Thursday, December 31, 2009

`Just Drop Your Mind Into It'

I took the boys to see Avatar, a long, loud, kitschy paean to nature mysticism and noble savagery. I left the theater with a headache, sore ass and the wish to see Tokyo Story again, but took solace from a poem by D.J. Enright I had read the night before. It’s about poetry but it might as well be about movies, another art form possibly beyond resuscitation in our time. Here’s “Buy One Now” (from Collected Poems, 1948-98; originally in Sad Ires, 1975):

“This is a new sort of Poem,
It is Biological.
It contains a special Ingredient
(Pat. pend.) which makes it different
From other brands of poem on the market.

“This new Poem does the work for you.
Just drop your mind into it
And leave it to soak
While you relax with the telly
Or go out to the pub
Or (if that is what you like)
You read a book.

“It does the work for you
While (if that is what you like)
You sleep. For it is Biological
(Pat. Pend.), it penetrates
Into the darkest recesses,
It removes the understains
Which it is difficult for us
Even to speak of.

“Its action is so gentle
That the most delicate mind is unharmed.
This new sort of Poem
Contains an exclusive new Ingredient
(Known only to every jackass in the trade)
And can be found in practically any magazine
You care to mention.”

Avatar is cynically attuned to the conventional wisdom of the day: Indians good, cavalry bad. When the movie opened two weeks ago, several high-school students I was working with went to see it. Their review arrived in the form of a single, often repeated word , one that I hope is soon criminalized: “Awesome!” They were unable to say anything else about Avatar, not even a hint of the plot. As Enright says of his “new sort of Poem”: “Its action is so gentle / That the most delicate mind is unharmed.”

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

`Entertainment for God'

Thanks to Dave Lull for this link to a story about the great J.F. Powers, who is quoted as saying in an interview:

“There is a common quality in all art; in a sense that really good paintings, sculpture, music, writing have. I can't name it. It has something to do with God-given spirit, going beyond oneself. I think it's possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It's possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy even of God's attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it. I don't think God is there and we're here, and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.”

And thanks to Joe of New York City for alerting me to this lecture by Geoffrey Hill on the occasion of John Milton’s 400th birthday.

`A Fat Wee Spug'

For centuries, friends and loved ones separated by city blocks or oceans have found comfort in gazing at the moon. Call it romantic delusion, but the sense of synchronized mutual wonder is seductive. The internet can foster comparable feelings of companionability across time and space. On Tuesday, Nige noted a noteworthy sighting:

“I spotted a bird I couldn't at first identify, sitting restlessly on a wire fence. For a wonder, it stayed there long enough for me to raise my binoculars, locate it and focus on it - when I realised, to my quite inordinate delight, that it was a Tree Sparrow. I hadn't seen one in a long while, and had forgotten how pretty and charming these little sparrows - now on the Red List of endangered species - are.”

Nige describes a sensation I know well – bafflement followed by satisfaction and awe, and within walking distance of home. I talked about this with my sister-in-law, who has a Ph.D. in ornithology, on Christmas. She spoke of rescuing albatrosses trapped in concrete catch-basins at an airbase on Midway Island. I spoke of watching crows harvest seeds in my leaf-covered backyard, and never once felt out-classed.

Tuesday afternoon I took the boys to a park near our house where I had already noted a cluster of umbrella-shaped trees. Their branches grow horizontally about seven feet above the ground. Even now in their leafless state the twigs and branches are so densely upholstered with lichens and moss as to render those seeking shelter virtually rainproof.

I was leaning against a wooden wall, idly gazing at the trees, when I noticed movement, a momentary wink in the mossy branches. A bird, yes, but which among those in the vast category a birder I know in upstate New York calls LBJs – little brown jobs? I doubted my eyes, suspecting wish fulfillment, but I know the markings – a tree sparrow, American cousin to Nige’s handsome little fellow. It was never still, hopping and turning its head in manner that, if reproduced in a human would appear spastic. I timed his visit – nine seconds, and off. I have never met Nige, never heard his voice, but he seemed just around the corner.

Permit me to add another layer of connection to this time-and-space-defying picture. Thoreau notes tree sparrows dozens of times in his journal, more often than he does robins or catbirds. Here’s his entry from Dec. 4, 1856, confirming the acuity of his eye and his painterly sense of color and scene:

“Saw and heard cheep faintly one little tree sparrow, the neat chestnut crowned and winged and white-barred bird, perched on a large and solitary white birch. So clean and tough, made to withstand the winter. This color reminds me of the upper side of the shrub oak leaf. I love the few homely colors of Nature at this season,--her strong wholesome browns, her sober and primeval grays, her celestial blue, her vivacious green, her pure, cold, snowy white.”

