Tuesday, June 30, 2009

`The Big Words Fail to Fit'

On Wednesday we leave for a brief vacation at Lake Chelan, our first trip east of the Cascades. Judging from photos, the setting is alpine and elemental – water, stone, trees. With the boys we’ll hike, swim, eat, read and celebrate Michael’s ninth birthday.

The lake is glacier-fed and even in summer hypothermia-inducing. Its average depth is 474 feet; its deepest, 1,486. I like to research the places we visit, and dig up facts like this. I like to know the flora, fauna and human history. That’s how I learned of a school bus accident in November 1945 that left 15 students and their driver dead in icy Lake Chelan. Such a story is the stuff of cheap novels – and life. Now the lake, regardless of its undeniable beauty, will not look the same as I had expected before reading about the crash.

I thought of D.J. Enright’s “On the Death of a Child,” in which he writes “The big words fail to fit.”

Monday, June 29, 2009

`A Strong Influence When I Was Young'

Today we remember Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi, born on this date in 1798, in Recanati, Italy. The great Italian poet after Dante, he was a heroic reader, a solitary, a cripple and hunchback (like Pope and Kierkegaard), and a voluptuary of pessimism. So expert a witness as Schopenhauer said Leopardi’s understanding of life’s futility and misery had “a diverting and stimulating effect” on him. Leopardi’s reputation in the English-speaking world seems minimal though I recall Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude with fondness. In a 1958 letter to his friend Con Leventhal, Samuel Beckett says Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism, not his patriotism).”

In Section CXL of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hills writes:

A se stesso: of Self, the lost cause to end all
lost causes; and which you are not (are you?)
so hopeless as to hope to defend. You’ve
what? Leopardi for the New Age? Mirageous
laterite highway – every few miles
a clump of vultures, the vile spread.
Fama/Fame [It. – ed.] [Hill’s insertion]: celebrity and hunger
gorging on road-kill. A se stesso.”

A se stesso” – “To Himself” - is the title of a poem by Leopardi translated by Beckett, who mentions it several times in his only extended work of criticism, Proust. The epigraph to that volume is drawn from the same poem: “E fango è il mondo” – “The world is mud.”

Savor this line from Leopardi’s Pensieri, usually translated as Thoughts, and thus a close cognate (and spiritual cousin) of Pascal’s Pensées. This was translated by the American poet W.S. Di Piero:

“We can be sure that most of the people we appoint to educate our children have not been educated. Yet we assume that they can give something they have not themselves received, and that this is the only way one can get an education.”

Based on my recent four and a half months in public school classrooms, little has changed in two centuries.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

`A Classical Isle of Sanity'

“I was twenty-four and trying to live authentically in the Present. I had no idea that I wasn’t, that I was simply living in some benign erasure of the past. But I was lucky. In Zbigniew I had found a friend who was almost a classical isle of sanity.”

The late Larry Levis was a middling poet with supreme good fortune in friends. As a young man, he served as Zbigniew Herbert’s chauffeur when the Polish poet taught at UCLA in 1970-71, and he describes their unlikely friendship in “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles.” The Herbert he renders confirms the impression formed by those of us who know him only through his words. He is surpassingly modest and thoughtful, indelibly European, cultured, a bemused alien in the Southern California of Charles Manson and the Eagles. It’s touching to know Herbert (who never learned to drive) and his wife Katrina bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane in Los Angeles, and chilling when the poet remembers the only time he drove an automobile:

“`It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.’”

Levis wrote a poem about the experience, “For Zbigniew Herbert, Summer, 1971, Los Angeles,” and here’s “Sequoia” (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter), one of the rare traces of California that shows up in Herbert’s work:

“Gothic towers of needles in the valley of a stream
not far from Mount Tamalpais where in the morning and
evening thick fog comes like the wrath and passion of the ocean

“in this reservation of giants they display a cross-section of a tree the coppery stump of the West
with immense regular veins like rings on water
and someone perverse has inscribed the dates of human history
an inch from the middle of the stump the fire of distant Rome under Nero
in the middle the battle of Hastings the night expeditions of the drakkars
panic of the Anglo-Saxons the death of the unfortunate Harold is told with a compass
and finally right next to the beach of the bark the landing of the Allies in Normandy

“the Tacitus of this tree was a geometrician and he did not know adjectives
he did not know syntax expressing terror he did not know any words
therefore he counted added years and centuries as if to say there is nothing
beyond birth and death nothing only birth and death
and inside the bloody pulp of the sequoia”

In the glory of a New World tree, the largest in the world, Herbert perceives the abattoir of Old World history – “the bloody pulp of the sequoia.” There’s a wistful quality to Levis’ remembrance. Partly it’s the madness of those years, and being young, and remembering them in middle age. It’s Levis not meeting Herbert again, and the uncertainty of communications between East and West during the Cold War. Saddest of all is knowing that Levis died in 1996 at the age of 49, and Herbert died two years later, age 73.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

`Chipped Off the Latin'

When I encounter the word “scruple” in print (rather often) or conversation (almost never) I think of “At the Grave of Henry James,” in which Auden addresses the “Master of nuance and scruple, / Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead…” Auden means this, of course, as praise, though modern usage suggests there is something neurotic about scrupulosity, something repressed or thwarted and probably “curable” with therapy.

The family of my 8-year-old’s closest school friend is Indian, from the Punjab region, and they are Sikhs. I took Michael to their house for a play date on Friday and met the boy’s paternal grandparents. The grandfather is tall, with a military bearing – very erect and straight-shouldered, yet relaxed and kindly. I thought of Umr Singh in Kipling’s story “A Sahib’s War.” Over tea I confessed my ignorance and asked many questions about Sikhism, and my host answered patiently. I was interested in particular in what distinguishes his religion from Hinduism and others. At one point he said, “We believe in truthful living. We have many scruples about how we live.”

I think of “scrupulous” as the opposite of careless or impulsive. “Painstaking” is the one-word synonym that comes to mind, and a little digging shows my thinking is grounded in good etymology. “Scruple” dates in English, by way of French, from the 16th century. The Latin root is scrupulus, meaning “uneasiness, anxiety, pricking of conscience,” from scrupus – a sharp stone or pebble. In other words, scruples are like having a stone in your shoe. In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines “scruple” as “Doubt; difficulty of determination; perplexity; generally about minute things.” And consider Joyce’s “agenbite of inwit.”

To have many scruples about how we live seems, as the Sikh says, like an excellent way to live – and write. Writing involves a thousand minute decisions about sound and sense, taking many pains. Judging from “Scruples” (from The Calligraphy Shop, 2003), Ben Downing understands:

“Chipped off the Latin for
`small sharp stone,’ they are
those irritants that get
into our shoes and sting
our feet until we stop,
stoop, and dump them out.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

`Sheltered Places'

Unexpectedly I worked a final shift in a junior high school on Thursday, tending special-education kids during a commencement ceremony. It lasted only two hours but felt interminable, as every student had to be recognized for every non-criminal act he or she had ever committed. The music was good. We sat on the first row of the bleachers in the gym, next to the school band. During the brass-rich National Anthem, one of my kids started histrionically conducting.

A saxophone duo – alto, tenor – performed a spritely version of Philippe Rougeron’s “Marche Classique,” and a girl soldiered her way through Vivaldi’s “Sonata in E minor” on cello. The same handful of kids was recognized for special achievement in all the academic areas – math, science, history, “language arts,” music – and by doing so seemed to erase the arbitrary distinction between science and the humanities. Often, both gifts are present in the same individual. Three class speakers, all touchingly enthusiastic, told us how the eighth grade had changed their lives.

One of the qualities I most admire in the writing of Michael Oakeshott is his willingness to state obvious truths that have been forgotten or obscured by cultural or political fashions. I’ve been reading The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education and its foes. Included is “A Place of Learning,” first published in 1975. I read it a few hours before the commencement ceremony, wishing to underline much of it. Later I wondered what Oakeshott would have made of the morning’s proceedings:

“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.”

With so many teachers and administrators contorting themselves desperately into shapes pleasing to students, to be their friends and win imaginary popularity contests, I felt fortified by a passage from another essay, “Learning and Teaching” (1965):

“To initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available to him much that does not lie upon the surface of the present world. An inheritance will contain much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. And to know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

`To Find the Perfect Note'

On the last day of school I worked again with the Ukrainian violinist and finally heard her play. The special-education room was noisier than usual, the kids excited or confused by the coming of vacation, the end of one routine and the start of another. Teachers packed books and papers and stripped posters off the walls. A girl sat in the corner with an alarm clock/radio pressed against her ear, listening to “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)?” by Junior Walker & the All Stars. The violinist – a stocky, competent-looking woman, shorter than some of the students -- took her instrument from its case and tuned it. Because some of the kids were graduating her first number was Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Most of the kids, who up till then had been ignoring her, began clapping, yelling and laughing. She smiled but otherwise ignored them and moved seamlessly from song to song: “Edelweiss,” “If You’re Happy and you Know It,” “Amazing Grace,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Rockabye, Baby.” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Sunrise, Sunset.” Her playing was crisp and confident. I requested “Ashokan Farewell” but she didn’t know it, and instead leaped into a vigorous “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”

Music organizes people, for good or ill. Most of us can’t ignore it. When I’m in the presence of a proficient musician, particularly in an informal setting, I feel excited yet calm – “mindful” is the word that comes to mind. When she played the Mozart, I felt a cool breeze, a morning in October, in my consciousness (a sensation I’ve also known from less licit stimulants). Edgar Bowers said his heroes were Mozart, Pasteur and Valery. His devotion to music was absolute and he liked to claim no music worth listening to was composed after Haydn. His first book, The Form of Loss (1956), includes “From J. Haydn to Constanze Mozart (1791).” It’s written in the form of a verse letter from Haydn to the composer’s widow. Here is one of its four stanzas:

“The mind of most of us is trivial;
The heart is moved too quickly and too much.
He thought each movement that was animal,
And senses were the mind’s continual search
To find the perfect note, emotional
And mental, each the other one’s reproach.”

