Saturday, October 24, 2009

`Alert Exclusions, Keen Selectivities'

After reading what I had written about P.G. Wodehouse on Friday, Dave Lull asked if I knew anything about Will Cuppy, an American writer much admired by Wodehouse. He was only a name to me, a newspaper columnist, I thought, who worked in an era when serious readers read humorists and even bought their books. Dave passed along a column about Cuppy from The University Bookman written by James V. Schall, S.J., which makes Cuppy and his work sound attractive. He sounds, in fact, like yet another newly discovered proto-blogger :

“Cuppy was evidently a great reader, which is how he gets into this series on letters and essays. It seems he would read anything and everything that he could on a topic. Finally, he would write an essay of two or three lucid pages distilling what he learned. Here is a man after my own heart. Some of the greatest things ever said have been said in two or three pages. Aquinas did it all the time.”

A writer who can link a half-forgotten American humorist to Aquinas (and later, St. Augustine), and commend their stylistic kinship, has earned my respect and attention. I like writers with the suppleness of mind to dance nimbly among subjects. Another is Anthony Hecht, whose The Transparent Man (1990) I was reading while eating my lunch in the faculty lounge. Typical of Hecht’s dancing spirit is “Meditation,” which carries an unidentified epigraph, one he borrowed from the last poem Yeats published during his lifetime, “Under Ben Bulben”:

“Quattrocento put in paint
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul's at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream.
And when it's vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.”

Twice in Hecht’s poem appears the line “Nothing is ever lost,” a consolation, but what I especially admire is the description of an orchestra tuning up, the portion of a concert some find annoying but one I’ve always enjoyed. The poet likens it to chatter at a cocktail party and, finally, imminent mortality:

“The orchestra tunes up, each instrument
In lunatic monologue putting on its airs,
Oblivious, haughty, full of self-regard.
The flute fingers its priceless strand of pearls,
Nasal disdain is eructed by the horn,
The strings let drop thin overtones of malice,
Inchoate, like the dense garbling of voices
At a cocktail party, which the ear sorts out
By alert exclusions, keen selectivities.
A five-way conversation, at its start
Smooth and intelligible as a Brahms quintet,
Disintegrates after one’s third martini
To dull orchestral nonsense, the jumbled fragments
Of domestic friction in a foreign tongue,
Accompanied by a private sense of panic:
This surely must be how old age arrives,
Quite unannounced, when suddenly one fine day
Some trusted faculty has gone forever.”

Hecht and Schall both taught at Georgetown University, and I would have enjoyed their conversation at a cocktail party or in the faculty lounge.

1 comment:

tickletext said...

I recommend Schall's Another Sort of Learning, which, in addition to the splendid essays, is full of interesting book lists such as "Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By", "Seven Books on Sports and Serious Reflection", "Seven Books on the Limits of Politics", "Five Books Addressed to the Heart of Things"--etc.