Thirteen days later Thoreau writes:

“That feeble cheep of the tree sparrow, like the tinkling of an icicle, or the chafing of two hard shrub oak twigs, is probably a call to their mate, by which they keep together. These birds, when perched, look larger than usual this cold and windy day; they are puffed up for warmth, have added a porch to their doors.”

A reader leaves a comment at Nige’s blog -- “a fat wee spug.” Thanks to Basil Bunting I recognize that last, quite un-American bit of English. One of the epigraphs to Briggflatts is “Son los pasariellos del mal pelo exidos," translated by the poet as “The spuggies are fledged.” In his notes to the poem Bunting glosses the noun as “little sparrows,” a phrase which to me sounds redundant, especially if they're fledged.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

`Pleasing in Familiar Life'

One of my oldest friends, Suzanne Murphy, is the now-retired high-school English teacher who from 1968 to 1970 taught me grammar, composition, creative writing and the difference between “finished” and “done.” She also taught me to be very suspicious of the adverb “very.” With her I read Mr. Sammler’s Planet as it was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. She was, and remains, a friend I trust implicitly, my first confidante. I never set out to erase the natural teacher-student imbalance. If I had, I would have proven myself an unworthy student, but time has softened our differences and we can call each other, without a false show of equality, “friend.”

Her Christmas card arrived one day after the holiday and contained a photo of her sitting with her daughter, two grandchildren and another former English teacher of mine – the wonderful woman who introduced me to Yeats. In her note Suzanne writes:

“I remain grateful for a casual sentence you said on your last visit: `I don’t fix things.’ I mulled it over for a long time and have retired from fixing.”

She could have claimed the advice as her own because I have no memory of uttering it. I’m not certain what it means and Suzanne offers no gloss, but I’m happy to finally begin repaying my unpayable debt. Perhaps the words represent an acceptance of limits, a hard, essential lesson, though I’m unaware of any limits to our friendship. Suzanne merits the finest encomium memory serves up – lines from Samuel Johnson’s Rambler #64, published Oct. 27, 1750:

“That friendship may be at once fond and lasting, there must not only be equal virtue on each part, but virtue of the same kind; not only the same end must be proposed, but the same means must be approved by both. We are often, by superficial accomplishments and accidental endearments, induced to love those whom we cannot esteem; we are sometimes, by great abilities, and incontestable evidences of virtue, compelled to esteem those whom we cannot love. But friendship, compounded of esteem and love, derives from one its tenderness, and its permanence from the other; and therefore, requires not only that its candidates should gain the judgment, but that they should attract the affections; that they should not only be firm in the day of distress, but gay in the hour of jollity; not only useful in exigencies, but pleasing in familiar life; their presence should give cheerfulness as well as courage, and dispel alike the gloom of fear and of melancholy.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

`A Crutch Posing As a Mission'

I’m reading more than at almost any time in my life but spending less time reading online. The two facts have a common source – a festering impatience with shoddy writing. My literary gut, when young, was goat-like -- tough and indiscriminate. I read everything remotely of interest and felt compelled to finish every book I started. This makes sense: Everything was new, and how could I knowledgeably sift wheat from chaff without first milling, baking and ingesting? Literary prejudice, in a healthy reader, intensifies with age. I know and trust my tastes, and no longer need to read William Burroughs to figure out he wrote sadistic trash.

My appetite for books – often those I’ve read before, sometimes several times – is undiminished, though predilections have shifted – less fiction, more poetry, history, biography, religion and philosophy. I’m ruthless about what I won’t continue reading, and often stop after a few sentences and close the volume for good.

Increasingly, this is the case with blogs and other online forms. I revisit daily my reliable favorites, follow suggested links and occasionally happen upon a new and interesting writer. But good writing is always rare, particularly in an age when seemingly everyone is convinced of his obligation to share his precious words. Here’s how the English poet D.J. Enright puts it in Injury Time: A Memoir, published not long after his death in December 2002:

“There are two reasons why people don’t make good writers: (a) they have nothing to write about, (b) they are not at home with the written word (however fluent they may be in the spoken word). The latter is by far the most potent reason. If you can write, you’ll find something to write about; having something to write about doesn’t make you a writer.”

Has the phenomenon of blogs ever been described with more precision? Few are written by writers. Most are written by people who believe they have “something to write about.” The comparison with conversation is instructive: Those who speak the most almost invariably have the least to say. Here’s the remainder of Enright’s passage:

“Not that there is the slightest obligation to write, moral or social, as far as I can see. I have the deepest admiration and respect for people who can live perfectly well without writing, who get along without this crutch. (A crutch posing as a mission.) Unfortunately, writing – whether attended by the ability to write or not – seems to have joined those proliferating `rights’ which no one dare doubt, ignore, gainsay or waive.”