Listening to the violinist play Mozart in the company of 20 damaged children left my mind feeling trivial and exalted.

(Go here to read “Intelligence perfecting the mute keys: Edgar Bowers and Music,” a remembrance by Kevin Smith which includes the complete text of the poem.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

`A Different Colour of Praise'

“Everydayness is good; particular-dayness
Is better…”

So begins Canto VI of Autumn Sequel (1954), Louis MacNeice’s much-maligned successor to his masterpiece, Autumn Journal (1939). I came late to the internet – 1999 – and then only because I left a newspaper to work for a university. As recently as a decade ago, the editorial staff at a second-tier daily in upstate New York could work without e-mail or internet access, with computers serving strictly as word processors. As I, a one-time Luddite, think about it, I have to acknowledge, belatedly, how much the digital age has encouraged the bookish side of my life. Previously, in my ignorance, I had judged computers the ironclad enemy of literacy (as, in fact, they often are). MacNeice writes in the next stanza of Autumn Sequel: “Daily demands a different colour of praise…”

I cite MacNeice because he’s a writer I knew mostly by reputation, as a sort of proxy-Auden, and I’ve come to know his work deeply only since reading his poems on line, hearing his recordings and reading what others (readers, critics) have written about him. Like love, appreciation begins in curiosity, a habit of mind ideally suited to the internet, with its vast connectedness and ease of access. I can follow a whim not necessarily to a library or bookstore but to a blogger or someone else with enough dedication to say something about a writer they have loved or who has otherwise made a difference in their lives.

This simple process, unimagined 10 years ago, has rewarded me a thousand times. I owe my discovery of, or deeper knowledge of, so many good writers to the internet – Theodore Dalrymple, Fernando Pessoa, Joseph Roth, Eugenio Montale, Eric Ormsby. A generous young man in Boston wrote to me on Tuesday:

“It’s shocking and sad how few people really live with books nowadays. To take my books away would be to remove half my brain - the individual would remain, but that sense of connection with something larger, something universal and reassuring, would be lost. I think that's why I enjoy Anecdotal Evidence so much.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

`A Lot Into a Little'

It’s the last week of school, extended beyond the summer solstice by a teacher’s strike at the start of the year and a blizzard around the winter solstice. The kids are even less focused and more brazen than usual, and teachers try to placate their entropy with games, pizza and movies. I worked with seven fourth- and fifth-grade boys, all with the usual diagnoses. One kid needed help with a Powerpoint presentation about the taiga biome. I’ve never worked with Powerpoint, associate it with soporific staff meetings, and recalled some lines from George Witte’s “Trident”:

“…Extenuating circumstance
prevails against best practices and plans,
Excel and Powerpoint undone by chance

“encounters, infectious viral blisters.”

Witte’s second book, Deniability, has remained nightly reading, the poems better written and more informative than a newspaper. (Just last week I quoted Charles Péguy: “Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, is so old and tired as today's newspaper.”) And his poems don’t condescend. When I got home from school on Monday I found an e-mail from Witte:

“The reviews so far have been heartening, the reader reception difficult to gauge. No anger, but perhaps resistance to the density of language in certain poems, or to the subject matter of the book itself. At readings, the poems seem to be greeted with silence; at one reading, my wife raised her hand to ask, `What do you think people will find to like about these poems?’ She’s a tough, smart reader and her question is dead on. For many people, poetry is a place to find calm reflection, anecdotes of shared experience, accessible language, beauty, sadness leavened by humor or hope, all qualities that I too enjoy and that some poems in The Apparitioners offer. Deniability confounds most of those expectations and must be difficult to `get’ on first listen or first read; my hope is that it gathers weight and rewards engagement as the poems age.”

The poems in Deniability read like models of hard-won clarity, and it never occurred to me to find their language “inaccessible.” Clipped, yes. Elliptical, fragmented, broken off – but never willfully obscure. Witte, in fact, sheds light on linguistic murk. In “Trident,” one of his best poems, he writes: “Record the damage as collateral / against our leveraged power to enthrall.” I’ve seldom seen bureaucratese turned so effectively against itself.

After the e-mails I turned first, as usual, to Frank Wilson, and found he had posted a new poem, “Anticipation”:

“Lying awake late at night
He found the darkness
And the silence — the aloneness —
Comforting. Faces appeared,
Familiar, dear, and he could bear
To look. He noticed
He was listening, alert
In mind and heart and soul.
He was not afraid.”

The same poem, written in the first person, would have flopped – too cloying, too self-regarding. I like the calm sense of double consciousness – “He noticed / He was listening…” Witte, I suspect, would appreciate the appeal of Frank’s poem: “a place to find calm reflection, anecdotes of shared experience, accessible language, beauty, sadness leavened by humor or hope, all qualities that I too enjoy.” That one poem can remind us of post-9/11 anxiety and another evoke so private a reverie, and that both are good poems and give different sorts of pleasure, is another endorsement of poetry’s potential, so fitfully realized. Witte and Wilson, granted all their differences, write with precision, concision and the focus of a laser. Both write poems that imply the absence of a lot of rejected verbiage.

One of my students wanted help writing a persuasive essay against the abolition of school recess. I always have to beware of putting words in a kid’s mouth, whether out of impatience with their lack of articulation or as a shamefully petty boost to my ego. We used the “quiet room” – a padded cell without furniture where we sometimes put kids to cool off. We sat on the floor and he surprised me by working hard and sticking obsessively close to the writing plan (“topic sentence”) used by the district. At one point he had to distill the substance of a lengthy paragraph into a single sentence. Together we did it and, to prove how much matter we didn’t need, he crossed out with his pencil all the jettisoned words – all but a phrase or two.

“Wow,” he said, “we sure got a lot into a little.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

`A Benefactor to Life'

My brother has resolved to read for the first time Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The immediate inspiration was finding a three-volume Heritage Press edition at a flea market in Cleveland. Without flea markets and yard sales, Ken’s book and music libraries would be fatally depleted, consisting largely of the stuff we bought, stole or were given as kids. I tried to follow his example on Sunday, browsing in a Goodwill shop after donating clothes and a sleeping bag, but it was futile. There were thousands of books but nothing I wanted, not even anything the kids wanted, and I can’t buy something just because it’s a bargain.

“There’s the nice edition,” my brother told me when I asked why he was reading Boswell for the first time at the age of 54, “and you talk about it a lot and so do some of the people on your blog, so I thought it was just time to read it.”

The best way I know to sustain one’s enthusiasm for a book is to watch it spark a comparable enthusiasm in another reader, particularly when you’re not consciously proselytizing. With my brother, this happened once before when he started reading Zbigniew Herbert’s poems after I plugged them. The only way to top such satisfaction would be to share it with the author in question, which isn’t likely with Boswell and Herbert. Julian Barnes, in his preface to Paris and Elsewhere, a collection of essays by Richard Cobb, the wonderful English historian of France, describes Cobb’s style – and Boswell’s – and thus its attractiveness:

“Cobb’s history is archival, anecdotal, discursive, button-holing, undogmatic, imaginatively sympathetic, incomplete, droll; sometimes chaotic, often manic, always pungently detailed.”

The reasons people chose to read one book rather than another – Boswell rather than, say, Bulgakov -- are always of interest to me, as they were to Johnson. He addressed the subject at length in The Adventurer #137 (Feb. 26, 1754):

“It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader.

“Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as Falstaff terms it, in `the reward of the fashion.’

“Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred; they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.

“Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

“The author is not wholly useless, who provides innocent amusements for minds like these. There are, in the present state of things, so many more instigations to evil, than incitements to good, that he who keeps men in a neutral state, may be justly considered as a benefactor to life.”

Johnson covers most readerly contingencies, including gout, which I had once in the big toe of my left foot, though I don’t recall it having any impact on my reading habits. Three mint-condition volumes picked up for a song at a flea market certainly qualify as cheap and constant, though Johnson never quite puts his finger on my brother’s motivation: “It sounded good.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

`Compassion, Reverence, Self-Control'

My friend the retired English professor writes:

“I just read your delightful entry on Daniel Deronda, one of my all-time favorites. I first read it as a senior at Carleton College (1950) in a course on the English novel. Our handbook was [F.R.] Leavis's The Great Tradition (just out). We had a memorable time being guided (by a fine instructor) through novels of Eliot, James, and Conrad. DD was out of print at the time so our teacher searched the Chicago used-book stores for copies -- a number of them three-deckers. Now of course there are many reprints -- I must have 4 or 5. I've used DD in my Victorian literature courses with surprisingly satisfying results.

“Of all the Victorians Eliot had the most refined and powerful moral imagination--surpassing, I think, in this respect Arnold and Newman. I plan to get [Gertrude] Himmelfarb’s book on DD -- I've been reading her since she started publishing, especially for her studies of Burke.”

It’s a measure of how far we’ve fallen that I’m surprised an academic can write this way and so well. The fervent pleasure he takes in literature and the quiet assumption of its centrality to our lives; the respect for Leavis; the one-time unavailability of Daniel Deronda, one of the greatest of English novels; the appreciation of Eliot’s “most refined and powerful moral imagination”; the regard for Himmelfarb’s work – all are evidence of a sensibility long eclipsed by politics, fashion and a general fascination with the trivial. Implicit in my friend’s e-mail is a mode of civilized being (“the disposition to be conservative,” in Michael Oakeshott’s words) identified by Adam Kirsch in his review of The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot published recently in Tablet:

“Yet if her ideas were radical, her fiction glorified the `conservative’ virtues—compassion, reverence, self-control. Indeed, Eliot believed that the more freely men thought, the more disciplined their behavior must be.”

