Thursday, August 06, 2009

`The Rough and Vulgar Facts'

Louise Bogan was so fond of a maxim by La Rochefoucauld, she planned to use it as the epigraph for her “long prose thing,” a blur of memoir and fiction worked on for 30 years but never published during her lifetime:

“The accent and character of one’s native region live in the mind and heart just as in one’s speech.”

My native region is Cleveland, where I fly next week to visit my brother and his family, and rendezvous with my oldest son, who lives in New York City. The Cleveland accent is the rough-hewn lilt of the industrial working class of my youth, a culture that seems no longer to exist. The Cleveland character is rooted in practicality and hard work, trust in experience over abstraction, and distrust of pretension. That’s my inheritance, one I was once reluctant to accept though it constitutes some of what I most value in my “mind and heart.”

Bogan never came to a satisfactory truce with her shabby-genteel childhood – born Irish-Catholic in Maine, raised in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I’ve loved her work for 40 years, in part, because of this sense of a shared past and because she ordered her turbulence in formal verse. She is never “confessional” in the vulgar sense. Bogan writes in her journal in 1961:

“The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”

Whining about one’s childhood is distasteful, disloyal and embarrassing. Mine, in ways I’ll never fathom, left me with a love of books and the natural world, and immunized me against boredom. In 1933, Bogan writes this enigmatic entry in her journal:

“Santayana’s classic world – the people in Chekhov `seen against the sky’: this is what I knew in childhood and had no word for: this is `the light falling down through the universe,’ the look and feeling of which has haunted me for so long –”

[On Wednesday, as a preview of things to come, my brother sent me a link to Dave Van Ronk performing Furry Lewis’ version of "Stackerlee.”]


Jim Murdoch said...

A thing that I despair at is that written English all but wipes out any evidence of location. It's bland and colourless. Considering its size Britain has a striking number of accents. The city of Glasgow alone has several. Occasionally I like to write a story or a poem in one. I veer towards what you would recognise as a Billy Connolly accent but the simple fact is that it renders what I write almost impossible for most other cultures to appreciate without putting in some extra effort. I do it because how something is said is just as important as what it said. A good example is to look at what Stravinsky made of jazz. He saw sheet music before he ever heard it but was utterly floored by the real thing because it only paid lip service to what was on the page and yet was so much more. When my wife – she's an American – first came over here there were times when she heard me having conversations with people and had to ask afterwards what we were talking about but she loved the colour of the dialogue, "rough and vulgar" as it often is.

Nige said...

'Distasteful, disloyal and embarrassing' - I so agree. I have an uncle who is still whining about his childhood - in his 80s! It disfigures him.