One might almost say that when a self-anointed writer comes to the realization he cannot write and ceases to do so, he is contributing to the commonweal and performing a vital service. We applaud him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

`Brave, Beleaguered, and Cheerful'

“I believe that poets should be self-taught, based on an intensive programme of preferably serendipitous reading.”

That’s the unmistakable voice of Geoffrey Hill merely stating what would have been obvious to most educated people 200 years ago. How can we write – poetry, prose -- without knowing what our forebears have already written? Reading is going to school in the happiest sense. I was rereading Hill’s Scenes from Comus (2005) on Saturday because I’ve been also been reading Milton’s shorter poems, including his incomparable sonnets, when an e-mail arrived from a reader who took issue with a review I had written earlier this year of Hill’s Selected Poems. He/she writes, in part:

“You call him `densely allusive’ and I call him an elitist. Nobody understands this shit. You pretend you understand it because you’re an elitist just like him and you want people to think your [sic] smart.”

I was impressed by my reader’s post-Christmas sense of charity: He/she has taken the time to read what I’d written, and even seems to have thought about my words and tried to understand them. This implies some sense of seriousness and discernment. In French the word is élite, meaning “selection, choice,” from the Latin eligere, “choose.” “Election” has the same root. Each of us, to survive and thrive, makes choices, selects, for ourselves and others, whether books or what to eat for dinner. All of us, on some level, are elitists. We value, I trust, what is best and scorn the chintzy and pernicious. Hill has called his poems “stronghold[s] of the imagination.” That phrase and the first quote above come from an interview Hill gave The Oxonian Review earlier this year, where he also says:

“I’m drawn to writers who seem to me to be brave, beleaguered, and cheerful—like John Dryden.”

You do know Dryden, dear reader?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

`Book Working in His Mind'

For Christmas, along with bookstore gift cards, I amassed the usual bounty: We Are Doomed by John Derbyshire, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (a book I’ve been reading for almost 40 years but have never owned) and Nabokov’s The Original of Laura. Christmas mornings have been like this for most of my life: a solar center of printed matter orbited by negligible satellites of clothing and comestibles (sleep pants, almonds, two salsas). I’m a simple man with simple tastes, and here is my Simple Sampler. First, Derbyshire:

“I happen to believe that the Modern Movement was all a ghastly mistake, like communism, and that, as with communism, it will take a century or so to clean up the mess. Now, in art and literature new things must be tried, old habits challenged, eggs broken in the hopes of making omelets. It is just our bad luck that none of the things tried in the twentieth century worked very well, that the omelets were all inedible. We took a wrong turn and ended up in this cultural Death Valley.”

Himmelfarb, who reads Daniel Deronda as a refutation of the cultural vandals Jean-Paul Sartre and Edward Said:

“For Deronda (as for Eliot), the Jewish identity was not imposed upon them by others. It was not the anti-Semite who `creates the Jew.’ It was Judaism. The religion and the people, that created the Jew. And it was Judaism that created the Jewish state, the culmination of a proud and enduring faith that defined the Jewish `nation,” uniting Jews even as they were, and as they remain, physically dispersed.”

Kenner, in the final sentence of his magnum opus:

“Thought is a labyrinth.”

And Dmitri Nabokov in the introduction to his father’s last novel:

“He looked at the sunny outdoors and softly exclaimed that a certain butterfly was already on the wing. But there were to be no more rambles on the hillside meadows, net in hand, book working in his mind.”

Friday, December 25, 2009

`A Very Good Sort of Sprite'

“When I was a little boy I was told to hang my clean stocking with those of my brother and sister in the chimney corner the night before Christmas, and that 'Santa Claus,' a very good sort of sprite, who rode about in the air upon a broomstick (an odd kind of horse I think) would come down the chimney in the night, and fill our stockings if we had been good children, with dough-nuts, sugar plums and all sorts of nice things; but if we had been naughty we found in the stocking only a rotten potato, a letter and a rod. I got the rotten potato once, had the letter read to me, and was very glad that the rod put into the stocking was too short to be used."

This is the gently comical voice of John Thoreau, Henry’s older brother and companion on the boat trip that produced A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It comes from a letter John wrote to their friend George Sewall on New Year’s Eve, 1839, and is quoted by Walter Harding in The Days of Henry Thoreau. I like the touch of a “clean stocking.” Already in small-town New England in the 1820s, Santa Claus is a fixture of folklore, still morphing into the figure we recognize today. Dickensian flourishes are few – A Christmas Carol wasn’t published until 1843. I’ve always suspected that after Jesus, Dickens was more responsible than anyone for giving us Christmas. There’s no blasphemy in this, for when we say Christmas we speak of two happily congruent holidays, sacred and secular.

Santa’s broomstick is a nice homely touch. How many Americans in the 1820s had ever heard of reindeer (“an odd kind of horse”)? The prop turns Santa into a benign, gender-reversed Halloween witch. “Sugar plums,” of course, echoes Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823), better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (“While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”). I was taught naughty children would find lumps of coal in their stockings Christmas morning. Somehow, “a rotten potato, a letter and a rod” is weirder and even more disappointing.

Earlier in 1839, John and Henry made the boat trip from Concord, Mass., to Concord, N.H., and back that forms the mythic backbone of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a heartbreaking book if read in the context of the Thoreaus’ lives. On New Year’s Day, 1842, John nicked the tip of his left-hand ring finger while stropping his razor – a minor wound we would wash and bandage. Eight days later it had become “mortified,” meaning the tissue had turned black and necrotic. On the morning of Jan. 9, John’s jaw stiffened and by that evening he suffered convulsions. A Boston doctor examined John and concluded he could do nothing for him. No one could have until the vaccine for tetanus was discovered in 1890. John Thoreau, age 27, died on Jan. 11 in the arms of his helpless brother.

Henry wrote the first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, one of the great unread books of American literature, while living at Walden Pond, and published it in 1849. A pioneering hybrid of prose and poetry, it is also an elegy for the little boy who hung his clean stocking in the chimney corner.

`Sonnets at Christmas'

My sense is that Allen Tate, for dubious political and artistic reasons, has nearly been forgotten as a poet, critic and one-time novelist (The Fathers, a great novel). In 1934, Tate published two of his best poems, jointly titled “Sonnets at Christmas.” Here is the first:

“This is the day His hour of life draws near,
Let me get ready from head to foot for it
Most handily with eyes to pick the year
For small feed to reward a feathered wit.
Some men would see it an epiphany
At ease, at food and drink, others at chase
Yet I, stung lassitude, with ecstasy
Unspent argue the season's difficult case
So: Man, dull critter of enormous head,
What would he look at in the coiling sky?
But I must kneel again unto the Dead
While Christmas bells of paper white and red,
Figured with boys and girls spilt from a sled,
Ring out the silence I am nourished by.”

And here’s the second, a poem I successfully resolved, at age 20, to memorize:

“Ah, Christ, I love you rings to the wild sky
And I must think a little of the past:
When I was ten I told a stinking lie
That got a black boy whipped; but now at last
The going years, caught in an accurate glow,
Reverse like balls englished upon green baize
Let them return, let the round trumpets blow
The ancient crackle of the Christ's deep gaze.
Deafened and blind, with senses yet unfound,
Am I, untutored to the after-wit
Of knowledge, knowing a nightmare has no sound;
Therefore with idle hands and head I sit
In late December before the fire's daze
Punished by crimes of which I would be quit.”

Go here to read the four poems from 1942 titled “More Sonnets at Christmas.” Geoffrey Hill obviously read them attentively.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

`That Unwassailing Crew'

“Karl came to see us for Christmas. He brought his friend Pierre and for my aunt a flower in a pot, and for me? Now what do you think sweet Karl brought his Pompey, on Christmas day, on Christmas day, on Christmas day in the morning? He brought Pompey, chaps, a Translation of Faust in Two Volumes.”

I hope you find this passage from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper as amusing as I do. Throughout the novel Smith skirts but never swan-dives into an irritating Slough of Whimsy. Rather, Novel is a minor miracle of comic timing, indirection and discursiveness. The passage quoted (which digresses wonderfully into an anatomy of the German soul, circa 1935) also represents the tradition of gently, lovingly debunking Christmas, contra Dickens. Here’s another (pre-Dickens) example, from a letter Charles Lamb wrote to his friend Bernard Barton in December 1826:

“Old Christmas [that is Father Christmas, or Santa Claus] is a-coming, to the confusion of Puritans, Muggletonians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and that unwassailing crew.”

And to his friend Thomas Manning in China, an early scholar of that culture and the first Englishman to enter Lhasa, the holy city of Tibet, Lamb writes:

“Dear old Friend and absentee, This is Christmas Day 1815 with us; what it may be with you I don't know, the 12th of June next year perhaps; and if it should be the consecrated season with you, I don't see how you can keep it. You have no turkeys; you would not desecrate the festival by offering up a withered Chinese bantam, instead of the savoury grand Norfolcian holocaust, that smokes all around my nostrils at this moment from a thousand firesides. Then what puddings have you? Where will you get holly to stick in your churches, or churches to stick your dried tea-leaves (that must be the substitute) in? What memorials you can have of the holy time, I see not. A chopped missionary or two may keep up the thin idea of Lent and the wilderness ; but what standing evidence have you of the Nativity? Tis our rosy-cheeked, home-stalled divines, whose faces shine to the tune of `Unto us a child was born,’ faces fragrant with the mince-pies of half a century, that alone can authenticate the cheerful mystery.”

All day this season I listen to the less-than-reverent parodies of “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World” performed by my younger sons, ages 6 and 9. Like Smith and Lamb they love Christmas enough to poke fun at its observance and will never be a part of “that unwassailing crew.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

`Good Cheer Has Never Been What's Wrong'

“Be of good cheer,” a reader writes, and for once I take it as encouragement not an admonition. Calculated bonhomie, the hideous grimace of professional Yuletide cheer, ensures my stony dolor.

As my younger sons played wall ball in the YMCA gym, two men in early middle age shot baskets on the other side of the divider, a hanging wall of red plastic and netting. Even in their grousing and hairsplitting about rules, the boys were having fun, while the men were grim-faced and robotic in their movements. A third joined them, assuming peculiar postures on a mat, tipping sideways at the waist, one arm down, the other pointing at the ceiling, in a slow-motion mime of “I’m a Little Teapot.” A fourth man, in sleeveless t-shirt and tattoos, arrived. He assumed a sprinter’s crouch, ran to the opposite wall, slapped the floor below it, turned, ran back to his starting place, slapped the floor, and so on. One easily confuses exercise -- clenched teeth, arbitrary motions -- with a desperate imbecility.

“Cheer” dates from the early 13th century, the Anglo-Norman chere, “the face.” Before that, Old French chiere, the Late Latin cara (“face”), Greek cara (“head”). Cheer shows in the face, not in words. By the time of Middle English, the meaning had shifted metaphorically to "mood, demeanor, mental condition," all of which shine through the face. By 1400, cheer as a noun meant pretty much what we mean – sunniness of disposition or expression. Cheer up – first recorded in the 1670s. Cheer as in a shout of encouragement – 1720. As a toast, later than one would expect – 1919, in England.

Here is the title poem from William Meredith’s 1980 collection The Cheer (the title also serves as the first two words of the poem):

“reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere.
Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.
Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back
but they can give heart.
The cheer is hidden in right words.

“A great deal isn’t right, as they say,
as they are lately at some pains to tell us.
Words have to speak about that.
They would be the less words
for saying smile when they should say do.
If you ask them do what?
They turn serious quick enough, but never unlovely.
And they will tell you what to do,
if you listen, if you want that.

“Certainly good cheer has never been what’s wrong,
though solemn people mistrust it.
Against evil, between evils, lovely words are right.
How absurd it would be to spin these noises out,
so serious that we call them poems,
if they couldn’t make a person smile.
Cheer or courage is what they were all born in.
It’s what they’re trying to tell us, miming like that.
It’s native to the words,
and what they want us always to know,
even when it seems impossible to do.”

Meredith is a rare poet who addresses his reader as “friend” and means it, and we believe him: “Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.” It’s the poem’s second line and already we’re talking about a smile, a face, cheer. And there’s the phrase that started it all: “Certainly good cheer has never been what’s wrong, / though solemn people mistrust it.” Indeed, they do. For the distillate of good cheer, read Chapter XXVIII of Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ real Christmas story, which begins like this:

“As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace in which these, their faithfully-recorded adventures, were undertaken and accomplished. Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

`The Teacher of Morality at Harwich Beach'

Joe of New York City alerts me to an excellent essay on Samuel Johnson, "The Teacher of Morality at Harwich Beach," at First Things. The author is Shalom Carmy, chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, where the essay originally appeared. Here's a sample:

"Because Johnson is so much a moralist of common sense, he is more bent on reminding readers of what they already know than in announcing paradoxical discoveries, and his most original observations often seem uncontroversial once grasped. For those who continue to enjoy and admire his shrewd moralizing, the commonplace nature of his characteristic moral themes commands our attention due to the gravity of his prose and the balance of his judgment; his formal weightiness is redeemed by the accurate, knowing deployment of his huge vocabulary and encyclopedic learning."

`An Image of Articulateness'

Most of what I know about opera I learned from Looney Tunes cartoon soundtracks. I’ve attended two opera productions and at neither was I entirely lost and bored. I can thrill to an artfully selected CD of arias, the popular stuff, but feel little remorse over skipping the filler between greatest hits. If that makes me a Philistine, so be it. Life is short, operas are long and I’m busy.

There exist entire art forms and vast bodies of work to which I remain immune – ballet and any dance not performed by Fred Astaire, the novels of Thackery and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the poetry of Browning and Robinson Jeffers, anything played on sitar or banjo. I distinguish these things from work that’s simply lousy – Charles Olson’s poems, for instance, and anything written by James Baldwin. The former category is my failing; the latter, theirs.

The late William Meredith was a fine poet and no Philistine. He served as opera critic for The Hudson Review in 1955-56 and wrote at least one libretto, for an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Bottle Imp." Here’s his “About Opera” (from Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, 1970):

“It’s not the tunes, although as I get older
Arias are what I hum and whistle.
It’s not the plots – they continue to bewilder
In the tongue I speak and in several that I wrestle.

“An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises make.

“What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart’s duresses, on the heart’s behalf.”

I take Meredith’s defense of opera and apply it to other arts. I look for “An image of articulateness” in any book I read or music I listen to. A good story, poem or song says for me what I, unaided, cannot say, even if only in a few of its words. My words “yearn to take the risk these noises make.” Art extends our better selves and inspires gratitude “on the heart’s behalf.” Art can help us remember to be human.

Monday, December 21, 2009

`Watching the Doves Cavort with Impunity'

A reader in Texas writes:

“I just returned from a quick business trip abroad. I love these more for the time afforded to read and reflect than for almost anything else. Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses made me think you might enjoy it -- if you haven't already.

“Then I read back to back `The Duel’ and `The Wife’ and experienced a spiritual reaction to Chekhov, as if he were a good pastor. His dissection of people exposed my soul and made me want to expand mine.

“Now I'm sitting in the south room of our little house in the Hill Country, watching the doves cavort with impunity. It's so quiet I close my eyes to hear more.”

It’s a pleasure to have thoughtful friends, friends who are full of thoughts and generous about sharing them – Chekhov as “good pastor,” for instance. I thought of a story from 1887, “Happiness.” “Pastor” is from the Latin pastorem, “shepherd,” and “Happiness” deals with two shepherds, grandfather and grandson, tending a flock of sheep. The story might be set in King David’s day or the Wild West. The older shepherd is superstitious and forever telling moralistic tales. The pair is joined by a mysterious overseer who reminds me of the Lee Van Cleef character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He tells stories of treasure buried nearby, and then leaves. Both, the old man in particular, believe the stories in the abstract but do nothing about them:

“The [grandfather] was haunted by thoughts of fortune, the [grandson] was pondering on what had been said in the night; what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic, fairy-tale character of human happiness.”

Another reader in Texas sent a postcard of Judge Roy Bean’s office in Lantry, Texas, “where the fabulous Judge administered `Law West of the Pecos.’” My friend writes:

“All this, and Mopsy Pontner too.”

The initiated will recognize the reference to a minor character of dubious morals in A Dance to the Music of Time.

ADDENDUM: My postcard sender writes: "December 21, 2009 is Anthony Powell's 104th birthday. I'm happy to report that I finished my fifth (or possibly sixth) reading of A Dance to the Music of Time last week. (Notations in one of the volumes suggest that the last reading was a little less than five years ago.) It was, as always, better than I remembered, which is presumably a comment on the quality of my memory. I will continue commending it to anyone even remotely likely to enjoy it, though, from long experience, I expect no success. My interlocutors' eyes seem to glaze over when I mention that it runs to twelve volumes."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

`Held in Many Hands'

“When I was in England, I was once laughed at because I invited someone for snow-viewing. At another time I described how deeply the feelings of Japanese are affected by the moon, and my listeners were only puzzled….I was invited to Scotland to stay at a palatial house. One day, when the master and I took a walk in the garden, I noted that the paths between the rows of trees were all thickly covered with moss. I offered a compliment, saying that these paths had magnificently acquired a look of age. Whereupon my host replied that he intended soon to get a gardener to scrape all this moss away.”

Here is a kindred soul, a cousin, a man whose company I could enjoy without effort. The most interesting people are attentive to the world. They see things, like Thoreau, Cather and Nabokov, all of whom noticed that shadowed snow is blue. Natsume Sōseki is my favorite among Japanese fiction writers because of his powers of observation, interior and exterior. He reminds me of Chekhov, and his novel Kokoro (1914) is as close to poetry as prose can aspire without turning conventionally “poetic.” In fact, his style is elegantly plain. Donald Keene quotes the passage above in The Pleasures of Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 1988). Sōseki was fluent in English, admired Shakespeare, Sterne and Meredith, and visited England in 1901-1903. I share his preference for moss-covered paths and anything that has “magnificently acquired a look of age.” Keene identifies this taste as characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic, and writes:

“The common Western craving for objects in mint condition, that look as if they were painted or sculpted the day before, tends to deprive antiques of their history; the Japanese prize the evidence that a work of art has been held in many hands.”