This too, I suppose, sounds as quaint as Leavis’ “Great Tradition,” “moral imagination” and “three-deckers.” One mark of Eliot’s greatness is her slipperiness, the ease with which she eludes pigeon-holing and ideological recruitment. What she once wrote of women applies with justice to each of us, in particular the readers and writers among us:

“Women have not to prove that they can be emotional, and rhapsodic, and spiritualistic; everyone believes that already. They have to prove that they are capable of accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

`An Interesting Person'

Seated in the preschool room where I worked Friday afternoon was a woman who reminded me of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. She wore a sari of silver and green, much gold jewelry and a bindi. She was a large woman for whom walking was painful. Planted on an undersized chair of plastic and tubular steel, with the sari shrouding her legs, she looked rooted. The paperback she read was printed in a script I couldn’t read.

We spoke and I learned she is the sister of another para-educator, and is visiting from India. I asked about the book. “It is an historical epic, the story of my people,” she said. “Fiction?” I asked. “A novel?” “No, The Mahābhārata. You know of it?” I read a sizeable selection in translation 35 years ago. The entire epic is more than 10 times as long as The Iliad and Odyssey combined. “And did you enjoy it?” I had to confess I couldn’t remember. I was young and could read any book of even marginal interest, often retaining not a syllable. I told her I had reread The Bhagavad Gita about 15 years ago when a friend was teaching it in college and asked me to discuss it with her students.

Classical Indian literature I came to by way of Thoreau and Emerson. The former borrowed an 1834 French translation of The Mahābhārata from the Harvard College Library in 1849 and translated portions of it into English. Thoreau incorporates a passage from the “Harivansa” section of the epic into the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden:

“The Harivansa says, `An abode without birds is like a meat without seasoning.’ Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”

The cultural favor was returned when Gandhi read Thoreau and cited him, with Ruskin and Tolstoy, as important Western influences on his thought. I shared this, in brief, with the visitor from India – a woman who looks severe, even intimidating, until she smiles. “Now you must read The Mahābhārata, and I shall read this Thoreau you mention. He must have been an interesting person,” she said, smiling.

Friday, June 19, 2009

`Reflection, Speech, and Writing'

David Myers and others have indulged in a literary parlor game, a variation on the Desert Island Conundrum – 15 in 15, for short -- and I accept Myers’ stipulation, your honor: “Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.” This makes it more interesting than so pallid a criterion as “favorite” or “best”:

Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Whitney Balliett, American Musicians
A.J. Liebling, Normandy Revisited
Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
Henry David Thoreau, Journal
Montaigne, Essays
Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems: 1956-1998
Anton Chekhov, The Tales
James Boswell, Life of Johnson
Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets
William Shakespeare, Plays
John Berryman, The Dream Songs
Edgar Bowers, Collected Poems

I debated none of the books on the list. They appear in the order in which they came to mind, a process that took, including the writing and copy editing, less than seven minutes. Each title sits within three paces of where I sit, some on my desk. After the 15th book, of course, I began regretting omissions: No Joyce or Beckett? No Gibbon, Keats, Dickinson, Henry James or Geoffrey Hill? No Hopkins, Eliot, Bellow, Proust, Nabokov, Spinoza or J.V. Cunningham? What of The Anatomy of Melancholy and Religio Medici? I soothe myself with this thought: Imagine the plight of a person unable even to name 15 books.

If such a list constitutes a Rorschach test, what have I learned? It surprises me that three titles qualify as biography (Balliett, Boswell, Johnson), and only two as fiction (Stead, Chekhov). Four are poetry, five if you count Shakespeare (I do). I didn’t expect so many Americans (eight) and so few English (three). The rest are Russian, Polish, Australian and French. Three titles (Balliett, Liebling, Mitchell) represent higher journalism, all published in The New Yorker. No title embarrasses me by its inclusion, and all have an influence on the way I read, write and think, however attenuated the connection.

Had I drawn up a similar list 20 years ago, two things would have been different. More fiction would have shown up and fewer “non-literary” titles – that is, The New Yorker crowd. My notion of the “literary” has grown more elastic while my fondness for dependably rereadable books remains as strong as ever. I seldom read a book I’m unlikely to read again.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

`The Man Who Cared About Things'

Some anniversaries go unobserved and some can be observed only modestly and in private, by one person. Today, for instance, when I remember my only meeting with Guy Davenport. A friend and I left upstate New York, heading south and west, with no itinerary, camping along the way. Our first night we spent at a campground in Cumberland, Md., surrounded by identical young Mormons. The following afternoon we reached Lexington, Ky., where I visited Guy the next morning at his house at 621 Sayre Ave.

I have described my visit before in some detail and wish only to make two points. Guy was a gentleman, in the customary sense of being gracious, courteous and welcoming. He made it clear he wanted me to feel at home in his home. Guy was also a gentleman in Shirley Robin Letwin’s sense, as she expresses it on the final page of The Gentleman in Trollope:

“He has firm convictions about what is good and true, for which he will fight, without forgetting that nothing in nature prevents other men from questioning his verities and that he himself cannot keep hold of them without support from others to keep him aware of what he has overlooked or distorted. But whatever disagreement he encounters, however uncongenial he may find his neighbours or his fortune, he will always be thoroughly at home in the human world because he can enjoy its absurdities and has no ambition to overleap mortality.”

The three or four hours I spent in Guy’s company, mostly talking and looking at books and paintings, evaporated. Before leaving, Guy signed, in his precise, angular, draftsman’s hand, the two books I brought with me – Apples and Pears and The Geography of the Imagination:

“For Patrick Kurp
Lexington
18 June 1990
Guy Davenport”

In the latter volume, in his essay “Ezra Pound, 1885-1972,” Guy’s words about his mentor express my gratitude for him:

“I learned all sorts of things I would probably never have heard of otherwise. Like many another, I saw in Pound the very archetype of the man who cared about things.”

Two paragraphs later, Guy says his reaction to first reading Pound was to learn Italian and Provençal and “to paint in the quattrocento manner.” Here’s the next sentence:

“All real education is such unconscious seduction.”

`A Simple Lesion of the Complex Brain'

A rare article, “The Mystery of the Passion of Charles Péguy,” about the extraordinary Charles Péguy, written by Robert Royal:

“If he ever gets a fair hearing, Péguy may one day be recognized as a figure on the order of Kierkegaard or Newman, and perhaps something more besides [sainthood?].”

Royal adapts his title from The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) by Geoffrey Hill, who in turn adapted his title from Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Jeanne d’Arc, a book-length poem published in 1909. Péguy died in World War I, shot in the head at Villeroy, one day before the start of the Battle of the Marne. In the English-speaking world he is best known for writing: “Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, is so old and tired as today's newspaper.” Hill writes:

“At Villeroy the copybook lines of men
rise up and are erased. Péguy’s cropped skull
dribbles its ichor, its poor thimbleful,
a simple lesion of the complex brain.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

`Things Ripped from Skins'

The satyr Marsyas found a double-flute (aulos) fashioned by Athene from the bones of a stag. The goddess had thrown it away after playing at a banquet of the gods. The music delighted most of the guests but Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her performance. Later, she played the flute by a woodland stream and saw in her reflection what had amused the goddesses: Her distorted face. She threw down the flute and put a curse on it.

“Marsyas was the innocent victim of this curse,” writes Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. The satyr played the instrument. Peasants heard the music and declared Apollo could not make sweeter sounds. This provoked Apollo, who invited Marsyas to a contest. The winner would inflict any punishment he wished on the loser. The Muses formed the jury, and judged the contest a tie, so Apollo dared Marsyas to play the flute backwards while singing at the same time, and he failed.

“Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge of Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine…”

The gods are petty, jealous and cruel, and behave almost as badly as humans. Some Greek literary renderings of the story emphasize Marsyas’ hubris and endorse the justice of his torture, but myths, like folk songs and jokes, are always mutating -- remembered, misremembered and given new contexts. The best known version of the Apollo and Marsyas story is probably Ovid’s in Metamorphoses. Ovid’s forced exile by Augustus has moved some readers to see a political allegory in the story. Zbigniew Herbert used the myth in this fashion in his 1957 poem “Apollo and Marsyas,” making of the satyr’s screams an image of poetry as it was written under the Communist regime in Poland:

“the victor departs
wondering
whether out of Marsyas' howling
will not one day arise
a new kind
of art -- let us say – concrete”

Gods still walk the Earth in George Witte’s new collection of poems, Deniability, and all are impotent or malevolent. The time is post-9/11. We recognize the landscape as ours – electronic junk, color-coded terror alerts, media saturation, body-less heads – but more post-apocalyptic than we remembered it. The body is another piece of refuse in the shit storm. The second stanza of the collection’s first poem, “Uh-Oh,” reads like this:

“Things ripped from skins,
words from definitions.”

Most of Witte’s allusions are contemporary, though Scylla and Charybdis show up in one poem, Thermopylae in another. In the three-page, three-section “Classical Studies,” he adapts the Marsyas myth, his only extended use of a classical or historical template for today’s events. He starts with Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas,” but never mentions Marsyas by name, calling him “the beast”:

“In the painting, Apollo flays
the beast that challenged his divine
supremacy of song. Bright-eyed
as a child, curious to know,
he peels back flaps of skin. Each cut’s
calculated, screams extracted
like purest harp notes, lines of verse
in every fresh incision.”

About Apollo’s sadism there is a suggestion of clinical condescension, that the flaying is somehow good for “the beast”: “He would gladly heal this creature / if surgery cured presumption, / remove whatever gland or lobe / aspired beyond its rightful sphere.” Here’s the conclusion of the first section:

“The god pauses. His masterpiece
Might require another brush stroke.
He stays the sun for better light.
These things take time if they’re to last.”

