigne, Whitman, Kafka and Marilynne Robinson. The only critic I’ve read that way is the late Hugh Kenner, a teacher by profession and temperament. His first book was devoted to Chesterton, his second-to-last to cartoonist Chuck Jones. In between he gave us Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett and Buckminster Fuller. His books are filled with delicious, arcane information, always with a context. Kenner wrote for people who like to know things and the linkages among them, a disappearing breed. In his fond remembrance of Kenner, Guy Davenport (another adept of data mining) writes:

“His telephone calls about specifics were for vital information he thought I might have: the sonnet Wordsworth wrote about pre-historic cave-painting, the Greek for Jocasta’s brooch, the likelihood that Jesus’s having been a carpenter is an assumption, as teknon meant practically any trade (mason, tile-layer, smith).”

By my count, Kenner published 27 books, and I finally have my hands on the only one I had not read, the 12th -- Studies in Change: A Book of the Short Story, a text book anthology he edited in 1965. Of the 25 stories included, three I haven’t read -- “The Jack Rabbit Drive,” by Robert McAlmon; “Friendship,” by Edward Loomis; “The Unicorn,” by Allan Seager – and I’ve never even heard of Loomis. Some omissions are contentious – Gogol, Melville, Conrad, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Colette, Cheever – and so are some inclusions – Samuel Johnson (Kenner excerpts an anecdote from The Idler), Graham Greene (an insignificant writer), Wyndham Lewis (an excerpt from Rotting Hill, a novel). Here, from his introduction, is Kenner’s gloss on the uncertainty of knowing built into the short story:

“This is perhaps the minimum formula for the short story, that it is concerned with how experiences are valued: not merely what was said and done, but what difference it made to someone. Men move through affairs they only partly understand, says the story-writer; I narrate this affair as carefully as I can, so that you can see why it matters; what someone learned or failed to learn, felt or did not feel, saw or failed to see; and you who read, if you read well, will at the end understand better than anyone; better even, perhaps, than I.”

Kenner includes five pages of the famous stone-sucking passage in Beckett’s Molloy. It’s hardly a short story, but it is hilarious, and of it Kenner writes:

“…Beckett undertakes like a conjuror to hold our attention with the very minimum of color, rhetoric, or incident, eliciting problem, complication, passion, resolution, and coda from nothing more than an elderly fanatic and sixteen stones. The passions engaged, though seldom touched on by fiction, are by no means eccentric or fantastic, as anyone knows who has arranged dishes on a shelf, and Sir Isaac Newton would have read these pages entranced.”

Some of Kenner’s asides are so concise they read with the illuminating force of aphorisms. Writing of Hemingway’s protagonist in “After the Storm,” he says, “The story’s insight is ours, not his, and so is most of the wonder.” Davenport observes of Kenner’s style:

“Hugh’s prose remains the envy of everybody who has ever tried to write. It is elegant in its hard simplicity, in its diction, and in its adherence to tradition.”

Kenner closes his introduction with observations that remind us again of his penchant for facts, data, knowledge from many fields:

“To be learning something, said Aristotle, is the chief human pleasure; and when a short story works as the best stories can, we learn more, irrevocably more, of what men and women can do and suffer, and of what their doing and suffering can mean.”

I’ve been reading Kenner for almost 40 years, and the teaching and learning have never ceased.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Thanks to Joe in Brooklyn for alerting me to this video of Robert Alter and Marilynne Robinson discussing and reading from Alter's recent translation of Psalms.

`Words Work'

On July 1, 2000, the day my middle son was born, I planted a cherry tree in front of our house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Nearby, for my wife, I planted a red rose. We moved to Houston in May 2004. By then, the cherry had filled out and doubled in height. The rose was scraggly but flowering. I’ve returned only once, a year after the move, and the new owners had, for some reason, cut down the automobile-sized rhododendron that grew by the front window but spared the cherry and rose. I was relieved: My atavistic mind links them to the family members for whom I planted them. I think of these things only because I read “Beech Tree,” by Patrick Kavanagh:

“I planted in February
A bronze-leafed beech
In the chill brown soil
I spread out its silken fibres.

“Protected it from the goats
With wire netting
And fixed it firm against
The worrying wind.

“Now it is safe, I said,
April must stir
My precious baby
To greenful loveliness.

It is August now, I have hoped
But I hope no more –
My beech tree will never hide sparrows
From hungry hawks.”

On the same afternoon I read Kavanagh’s poem, I read an interview with the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino. I’ve ordered several of his books, based on what he says in the Northern Poetry Review interview, including this:

“Forgive me for saying this, but I'm tired of all the defeatist talk about poetry. It's really trendy to mourn about the various ways in which experience defeats language….More interesting to me than what form can't do is what it can -- and has -- done. Words work. That is, they make us cry, laugh. Words can alter ideas, stop them, or mint new ones.”

I admire the hopefulness and blunt common sense of “Words work,” a truth well known to common readers, if not critics. I neither cried nor laughed after reading “Beech Tree,” nor do I claim it’s a great poem. It touched me in a pre-critical way, and moved me to think about a part of my emotional landscape – anxiety over my kids in a world of “hungry hawks” – I ignore most of the time. Words, you see, work.