Not all Westerners shared the taste for pristine newness. Keene’s observation reminds me immediately of a passage in Charles Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”:

“Thomson's Seasons, again, looks best (I maintain it) a little torn, and dog's-eared. How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance, nay, the very odour (beyond Russia), if we would not forget kind feelings in fastidiousness, of an old `Circulating Library’ Tom Jones, or Vicar of Wakefield! How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight! -- of the lone sempstress, whom they may have cheered (milliner, or harder-working mantuamaker) after her long day's needle-toil, running far into midnight, when she has snatched an hour, ill spared from sleep, to steep her cares, as in some Lethean cup, in spelling out their enchanting contents! Who would have them a whit less soiled? What better condition could we desire to see them in?”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

`Action Informed by Knowledge'

One of our best poet-critics, Eric Ormsby, is also a scholar of Islam. Last year he published Ghazali: The Revival of Islam, a brief critical life of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the Persian philosopher, theologian, jurist and Sufi mystic. I would have ordered and read the book solely because Ormsby had written it, but Ghazali proves to be an extraordinary figure I should have studied decades ago. Ormsby says in his preface:

“For the breadth, subtlety and influence of his work, Ghazali deserves to be counted among the great figures in intellectual history, worthy to be ranked with Augustine and Maimonides, Pascal and Kierkegaard.”

What impresses me again is our arrogance toward those who precede us. Nine centuries separate us from Ghazali and his culture. Among his near-contemporaries were Avicenna, St. Anselm, Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Thomas Aquinas followed a century later. Snobbery, pride of chronology, looks ridiculous in such company. Ghazali was as sophisticated and well-read an intellect as any of our contemporaries, and humbler than most. Here’s Ormsby:

“Like all scholars of his class and time, Ghazali was a thoroughly bookish man; his intellectual voracity drove him to read everything he could lay his hands on. Nevertheless, he understood that books alone do not lead to truth, let alone to salvation. In that case, paradise would be open exclusively to the learned (a thought that surely appalled him, given his opinion of scholars). Ghazali’s sense of the unimaginable scope of God’s mercy, as well as his own considerable compassion for people of all walks of life, denied such a limitation. (In this, he resembles Thomas à Kempis, who would later remark, in his Imitation of Christ, that at the Last Judgment we won’t be asked what books we’ve read but what actions we’ve performed.)”

Some read books in search of answers, whether cures for acne or prescriptions for enlightenment -- Bibles, self-help books, pop religion and psychology, Dianetics, economic treatises. That sort of reading is alien to me. I’m after facts, suggestions of truth, the beautiful – not deliverance. Here’s the rest of Ormsby’s paragraph:

“Ghazali remarks, `Even if you studied for a hundred years and collected a thousand books, you would not be eligible for the mercy of God the Exalted except through action’…From books and book-learning we get knowledge, that alone cannot lead to salvation; for that, action informed by knowledge is required.”

I’ve known too many well-read jackasses and unlettered saints to think otherwise.

[Friday was the 898th anniversary of Ghazali’s death, on Dec. 18, 1111, in his home town, Tus, in what is now northeast Iran.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

`Old Masters'

My 9-year-old has been collecting the allusions to La Divina Commedia he gleans from popular culture, mostly movies and comic books, and reading a series of kids’ books by Dale E. Bayse known collectively as Heck. Titles include Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go and Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck, The protagonist is Milton Fauster, his sister is Marlo and the school principal is Bea “Elsa” Bubb. On Wednesday at the library Michael asked me to recommend an edition of the Inferno. I was dubious but I’ve never denied my kids a book, even when I thought it might defeat them. I read Ulysses in junior high school, more out of cussedness and hoped-for titillation than for its snob appeal. I missed plenty and was lost for pages at a stretch but I loved the novel, and I still read it again every few years, as I assume dedicated readers do.

I looked for the John Ciardi translation of Dante, the first version I read in junior high, but our library doesn’t have a copy. Instead, I checked out the most recent version I’ve read, Robert and Jean Hollander’s (2000). I handed it to Michael without comment, no mention of Guelphs or Ghibellines. He started reading it in the back seat and stuck to it at home. By evening he had reached Canto XI. He asked a few question – “Who’s Virgil?” – and I asked if he could figure out the rhyme scheme in the Italian on the facing pages and told him about terza rima. Michael seems to have concluded that Dante wrote a hybrid of science fiction and adventure saga, a sort of subterranean Star Wars with more blood.

Later on Wednesday, David Myers wrote to me: “At all events, I stumbled upon something you'd like. In an interview, asked about her favorite writers, Prose replied, "[T]here's a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, 'The Old Masters,' that always cheers me up when I'm down.”