The second section, unnumbered and untitled, switches to a new, first-person speaker – rationalizing, self-pitying, childish:

“It wasn’t what you people think.
The pictures made us animals,
our tongues protruding red and slick,
eyes too, like they’d been fingernailed.
You can’t imagine what it’s like,
I’ve never felt so in control,
so free, outside myself but there,
invisible, the camera
my magic shield or spy’s disguise.
Things got out of hand, whatever –
some itch that didn’t satisfy.
We stripped and hosed the terrorists,
positioned them curled sixty nine,
you know the drill. We trained the dogs
to ask the whereabouts of __________:
that name they fear and won’t reveal,
like God’s. No names for anything.
We were following procedure.
When you’re starved for information
Even screaming sounds like music.”

It’s the voice of an American military guard, probably at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The language ricochets from defensiveness and denial, to an admission of excitement (“I’ve never felt so in control”), to meaninglessness: “Things got out of hand, whatever –.” Just as Witte writes in “Uh-Oh”: “Things ripped from skins, / words from definitions.” The guards are not gods and the prisoners, like Marsyas in the first section, have no names. The voice of the poet takes over the final section: “In the city’s underlayer / I planned this poem like a brief, / collecting evidence against / humanity’s inheritance.” He’s riding the subway when a “beggar” enters the car. His fellow passengers ignore him. Then: “In front of me-- / beneath my notebook’s tidy lines / his feet were flayed --”:

“I wouldn’t look. He touched my arm,
A violation. Summoning
My coldest gaze, superior
With intellect, I met his eyes:
All blood and mucous, the body’s
Last-ditch desperate remedies.
I don’t know what he saw in mine.
He shuffled on. My poem lost,
I cursed his touch until my stop.”

I would argue that Witte is not a political poet, at least not in the conventional banal sense of “pro-war” or “anti-war,” “pro-Bush” or “anti-Bush,” though he certainly will be read that way. Read sequentially and lived with, the 46 poems in Deniability render a high-resolution picture of our baffling new world. They also suggest how one thoughtful man – American, middle-class, educated – might try to make sense of the quotidian horror. Witte’s language is terse and staccato, sometimes rhymed, open to jargon and cliché, and never comes to glib, reassuring conclusions. He writes in “Trident”:

“Information drifts in radiant shards,
pixeled images, interrupted words.”

[I wrote about Witte’s first collection, The Apparitioners, here.]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

`For Us Culture was Freedom'

Bill Sigler writes in an e-mail:

“I wish I could track down for you an online version of an interview Olga Sedakova has in her book Poems and Elegies. In it she talks eloquently about how the Western cultural heritage that we can't throw away fast enough literally kept her and many others alive in the long winter’s night of the Soviet experiment. It reminded me so much of you when I read it.”

Sedakova’s book, published in 2003 by Bucknell University Press, is available through Google Books, and I think I found the passage Bill refers to. It comes early in her interview with Slava I. Yastremski, one of the editors and translators of the volume:

“I think that in Russia we saw culture very differently than people in Europe and America. For us culture was freedom. We were surrounded by Soviet culture, which can be defined as a counterculture, and when I hear about countercultural movements in the West, where young people saw culture as something repressive and consequently wanted to escape from it, I saw that we perceived culture as our salvation. For us, culture in its broadest historical aspect was that very freedom and height of the spirit denied us by the Soviet system.”

When Bill writes “the Western cultural heritage that we can't throw away fast enough,” I confess I thought first of the high-school students I worked with on Monday (rather than their intellectual enablers). Their ignorance of our inheritance is exceeded only by their eagerness to avoid it. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a soon-to-graduate senior and a staff member. The girl had spent much of the day making a collage of images of under-dressed females clipped from women’s magazines (image a boy working on the same project). With a straight face she described herself as “a conceptual artist,” and told the teacher she might enroll at a nearby community college but was reluctant because she might have to read The Great Gatsby. “I hear ya,” the teacher said.

Of course, kids and teachers don’t come to such conclusions in a cultural vacuum (I say this as a reader immune to the charms of F. Scott Fitzgerald). Generations of institutionalized cultural vandalism have brought us to this point. Another kid whined not because he had to read Romeo and Juliet but because a teacher expected him to watch it on video. Sedakova continues:

“I think that only in a prison like the Soviet Union could you love Dante and Homer the way we loved them – as our personal salvation. Creative culture, which was created by mankind, was something like a religious force for us. We perceived it as the possibility of not simply creative or investigative freedom, but spiritual squalor that surrounded us. That is why our attitude toward culture was opposite to that of our contemporaries in the West.”

In My Century, another survivor of the Communists, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, describes reading of Proust and Machiavelli in one of Stalin’s prisons:

“…the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

Thanks, Bill, for introducing me to Sedakova. That’s how culture works.

Monday, June 15, 2009

`Following the Brush'

To essay is to try something, to make an attempt, without regard for a specific end. Before the French came the Latin exigere, “test,” which suggests an experiment, weighing a hypothesis. To write an essay is to pursue a thought open-endedly, to allow the journey to disclose its own itinerary. In the wrong hands – inattentive, plodding, literal-minded, thesis-driven -- this spells self-indulgent chaos or a sermon. It can also mean a literary form with a bottomless capacity for nuances, linkages and surprise. The closest musical cognate is jazz, which half a century ago Whitney Balliett called “the sound of surprise.”

I’ve just read A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007), a monograph by Donald Richie, the American-born scholar of Japanese culture. He notes that Japanese writers often prize “a quality of indecision in the structure of their work. And something too logical, too symmetrical is successfully avoided when writers ignore the suppositions of the questions asked of them.” This gets a little murky and Zen-like for this Westerner, but the idea, tempered with discipline and learning, is deeply attractive. Richie goes on:

Zuihitsu, the Japanese word we might translate as `essay,’ implies just that – following the brush, allowing it to lead. The structure is the multiplicity of strokes that make up the aesthetic quality, one which they imply and which we infer.”

Richie says this notion – I won’t call it a method, more a proclivity – gives his monograph its form. In his glossary, he defines zuihitsu like this:

“…an essay that ranges somewhat formlessly; hitsu means `brush,’ and zui indicates `following’ or `pursuing,’ thus, literally, `following the brush.’”

I like “somewhat formlessly.” In practice, for this essayer, that means organization by association. A word, thought or image leads naturally and artfully to others, like firings among the neurons of the brain. Each “neuron” brings with it an aura or charge overlapping with others. A well-stocked, metaphor-minded brain evolves its own forms. The title of Guy Davenport’s second essay collection, adapted from a saying by Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, comes to mind: Every Force Evolves a Form (1987).

The title story in Thomas Disch’s posthumously published collection The Wall of America (2008) posits a wall built along the U.S.-Canada border on which painters hang their work. One of them, Lester, is visited by a young American, Gulliver, who drives along the wall, looking at the art works but not understanding why people devote their lives to it. Here’s a slice of their beer-lubricated conversation, starting with Gulliver:

“`It just doesn’t make sense to me.’

“`That may be the point, partly. You seem to find it interesting. Or you wouldn’t be following the Wall.’

“`I suppose.’

`Let me ask you: do you iron your own shirts?’

“Gulliver squinted down on the logo on his tanktop. `Why would I iron this?’

“`Well, do you have any flannel shirts? Plaids?’

“Gulliver nodded and then slowly a smile began to form. He was one of those people who are only good-looking when they smile, and he didn’t smile that often. `You mean the way it changes color when the iron goes across it?’

“`Yes. Is that a pleasure for you?’

“`Uh-huh. And painting is like that?’

“`Basically, yes.’”

In light of Disch’s suicide last July 4, this scene from one of his last stories is heartbreaking but it illustrates the way a poet (Disch was a first-rate poet) thinks – in metaphors rooted in homely particulars. Has anyone else in human history likened the joys of painting to ironing a flannel shirt, and made it work? It works for us, the readers, but it works also for Gulliver. Neither he nor Lester is aesthetically sophisticated. A more high-falutin’ image would have sounded false.

A good essay is successful and poetic to the degree it moves along by metaphors, the subtler the better. At their best Lamb and Hazlitt worked this way. Even so “classical” an essayist as Samuel Johnson used the technique (a word that sounds too formal, too calculating), as did Davenport and, often Cynthia Ozick. If the world is web of metaphor, of covert and explicit linkages, an essay can begin and end anywhere, without a map. The idea is not peculiar to literature and religion. In The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (1998), his biography of the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, Paul Hoff man writes:

“Mathematics is about finding connections, between specific problems and general results, and between one concept and another seemingly unrelated concept that really is related. No mathematical concept worth its salt stands in isolation.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

`Remember to Do It Brilliantly'

This happened in 1979 or 1980. I had a doctor’s appointment in Defiance, Ohio, a city I hardly knew, and allowed too much time for getting there and finding the office, so I walked around downtown and discovered a narrow, chaotic book store on one of the side streets. I don’t remember its name or much else about it except the book I bought: a used Signet paperback of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with an introduction by Irving Howe.

The attraction was immediate and twofold – Howe, whose book on Sherwood Anderson I still prize, and who first steered me to György Konrád’s The Case Worker; and the book itself, the only Eliot novel I hadn’t read. I started reading as I walked to the doctor’s, and continued in the waiting room and I finished the ample text in a day or two. I couldn’t do that today. Nothing matches our youthful ardor when a great book seduces us unsuspectingly. We turn these long-ago loves into myth, which recalls a sentence from Eliot’s novel that has migrated across many commonplace books since I first transcribed it 30 years ago:

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

My resolution to reread Daniel Deronda -- of necessity more lingeringly and with a less impulsive sensibility – is motivated by the recent publication of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. Himmelfarb has salvaged the Victorians for our generation in such books as Victorian Minds (1968) and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991). She’s a rare historian who can write. In a review of her new book, Joseph Epstein reminds us that “the cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world.”

