Wednesday, May 06, 2009

`Charmed by an Author'

Two of the four students whose computer-science exams I was assigned to proctor never showed up and the others were late, one by more than half an hour. Neither apologized and the first fell asleep at his table. I graded the multiple-choice portion of their exams while they worked on the essays. One scored nine correct answers out of 40; the other, 11. I calculated they could have scored higher by writing down random answers. At home, for a free-lance job, I edited 10 articles for length and style. Here’s a sample of the raw product I was dealing with:

“The prototypes were application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, that were designed solely for encryption. Unlike the general-purpose microprocessors that power PCs and laptops, ASICs are designed for a specific purpose, and they are `embedded’ by the millions each year in a growing constellation of products like automobiles, cell phones, MRI scanners and electronic toys.”

During the proctoring and after the editing I read Marianne Moore, who sometimes is my favorite 20th-century poet. In “Qui S’Excuse, S’Accuse” [“He who excuses himself accuses himself” or “He who apologizes condemns himself”], she writes: “Art is exact perception.” This dates from 1910, when Moore was 22 and already gifted with the insight that would guide the writing of her poems and prose for the next 60 years. In her introduction to The Poems of Marianne Moore, Grace Schulman glosses this line in a manner that applies, with minor modifications, to artists and scientists alike:

“Hers is emphatically an art of exact perception: to feel deeply is to see clearly, to peer beyond surfaces, and to explore permanent truths. The poet amasses facts, remarks, observations, details from guidebooks and manuals, in pursuit of answers to the mysteries of modern love, of nobility, of timeless values that she probes and probes again.”

Why is exactitude so pleasing? Why does it humble and exhilarate us as readers, writers and people who feel and think? Its rareness alone can’t account for it, nor its difficulty. Precision suggests finality, inevitability, a summing-up, an essence captured. In her essay “Feeling and Precision,” Moore says “…precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery.” In the Paris Review interview, Donald Hall asks Moore about her fondness for incorporating the words of others into her poems and prose. She answers:

“I was just trying to be honorable and not to steal things. I’ve always felt that if a thing has been said in the very best way, how can you say it better? If I wanted to say something and somebody had said it ideally, then I’d take it but give the person credit for it. That’s all there is to that. If you are charmed by an author, I think it’s a very strange and invalid imagination that doesn’t love to share it. Somebody else should read it, don’t you think?”

As usual, Moore is both sly and sincere. “Reading her criticism,” Kenneth Burke writes, “is like borrowing a book from the personal library of a skilled reader who underlined all the good spots.” Hers is an art of verbal quilt-making, of selection and pleasing juxtaposition. As though to answer her own final question, Moore responds at length to Hall’s next query, about the influence of “prose stylists” on her poetry:

“Prose stylists, very much. Doctor Johnson on Richard Savage: `He was in two months illegitimated by the Parliament, and disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the oceans of life only that he might be swallowed by its quicksands, or dashed upon its rocks…it was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that, he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.’ Or Edmund Burke on the colonies: `You can shear a wolf ; but will he comply?’ Or Sir Thomas Browne: `States are not governed by Ergotisms.’ He calls a bee, `that industrious flie,’ and his home, his `hive.’ His manner is a kind of erudition-proof sweetness. Or Sir Francis Bacon: `Civil war is like the heat of fever; a foreign war is like the heat of exercise.’ Or Cellini: `I had by me a dog black as a mulberry…I swelled up in my rage like an asp.’ Or Caesar’s Commentaries, and Xenophon’s Cynegeticus: the gusto and interest in every detail! In Henry James it is the essays and letters especially that affect me. In Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance: his definiteness, his indigenously unmistakable accent. Charles Norman says in his biography, Ezra Pound, that Pound said to a poet: `nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, under stress of some emotion, actually say.” And Ezra said of Shakespeare and Dante: `Here we are with the masters; of neither can we say, “he is the greatest”; of each we must say, “he is unexcelled.”’”

No comments: