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.”


Rowland said...

"Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well."

William A. Sigler said...

I'm struck by the way Justice unpacks Pound's imagist program via Percy Lubbock's quote on James: "the image escapes and evades like a cloud." The process of "objects taking the place of perceptions", as Justice puts it, is of course a key concern of Santayana in The Sense of Beauty, whose central thesis is "beauty is constituted by the objectification of pleasure." By pleasure, he means aesthetic pleasure, the "aesthetic blush" that can, 112 years on, encompass things undreamed of in the old philosopher in Rome's philosophy:

"Apprehension, doubt, isolation, are things which come upon us keenly when we reflect upon our lives; they cannot easily become qualities of any object. If by chance they can, they acquire a great aesthetic value."

I wonder what Santayana would make of blogs. I sense a clue in one of Justice's poems, "Last Days of Prospero." Sounding more like Stevens than Shakespeare, the Tempest wizard here gives new meaning to the term surfing the web:

"Some change in the wording of the charm,
Some slight reshuffling of negative
And verb, perhaps - that should suffice.
But meanwhile he will pace the strand,
Debating, as old men will, with himself
Or with the waves, and still the waves
Come back at him always with the same
Low chucklings or grand, indifferent sighs."