As I noted in a recent post about George Santayana, Epstein seems to be maturing as a writer, growing more thoughtful without resort to humorlessness. For instance, he addresses Eliot’s penchant for “commenting, as if from the sidelines, on the action going on in the novel” – a technique much disliked by certain readers:

“Ruminations of this sort -- on temperament, on the nature of thinking, on second-sight, on gambling, on a vast deal more -- weave in and out of the narrative proper. One of the modern fiction workshop laws is that a writer should always show and never tell; George Eliot did both, and with sufficient success to wipe the law off the books. Tell all you want, the new law should read, so long as you remember to do it brilliantly.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

`Highly Trained and Deeply Instinctual'

Most news accounts led with the knighting of another Christopher, Lee, but readers are gratified to learn Christopher Ricks has been named a Knights Bachelor for “service to scholarship.” Ricks, 76, was, until recently, Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and remains Professor of The Humanities at Boston University. Name another critic who reads the words of others with so acute an ear and whose own words so please the same organ. Sometimes his mentor, William Empson, but as a poet-critic he came hyphenated. Ricks is a hyphen-less critic who merely writes as a poet ought to write, with precision, concision and wit:

“What kind of poems? Well (well and good), short poems. Agreed. These are short poems that are not – the critics have rightly insisted – epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work. Yet these are poems that do belong within wisdom literature, that of the Psalms, say, or of Blake’s shorter poems (Menashe often offering moreover not Proverbs of Hell but Proverbs of Heaven). Apophthegms, I’d say. Menashe, who relished the shorter forms of things (including words), would be likely to prefer the form apothegm.”

That’s from his introduction to Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, edited by Ricks for the Library of America in 2005. It’s typical of Ricks, in introducing a poet new to many of us, to enter into the spirit of the poet’s work, to celebrate it as the poet might himself and not get puffed up with pretensions: “Well and good.”

My favorites among Ricks’ books – not counting his editions of Tennyson, Housman and Eliot – are Milton’s Grand Style (1963) Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Beckett’s Dying Words (1993) and Allusion to the Poets (2002). He’s probably best known for championing the words of Bob Dylan, a longtime admiration that culminated in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003). In that volume he humbles himself as a critic before the artists he celebrates:

“…I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist than more.”

Gratitude in a critic is always unexpected and worthy of our gratitude as readers. If a critic writes badly, how can we trust him? But is it possible for a critic to write too well? Merely formulating such a question honors Sir Christopher.

Friday, June 12, 2009

`Ideas that Can Be Enjoyed in Solitude'

Exhaustion and a sick headache are no reflection on the quality of my day at school. If anything, I’m likelier to feel lousy at the end of a good shift, as I did on Thursday – seven hours in a special-education room, two hours as bus monitor for the district’s elementary schools (the latter meant sitting by a telephone and looking authoritative). Most of my classroom time was spent with a bright autistic boy who rarely sits still or remains quiet, and who has an unformed, apparently unrecognized musical sense. He hears a melody and lyric once – “Roll On, Columbia,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – and proceeds to sing it straight, over and over, then improvises on the template. In the afternoon, I got him to settle down briefly by trading choruses of the hideous Bobby McFerrin song, for which both of us adopted a West Indian lilt. I was warned he was a biter but it never came to that.

Bad – that is, useless -- days come when I work with less damaged or undamaged kids (in the clinical sense), teenagers in particular. With them I score no victories and try to remember “Primum non nocere”—“First, not to harm” – the doctor’s credo. Diminished needs correspond inversely to their inflated demands. As a group they are sullen, self-centered, petulant and – most of them – marginally literate. Working with them holds no charms, so a kid like the singing autistic is a gift. My thoughts returned to him at lunch while rereading one of my favorite non-biographical studies devoted to a single writer – Shirley Robin Letwin’s The Gentleman in Trollope (1982). Much in debt to Michael Oakeshott, Letwin composed a work radically unlike conventional academic post mortems. She calls it a “philosophical study.” Her discipline was not literature but political theory and history, and in her preface she writes:

“I, myself, have come to think that the morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me….If the reader finds that this book has made him acquainted with a new character, or enabled him to understand what before he could only recognize, it will have achieved its purpose.”

Trollope’s novels are of middling interest to me. My preference among English Victorian novelists will always be for George Eliot. But Letwin’s book reads as richly as a philosophical text by Hume or Santayana . Here’s the passage, from the chapter titled “Occupations,” that returned me to thoughts of school:

“Education helps to make a man more aware of the variety of responses open to him, gives him an ear for finer distinctions and for precision in the use of words, a realization of how much he owes to what other people have thought and done in the past, and fills his mind with ideas that can be enjoyed in solitude.”

This comes close to defining my notion of true education, with no mention of vocational training or marketability. What pleases me most, however, is that Letwin’s words apply with equal justice to my autistic charge (and some of his fellow students) and to me. There’s been no interruption in our educations.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

`A Measure of the Personal'

“A notebook is for jotting down unfinished ideas. These ideas seldom go any further, perhaps for the best. There seems to be even a kind of idea we could think of as a notebook idea, pure and simple. Such ideas may in fact have their own charm, their own seductiveness, just as the fragments of unfinished poems sometimes do. If the ideas are any good in themselves, they would have some value for others; if not, not.”

The operative word is “unfinished” and for “notebook” substitute “blog.” Written by Donald Justice some time before 1997, when blog was no more than an ugly phoneme, this paragraph serves as an introduction to selections from Justice’s own note books in his prose collection Oblivion. Justice had a rare double gift for writing superior poetry (his first love, his glory) and prose. His body of essays, reviews, memoirs and stories fits in one slender volume, and all of it is worth reading. Justice snorts at “Theory” – the pretentiousness and dullness of it. He works by paying close attention to particulars, and the effect is one of disciplined improvisation.

Rereading Justice, who died almost five years ago, it occurs to me he would have made a superb blogger. He wrote short, with a poet’s bent for precision. He praised and dismissed with equal enthusiasm. His learning and reading were deep and broad. He cultivated a taste for first-rate minor writers – Sherwood Anderson, Weldon Kees, Yvor Winters. In a brief introduction to the section of Oblivion titled “Appreciations” (Winters, Kees, William Carlos Williams), Justice writes:

“Appreciations always contain a measure of the personal, and why not? We ought not always to find ourselves appreciating most keenly those few writers thought to be most deserving. Nor would we choose always to be repeating one another’s enthusiasms and reasons. No, sometimes it is better to seek out those who have dwelt and will no doubt go on dwelling half-hidden in the shadows or to be on the lookout for new sides and angles to the already familiar and perhaps too-much praised.”

What Justice calls a “notebook idea” might, with enough elasticity, be called a blog idea – an essayistic blog idea, not the supermarket variety. Don’t confuse essays with bloat. Some of the best I know – by La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Karl Kraus – are one sentence in length. Disguised beneath the modesty of Justice’s apologia for excerpting his notebooks (a typical Justice assertion: “Already I have made too much of this”) is an ironclad confidence in their worth. That mingling of humility and confidence is what distinguishes the best bloggers -- and writers of any sort.

Addressing the latest round of blogospheric bloviating, David Myers at A Commonplace Blog points out what ought to be obvious but somehow gets lost in clouds of hot air: “The only meaningful distinction is between those blogs that are well-written and those that are not.” Affinity for a writer doesn’t always correspond with mere agreement or approval. The way he arranges words, the alignment of sound to sense, his breadth of allusions, maturity of judgment, adherence to honesty, and sense of humor – all of these qualities and a dozen more earn our admiration (Myers and a few others possess them all). Justice had them, and here’s a typical sample from his notebooks:

“A copy of Chekhov’s stories lying open on a table. I realized all at once how glad I was that this man had lived. And that I did right to be glad. Of what writers now could that honestly and simply be said? Take Norman Mailer, for instance. Please.”

And, if you haven’t already, please read Justice’s prose summa, “The Prose Sublime: Or, the Deep Sense of Things Belonging Together, Inexplicably.” Referring to a passage in Sherwood Anderson’s novel Poor White, Justice concludes his essay like this:

“In it, connections, if any, remain unstated; likewise meanings. As used to be remarked of poems, such passages resist paraphrase. Their power is hidden in mystery. There is, at most, an illusion of seeing momentarily into the heart of things - and the moment vanishes. It is this, perhaps, which produces the aesthetic blush.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

`Everything Beautiful Had Not Yet Vanished'

A specter, real or imagined, haunts Persons and Places – Henry James, dead more than 20 years when Santayana began writing his memoir. I first spied his blurred presence in the book’s more digressive passages, when Santayana eases up on the momentum of his chronological narrative to reflect. He writes less like an aging philosopher and more like a novelist with an essayistic streak. This reminds me of the attractive old chestnut about the Brothers James: William wrote philosophy like a novelist and Henry wrote novels like a philosopher. Here’s a sample of Santayana’s prose, about his great-uncle, James Sturgis, that might have shown up in one of James’ earlier, more comical stories or novels – say, The American (published the year Santayana turned 13):

“… [Uncle James] was cordial. That is the well-meant American substitute for being amiable; but it won’t do. It is being amiable on principle and about nothing in particular; whereas true amiability presupposes discernment, tact, a sense for what other people really feel and want. To be cordial is roughing a man’s head, to jolly him up [James would put that phrase in quotation marks], or kissing a child that doesn’t ask to be kissed. You are relieved when it’s over.”

Both writers, meeting trans-Atlantically, so to speak, were imperfectly at home in the old and new worlds. They shared a personal and writerly interest in expatriation and came equipped with the extra lens supplied by protracted residence in foreign lands. They were psychologists and anatomists of society. Both were aesthetes, but idiosyncratically. Both were branded, with only partial accuracy, as snobs, and both composed excellent prose. Later, describing his return to Ávila, Spain, where he lived as a child, Santayana sounds a deeper, more resonant Jamesian note:

“It was not, however, for the high mass on Sundays that I most often visited the Cathedral, or lingered there with the most pleasure. Any day at any hour, to make a short cut from street to street or to escape from the sun at the hot hours, I could traverse the dark cool aisles, or sit for a while in the transept, measuring the vaults with the eye, examining the rather nondescript stained glass, or the agreeable if somewhat obscure paintings in the great gilded reredos [a screen or decoration behind a church altar], or the two charming pulpits, or the sculptures in some old altar or tomb. Enough scent of wax and incense clung to the walls to preserve the atmosphere of cultus [religious practice, from the Latin for “care, cultivation, worship”], and the focus of it, where some old man or old woman might be seen kneeling in prayer, was usually some modern shrine; this was a living church, not a museum or a ruin. That circumstance, like Ávila itself, pleased and consoled me. Everything profound, everything beautiful had not yet vanished from the world.”

Both Santayana, the “Catholic atheist,” and James, a nonaligned seeming nonbeliever, wrote of spiritual matters obliquely, with a sense of nostalgia and loss. Their religious sense is an honored memory, not a living dogma or ritual. Religion reduced to obsessive observance of ritual is one of the themes of James’ “The Altar of the Dead,” the 1895 story that came to mind as I read this passage. George Stransom erects a shrine to his dead, in a Catholic church in London:

“…it became clear to him that the religion instilled by his earliest consciousness had been simply the religion of the Dead. It suited his inclination, it satisfied his spirit, it gave employment to his piety. It answered his love of great offices, of a solemn and splendid ritual; for no shrine could be more bedecked and no ceremonial more stately than those to which his worship was attached. He had no imagination about these things but that they were accessible to any one who should feel the need of them. The poorest could build such temples of the spirit - could make them blaze with candles and smoke with incense, make them flush with pictures and flowers. The cost, in the common phrase, of keeping them up fell wholly on the generous heart.”

For Santayana and James, ritual possesses an aesthetic appeal apart from its theology. In the cathedral, Santayana can’t stop being an art critic, and James’ protagonist professes love of “solemn and splendid ritual.” It’s the aura of the sacred, not devotion or observance of creed, that moves these writers. As a young man, James worked as a journalist of sorts – he wrote gallery reviews for magazines in England and the United States. He briefly returned to the practice in 1897, and covered an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London that included Whistler’s “Arrangement in Black No. 3” (a painting of Henry Irving as Philip II in Tennyson’s Queen Mary):

“To pause before such a work is in fact to be held to the spot by just the highest operation of the charm one has sought there – the charm of a certain degree of melancholy meditation.”

That final phrase characterizes the tone and prose ambience of Persons and Places and of James’ late fiction. In 1897, when he published his review of Whistler, James also produced What Maisie Knew and The Spoils of Poynton, works that signaled the start of his magisterial late flowering. Perhaps to clarify matters, we ought to note that Santayana studied under William James at Harvard and became his colleague in its philosophy department, without ever much caring for him. He enjoyed Henry’s company, however, though they met only once, late in the novelist’s life (he died in 1916). Santayana describes the occasion memorably in Persons and Places:

“…in that one interview he made me feel more at home, and better understood, than his brother William ever had done in the long years of our acquaintance. Henry was calm, he liked to see things as they are, and be free afterwards to imagine how they might have been. We talked about different countries as places of residence. He was of course subtle and bland, appreciative of all points of view, and amused at their limitation.”

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

`A Remarkable Clearness'

“I have never been adventurous; I need to be quiet in order to be free.”

I find this sentence immensely comforting in its wisdom and audacity. “Quiet” is the polar opposite of the modern world. Quiet is scorned and raises deep suspicions. Some have never known it. George Santayana’s counter-intuitive observation comes early in Persons and Places, the three-volume memoir he began writing on the cusp of his ninth decade. I’ve read much of his work and often return to Realms of Being for good sense and lucid prose, but Joseph Epstein’s essay on the final volume of Santayana’s collected letters, “The Permanent Transient,” in the June issue of The New Criterion, nudged me into finally reading the memoirs. Santayana seems to have an ameliorating effect on Epstein, soothing the joke reflex and encouraging his reflective side. Epstein admits as much. In recent years he has taken to reading the philosopher soon after waking each morning:

“Not only did the happy anticipation of returning to him serve as a reward for getting out of bed, but Santayana’s detachment, a detachment leading onto serenity, invariably had a calming effect. Reading him in the early morning made the world feel somehow more understandable, even its multiple mysteries, if not penetrable, taking on a tincture of poetry that made the darkest of them seem less menacing.”

From the library I took the critical edition of Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography, edited by William C. Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., and published in 1986 by the MIT Press. It combines three volumes in one – Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (1944), The Middle Span (1947) and My Host the World (1953, the year after Santayana’s death) -- and restores passages removed from earlier editions. It turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me to work on Monday.

My first class was high-school math. I was to make myself available to students who wanted supplemental help. None did. The teacher had written a problem on the smart board: calculate the area of a trapezoid. With the formula they already had in their notes, the calculation should have taken no more than 30 seconds, but two girls were eating cereal and milk; three boys drank cans of “sports drink”; the boy in front of me, whose T-shirt said “You want pie. You just don’t know it yet,” argued with another over the merits of Coke and Pepsi; a girl played poker on her cell phone and, of course, argued about it. Most of the students wore earphones for their iPods. One boy, a charmingly over-eager math nerd, had the answer in 12 seconds. No one else raised his hand, but Santayana offered assistance:

“If clearness about things produces a fundamental despair, a fundamental despair in turn produces a remarkable clearness or even playfulness about ordinary matters.”

Epstein, too, cites this passage in his review and adds:

“The world, in other words, viewed straight on may be a dark and terrible place, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t much to recommend it in the way of rich variety and splendid amusements [high among them, good books, Santayana’s among them].”

Epstein, by the way, makes no effort to whitewash Santayana, who said foolish things about politics (as most writers do) and was unforgivably anti-Semitic: “…it is the coarseness of Santayana’s remarks about Jews, coming from an otherwise so refined intelligence, that is so unsettling…those of us who find so much to admire in Santayana’s other writing wish he had not revealed himself, this most uncommon of men, as just another common Jew-hater.”

In the afternoon I returned to the same math class and put my book bag and lunch box on a desk at the rear of the room. While I spoke with the teacher, a boy walked up to the desk where I planned to sit, pushed my belongings on the floor and sat down. I asked why he did that, and he worked up a great show of outrage that someone had claimed his desk. He refused to apologize and spoke in commiserating murmurs with his buddies. The teacher told me later, “He’s not even one of the worst ones.”

Santayana comes across as a deeply conservative man who would have been appalled by the ignorance, vulgarity and absence of decorum I witness almost daily in schools. He honored tradition, dignity, decorum and order. A Spaniard who never became an American citizen, he lived as a child for several years in Ávila and often visited his family there. He writes of the city:

“Almost all the women appeared to be in mourning, and the older men also. There was nothing forced or affected in this: people were simply resigned to the realities of mother nature and of human nature; and in its simplicity their existence was deeply civilized, not by modern conveniences but by moral tradition. `It is the custom,’ they would explain half apologetically, half proudly to the stranger when any little ceremony or courtesy was mentioned peculiar to the place. If things were not the custom, what reason could there be for doing them? What reason could there be for living, if it were not the custom to live, to suffer, and to die? Frankly, Ávila was sad; but for me it was a great relief to hear that things were the custom, and not that they were right, or necessary, or that I ought to do them.”

Monday, June 08, 2009

`The Gentlest Whisper'

No wonder the masses trample each other fleeing poetry. In “The Goblin and the Poet,” verse comes off as the opiate of the holier-than-thou. The production the boys and I saw was adapted from a story by Hans Christian Andersen and performed with Bunraku-style puppets, with puppeteers dressed like ninja beekeepers. The story pits a miserly shopkeeper and his wife against the poet who lives in their garret. Between them comes a goblin who likes butter in his porridge but is tempted by the poet’s noble sentiments. At one point, the word “creativity” floats across the stage.

Chosen to illustrate the wonders of poetry and seduce the goblin Nisen (Danish for goblin, not an automobile) are a haiku by Kobayashi Issa and “Stars” by Langston Hughes – very multicultural. Though the play is set in 19th-century Denmark, the first line of the latter poem is recited without fear of anachronism: “O, sweep of stars over Harlem streets.” The greedy grocer, a cartoon embodiment of mercantile Philistinism, dismisses poetry as “a waste of time,” and says, “I get all I need from the daily newspaper.”

The audience of mostly mothers and preschoolers was restive. About two-thirds of the way through the show my 6-year-old, in a stage whisper, said: “This is really boring. Can we go now?” I was tempted but worried we might wake the audience. We stuck to our seats. The shopkeeper would have approved: I got the tickets for free.

I’m reading William Logan’s most recent collection, Strange Flesh, which includes “Cedar Key after Storm,” written in memory of Donald Justice. The year he died, 2004, was rough on some of our best poets. We lost Anthony Hecht, Czeslaw Milosz and Thom Gunn. Justice was a poet of memory and twilight, and of exquisite craft, who worked in small forms and has never been sufficiently recognized as one of the chief experimental poets of the era. One feels he could have done anything in poetry except write it pretentiously. Read the final stanza of Logan’s poem and know he is speaking simultaneously of the poet’s final illness and of his work:

“Your voice was the gentlest whisper,
Your health had gone so fast.
Of all the things you were,
Perhaps that would be the last.”

Justice and Logan would be unlikely to find a place in the scheme of “The Poet and the Goblin” or in most popular understandings of poetry. Consider “The Thin Man” from Justice’s 1967 collection, Night Light:

“I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
Nothing suffices.

“I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.”

Sunday, June 07, 2009

`A Born Writer'

What makes the lives and works of a few people – Samuel Johnson, Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong chief among them – so inexhaustibly compelling is their likeness to us, their homely humanity, mingled with unlikely, seemingly extra-human genius. The latter quality, I suppose, is always unlikely, certainly rare, but somehow it doesn’t surprise us in Mozart, Pasteur or Proust. Perhaps humble origins (Armstrong spent time in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys – an orphanage), spells of poverty and scanty formal education are part of the answer. Whatever the explanation, we can imagine ourselves as Johnson, Lincoln or Armstrong without presuming to share a fraction of their gifts. What we share are the modesty of their human dimensions.

The Library of American has dedicated one of its better collections to the 16th president, to mark his bicentenary. Harold Holzer edits The Lincoln Anthology, and what fun it must have been digging around in archives and out-of-print books, in search of what the subtitle makes explicit: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now. Which prompts my only quibble: “Great” is grossly misleading. Many contributors deserve the appellation (Whitman, Melville, Twain, Tolstoy), and others ought to be included out of a commitment to oddness or documentary completeness (Karl Marx, Henrik Ibsen, Bram Stoker). But why Irving Stone, Dale Carnegie, E.L Doctorow and, God help us, Allen Ginsberg (who adapts the words of another anti-American blowhard, Pablo Neruda)? That Lincoln’s humanity attracted diverse, multinational (Victor Hugo?) admiration is inarguable.

I’ve written before about the selections by Marianne Moore and Jacques Barzun, though another passage from the latter (“Lincoln the Writer”) is worth reproducing:

“One does not need to be a literary man to see that Lincoln was a born writer, nor a psychologist to guess that here is a youth of uncommon mold – strangely self-assertive, yet detached, and also laboring under a sense of misfortune.”

Like any good anthology, this one is assembled for savoring, not a forced march. First, I read some old favorites – Whitman in particular, but also extracts from William Dean Howells’ 1860 campaign biography and Gen. Grant’s Personal Memoirs – then moved on to the curiosities, such as Stoker’s (from “Lecture on Abraham Lincoln,” 1893):

“Lincoln had feet of enormous size, uncommon even in a region where bare feet or moccasins were the ordinary wear for some generations of pioneers.”

Stoker (1842-1912), by the way, traveled throughout the United States as manager of the English actor Henry Irving, was an admirer of Whitman and met the poet in 1884. New to me was Ibsen’s contribution, “Abraham Lincoln’s Murder” (translated from the Norwegian by John Northam), a poem written shortly after the president’s assassination, when the future playwright was 37. It’s deliciously awful:

“But if we all sink in corruption’s lair
don’t count on laments from me
over each of the poisonous flowers that flare
and mass on this age’s tree.”

Edmund Wilson’s Lincoln piece from Patriotic Gore is still bullheaded and ungenerous, Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body is still unreadable, and Shelby Foote’s telling of the assassination and its aftermath in The Civil War: A Narrative is still heartbreaking – particularly when read as the coda to the preceding three volumes:

“Bells were tolling all over Washington by the time Lincoln’s body, wrapped in a flag and placed in a closed hearse, was on its way back to the White House, escorted (as he had not been when he left, twelve hours before) by an honor guard of soldiers and preceded by a group of officers walking bareheaded in the rain. He would lie in state, first in the East Room, then afterwards in the Capitol rotunda, preparatory to the long train ride back to Springfield, where he would at last be laid to rest. `Nothing touches the tired spot,’ he had said often in the course of the past four years. Now Booth’s derringer had reached it.”

Saturday, June 06, 2009

`We Always Love Our Mushrooms'

The garden is three islands of soil surrounded by sidewalks and the walls of the high school. My work partner was a woman of 70, sturdy as an oak, who emigrated from the Ukraine 20 years ago, after Chernobyl. We parked two girls in wheelchairs on the grass so they could watch us work the plots, already densely planted by her in the Ukrainian style – flowers on the perimeter, vegetables, herbs and fruit trees at the center. I planted pumpkin and marigold seeds, she covered them with sheets of newspaper (to keep the birds away), and I watered them with the hose.

My fellow-gardener was a concert violinist in the Ukraine, and sometimes she brings her violin to school and plays for the kids in the special-education program. Her favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. We talked about the latter’s dance of-death with Stalin and she said, “The Communists made their own truth. One day a man was an enemy of the people; the next, they named a street after him.” Her husband is Polish, born in Chełm – a city of fools, according to Jewish folklore (see Isaac Bashevis Singer). She visited once, to view a memorial for the Poles dead in World War II, her husband’s father among them.

We talked of gardening, Poland, the war, children, Russian (the language was mandatory in Ukrainian schools), herbal medicines, blackberries – and mushrooms, the subject that moved her to eloquence: “The Communists could not control our love of mushrooms. They tried but we kept it secret. We always love our mushrooms.” I told her of my meeting with Mikhail Iossel, the Russian-American writer who wrote a story about a gribnik, a mushroom hunter, based on his childhood in a birch forest outside Leningrad. “I have been there,” she said. “The Communists gave it that name. It is St. Petersburg.”

In “Lascaux,” an essay in Barbarian in the Garden, Zbigniew Herbert describes his first morning in Montignac, a village in the Vézère Valley near the Paleolithic cave paintings. He eats an omelette with truffles for breakfast, which prompts a digression on the much-prized, pig-hunted, subterranean mushrooms:

“Truffles belong to the world history of human folly, hence to the history of art.”

Friday, June 05, 2009

`Some Things You'll Never See'

I was supposed to babysit a high-school kid suspended for cussing out a female teacher in two languages. I’d spent a day with him two months ago after he’d shoved a female teacher, and the prospect of another seven and a half hours in his company felt like waking up in a Wallace Shawn play. After waiting almost three hours I was reprieved: He never showed up and I was reassigned to the special-education program where the kids have real problems.

At lunch I shared a table with seven teachers, all but one talking about television shows I had never heard of. The seventh, older than the rest of us, was silent, eating his Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada with Mexican-Style Rice. Out of admiration I kept quiet too and finished reading William Logan’s Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. When you read Logan and have smart friends, you want call them up and share his best lines, and laugh until the snot runs from your nose. But I controlled myself and silently savored, among other things, this from his review of a Gary Snyder volume:

“This compassionate, benign, grizzled patriarch, supporter of just causes, sensitive to the land around him, a Buddhist (more or less), is the sort of man you’d call if you had to overhaul a tractor engine or drag a cow out of the mud (he’s also the sort of man who asks a mountain for help and thinks that it answers). If you want someone to write you a decent poem, however, you’d better look elsewhere. A lot of readers buy poetry books because they agree with the author’s character or politics and like to be thought of as people who read such things…”

Then I pulled out Deborah Warren’s Meridian Zone, which I’m enjoying inordinately. The author bio says she only started writing poetry in 1996 and that she and her husband have nine children and raise heifers on a farm in Vermont. I hope she calls Gary Snyder if one of them – child, heifer -- gets stuck in the mud.

Warren often writes about the centrality of reading in our lives, though never specifically about the reading of poetry (except The Aeneid). The first section of Zero Meridian, “Silent Reading,” includes “Dialogue with Myself,” a defense of reading – fiction in particular:

“I spend a lot of time in haunts not only
off the beaten track – they don’t exist:
Chez Swann, in Casterbridge, at Troy, at nowhere

Get a life! you say. God! What you’ve missed!
Hey, yeah – let’s spend the even in a chair.
Let’s live it up with dim protagonists.
Let’s dally on the sofa with Voltaire.
It’s kind of scary (not to mention lonely)
when your entire social life consists
of ghosts and venues like a blasted heath.
Besides – I have to tell you – it’s escapist.
Life? Your life’s a kind of living death,

“you say. So do your living. As for me,
maybe I’ve seen some things you’ll never see.”

We recognize the inner scold – the voice of parents, real and imagined – nagging us to close the book, go out and get some fresh air. It’s not healthy. You’re living in a fantasy world. Think what you’re doing to your eyes. They may be right but I know Odette better than some former girlfriends, and the same goes for Michael Henchard and Achilles. “Maybe I’ve seen some things you’ll never see.”

Thursday, June 04, 2009

`We Rely on Nothing'

In preparation for Friday’s spelling test my 8-year-old had to write “certain” (among other words) three times and use it in a sentence. He could have written “I’m certain I will have pizza for dinner tonight” or “I’m certain I’ll get 300 pounds of Pokémon cards for my birthday next month.” They would have reflected ardent but incorrect usage, for neither of those things happened or will happen. Instead he wrote “I’m certain that 12 x 5 = 60,” and that pleases me. It suggests a more-than-superficial understanding of certainty and a budding sense of humility and proportion. Wishing offers no leverage on the world; unchecked, it become quietism or truly obnoxious behavior.

Etymology helps us here. “Certainty” is rooted in the Latin certus, “sure, fixed,” a variant of cernere, “to distinguish, decide,” originally “to sift, separate.” This implies certainty is not a received truth but the product of an act. Discernment and judgment precede certainty. We sift evidence – hard facts but also experience, knowledge, intuition.

While Michael was doing his homework I was in the next room reading an interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Guardian. Asked about the origins of her novels, she says: “If I know where an idea’s from, I don't use it. It means it has a synthetic quality, rather than something organic to my thinking.” This is lovely, and runs counter to notions of thesis-driven art. Trust in one’s tested instincts, and distrust of ready-made formulas, reflects the sifting and separating that go into a mature arrival at certainty. It’s a credo of use only to great artists.

What we know and how we know it, the gulf between desire and certainty, and the sadness and regret that result, are themes explored by Deborah Warren in Zero Meridian, her 2004 poetry collection. These are some of the best recent poems I’ve read. Here’s the title poem:

“It’s here beneath us, as invisible
as zero; but although there’s nothing there,
although it’s an abstraction – purely notion –
nonetheless, they drew a line in air
and based the world on it.
And you could say
in the grand scheme of things it matters more
than my October maples, or the ocean
throwing the waves like sapphires at the shore,
or even your mouth and eyes –
and I’d reply:
maybe you’re right. To take the measure of
anything that matters, we rely
on nothing – things like longitude and love.”

Another of my son’s spelling words this week is “flexible,” and here’s his sentence using it: “Baskets are woven out of flexible twigs.” I’m not certain where he learned that but he certainly sounds certain.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

`An Untarnished Sense of Possibility'

My copy of Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, William Logan’s fifth collection of criticism in 11 years, just published by Columbia University Press, has arrived, and I turned first thing to his review of Geoffrey Hill’s A Treatise on Civil Power:

“English has rarely possessed a poet who listens so closely to its whispers or is as willing to expose its secret etiquettes. Hill lies at the end of a long line of Romantic poets with classical reserve – Coleridge and Eliot stagger though the background here.”

I read this when it was published more than a year ago in the New York Times Book Review, as I have previously read much of the new book’s contents, but Logan is a critic one returns to not only for clear-eyed, clear-earred evaluations but for his way with the language: I remembered “secret etiquettes,” and was struck by the notion of Hill as a listener to whispers. Most critics are likelier to suggest he hears only howitzers.

Logan’s reputation in contemporary letters is rooted in his harsh intolerance of the various smug, gimcrack, sterile, self-indulgent, theory-driven, tin-eared effusions dominating poetry today. He’s refreshingly unapologetic about his stance: “The critic’s besetting vice is generosity.” As the wisecrack suggests, he’s also the funniest critic since Randall Jarrell. Logan acknowledges as much in the new collection’s first essay, “The Bowl of Diogenes; or, The End of Criticism,” which serves as introduction and critical credo:

“Yet critics know the future may pluck up some writer they think a nonentity and say, `Here, here, the critics were blind to genius!’ Randall Jarrell said something similar fifty years ago, but Randall Jarrell often said fifty years ago the very things I want to say about poetry now.”

Critics ask why Logan continues to writes about contemporary poetry if he finds so little worthy of his admiration, but that’s a dumb question. On the positive side he might reply, as he does in “The Bowl of Diogenes”:

“A critic is, nonetheless, the most optimistic man alive, living in perpetual hope, like a Latter-day Saint. No matter how many times he is disappointed, he opens each new book with an untarnished sense of possibility. If, amid the dust heaps of mediocrity, he does find a few books rich and strange, such is the essential generosity of this peculiar craft that his first impulse is to call everyone he knows and to buttonhole strangers on the street.”

And, on the less positive side, the immediately subsequent sentences:

“It’s his duty, however, to hold up weaker books to public scorn. Bad books do drive out good ones – it’s the Gresham’s law of literature.”

I confess to a few reservations about Logan’s M.O., most related to one of Auden’s strictures: “One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” This gets complicated because most books – most human creations – are bad, and part of a critic’s essential task is to alert us to their badness, particularly when such creations come extravagantly blurbed. To his credit, Logan is generally funniest when he’s most savage, especially in contrast to the in-bred backslapping that usually passes for poetry reviewing. For the sake of his mortal soul I’d like to see Logan exercise more charity and less cleverness for its own sake. Too often he’s like the comedian who laughs at his own – admittedly funny -- jokes.

The collection’s title tells a tale, or many tales. Logan appends nine epigraphs, one from the 18th century, the others from the 19th, and all include the phrase “savage art.” Ann Radcliffe, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and George Saintsbury I know; the others are new to me. I would enjoy reading an essay on the phrase’s gradations of meaning among the passages. I would also enjoy knowing if Logan found each passage independently or relied on Google. Either way, it’s an impressive mustering of learning.

I’ve only just started reading and rereading Our Savage Art but already I’ve claimed several favorites. Jack Gilbert’s poetry, I’ve always thought, was false and boring, and I let it go at that. Logan is a diagnostician of badness in all its curious forms, and here he is on Gilbert’s:

“Gilbert’s prosy, cheerless sentences pile up in patient suffering, suffering that prides itself on being without pity or delusion (which means it’s riven with self-pity and self-delusion). One of the pleasures of his work is that the pathos is cut with masochism – you feel he couldn’t write so much about misery without a taste for it, and like many miserable people he writes about laughter in ways that make you want to weep.”

Logan is a nuanced moralist as well as a mere poetry critic, and would have earned the admiration of La Rochefoucauld and Dr. Johnson. One more example, this from a review of Franz Wright’s God’s Silence:

“He has few poetic gifts beyond displaying his wounds in public; but the breast-beating apologias are cast in language so clumsy and affected, they seem a lie. Has any poet ever wanted so badly to be sincere, or failed so miserably?”

Contemporary American poetry brings to mind the title of Charles Mackay’s bestselling volume from 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Otherwise intelligent people read the likes of Gilbert, Wright (Franz, Charles), Ashbery, Collins, Hoagland, Kooser and their brethren, and delusion grips them like a straight jacket. The poor cusses believe with zealous certainty they’re reading poetry, even good poetry. Reasoning with them is futile. In rare cases, laughter works its restorative magic. Give Logan the final word:

“Jorie Graham loves big ideas the way small boys love big trucks.”

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

`Bibliomania Was the Hobbyhorse'

In the morning I worked in a grade-school library, shelving books and deleting others. The latter was unexpectedly satisfying. I waited for a good opportunity to get self-righteously outraged but it never came. Most of the books were moral tales from the Age of Diversity – awful preachy things unworthy of bright children. I passed the bar code of each castoff under the red light and an alarming red “DELETED” appeared on the computer screen, accompanied by a digitalized squawk. Using a heavy black marker I blotted out evidence of the library’s ownership and added it to the heap destined to go, I was told, to “charity.”

On my break in library limbo I almost finished reading William Osler: A Life in Medicine (1999) by the Canadian historian Michael Bliss. The history of medicine has always interested me more than its theory and practice, and Bliss is a master of documentation. He deploys it gracefully, working rich detail into a fluid narrative, and he isn’t afraid to digress. Bliss suspends the flow to touch on such matters as the 20th century’s Victorian inheritance, the evolving nature of doctor-patient relations, Canada’s cultural ties to England, World War I – and Walt Whitman. It turns out Osler (1849-1919) examined the poet several times at his home in Camden, N.J., introduced by Whitman’s acolyte, the Canadian psychologist Dr. Richard Bucke. Osler, who later came to admire Whitman’s poetry, wrote of him:

“[He] was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking, majestically, with a large frame and well-shaped, well-poised head, covered with a profusion of snow-white hair which mingled in the cheeks with a heavy, long beard and moustache….I left with the pleasant impression of having seen a splendid old man, and a room the grand disorder of which filled me with envy.”

Bliss informs us Osler also treated William and Henry James, and James Murray, the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He socialized with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, was partly responsible for getting Gertrude Stein kicked out of Johns Hopkins University, and even shows up in Finnegans Wake: “The ogry Osler will oxmaul us all.” Seldom do I encounter a reader whose temperament and tastes in books are so closely aligned with my own. To encounter such bookish kinship is a pleasing shock, particularly when it comes in the form of a Canadian physician who died 90 years ago. Osler was an antiquarian and bibliophile. Among his favorite writers were Montaigne, Shakespeare, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Sterne, Swift, Coleridge, Keats and Lamb. Bliss writes of his years in medical school:

“…Osler was well on his way to becoming a compulsive writer and reader, infatuated with the written and printed word. Or most words – he always remembered reading the [London] Times one October day in 1872 in a Tottenham Court Road teashop and being struck by a statement of John Ruskin’s to the effect that no mind could resist for a year the dulling influence of the daily newspaper.”

In 1892, Osler published The Principles and Practice of Medicine, the 1,050-page medical textbook he wrote single-handedly. It remained the standard text for more than 40 years and stayed in print until 2001. Even in a textbook his bibliomania was evident:

“He mentioned historical figures ranging Hippocrates, Mephibosheth, and Sir Thomas Browne, through Montaigne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Coleridge, and Swift.”

Osler adored Tristram Shandy, and in a paper devoted to birth injuries he included a footnote that “directed readers to the ravages of Dr Slop’s forceps…” In addition, Bliss reports: “At times he admitted to whistling that he might not weep, like Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy.” The biographer quotes this from one of Osler’s letters: “How I should have liked to get drunk with Charles Lamb.” And this refers to a time late in Osler’s life, after he had settled in Oxford:

“Back in his study at 13 Northam Gardens, Osler would have opened parcel after parcel of books shipped home from the antiquarian shops of France and Italy. Book collecting and the study of medical bibliography was now edging off his agenda the clinical case studies that had long ago overtaken the pathological work. Bibliomania was the hobbyhorse Osler rode for the rest of his days. In a talk about it, he suggested that one of the best features of British life was the tendency of physicians to have hobbies.”

After Osler’s death, his first edition of his favorite book, Browne’s Religio Medici, rested on his coffin. On the night before his burial, his family was pleased that his body remained in the Lady Chapel at Christ Church, near Burton’s tomb and effigy. I found a copy of A Way of Life and Selected Writings of Sir William Osler, which includes the learned, loving essays Osler wrote about Browne and Burton. In the Browne essay, Osler indulges his love of fanciful convergences:

The Anatomy of Melancholy, which appeared in 1621, must have proved a stimulating bonne-bouche [savory morsel or tidbit] for the Oxford men of the day, and I like to think of the eagerness with which so ardent a student as Browne of Pembroke would have pounced on the second and enlarged edition which appeared in 1624. He may, indeed, have been a friend of Burton, or he may have formed one of a group of undergraduates to watch Democritus Junior leaning over the bridge and laughing at the bargees as they swore at each other. It is stated, I know not on what authority, that Browne practiced in Oxford for a time.”

In a pleasing bibliophilic coda, the first biography of Osler was written by one of his students, Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869-1939), the eminent American neurosurgeon. The two-volume work was published in 1925, and Cushing was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography the following year. In 2005, Bliss published his biography of Cushing.