“The Old Masters” dates from the early nineteen-eighties, the heroic days of Solidarity, and was collected in Report from the Besieged City (1985, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter). The poem expresses his solidarity with the great artists of the past:

“The Old Masters
went without names

“their signature
was the white fingers of the Madonna

“or pink towers
di città sul mare

“also scenes from the life
della Beata Umiltà

“they dissolved
in sogno

“they found shelter
under the eyelids of angels
behind hills of clouds
in the thick grass of paradise

“they drowned without a trace
in golden firmaments
with no cry of fright
or call to be remembered

“the surfaces of their paintings
are smooth as a mirror
they aren’t mirrors for us
they are mirrors for the chosen

“I call on you Old Masters
in hard moments of doubt

“make the serpent’s scales of pride
fall from me

“let me be deaf
to the temptation of fame

“I call upon you Old Masters

“the Painter of the Rain of Manna
the Painter of Embroidered Trees
the Painter of the Visitation
the Painter of the Sacred Blood”

The finals stanzas read like a prayer to the saints of art, anonymous in the beauty and grace of their work. Go here for more about “scenes from the life / della Beata Umiltà.” We learn, for instance, that she visited Florence the year “Dante Alighieri was seventeen and writing his early sonnets.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

`Capable of Grasping the Totality of Existing Things'

Beside the door to the classroom where freshman composition is taught hangs a poster of Shakespeare based on the dubious Droeshout engraving, accompanied by precisely the quotation from As You Like It you would expect to find on the wall of an American high school: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.”

On the opposite wall, next to the Diversity Quilt, hangs a poster of Malcolm X with this line from a speech he made in the quatricentenary of Shakespeare’s birth: “We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition…for the right to live as free humans in this society.”

The students have read the ubiquitous To Kill a Mockingbird and are writing essays on the novel. They were instructed to select a virtue exemplified by one of the characters and, on Wednesday, draft an introduction. An effective introduction, they were told, includes “a thesis, a hook and background info.” My special education student selected justice as his “virtue” and his thesis has something to do with Iron Man, the Marvel Comics superhero. I asked the teacher about Shakespeare and she said his plays and poems are an optional part of the curriculum, though she thought some of A.P. students were reading Romeo and Juliet.

The book in my bag was an elegant hardcover edition of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis. Their logo, the copyright page explains, is a cuneiform inscription of the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” or “liberty” (amagi). It’s taken from “a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.” In his second chapter the German Catholic philosopher writes:

“Training is defined as being concerned with some one side or aspect of man, with regard to some special subject. Education concerns the whole man; an educated man is a man with a point of view from which he takes in the whole world. Education concerns the whole man, man capax universi, capable of grasping the totality of existing things.”

The poster in the chemistry/biology lab was more to my taste, aesthetically and otherwise, and might have been admired by Pieper. It covers much of a wall, ceiling to floor, and is geometrically pleasing: the Periodic Table of the Elements, which always reminds me of Primo Levi, the human urge to taxonomize, and the table’s inventor, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. In 1889, 20 years after devising the table, the great Russian chemist delivered the Faraday Lecture before the Fellows of the Chemical Society in London. At the time, no physical basis for the periodic table existed, yet his peers had enthusiastically adopted the table, and several elements predicted by Mendeleev had already been identified. In his speech we hear the voice of the sort of man described by Pieper as “capable of grasping the totality of existing things”:

“…the periodic law opened for natural philosophy a new and wide field for speculation. Kant said that there are in the world `two things which never cease to call for the admiration and reverence of man: the moral law within ourselves, and the stellar sky above us.’ But when we turn our thoughts towards the nature of the elements and the periodic law, we must add a third subject, namely, `the nature of the elementary individuals which we discover everywhere around us.’ Without them the stellar sky itself is inconceivable; and in the atoms we see at once their peculiar individualities, the infinite multiplicity of the individuals, and the submission of their seeming freedom to the general harmony of Nature.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

`Crags Cranks Climb'

Every day from here in the city I see mountains. All summer I marvel at snow glowing on the summits. Born in Cleveland, I never lived within sight of vertical rocks until I was 32 and had moved to the mostly flat stretch in upstate New York between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. In the Midwest, the horizon is plane geometry; in the Pacific Northwest, fractals. Both have their charms but I find mountains best appreciated from a comfortable distance – from my backyard or the seat of my car. I have vertigo and prefer the understated to the emphatic. Majesty can be overbearing.

I’ve come across works by two writers who liken mountains to the work of two other writers whom they admire. For Basil Bunting, the Alps suggest the grandeur and unavoidability of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Here is his 1949 ode “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos”:

“There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et léger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

“There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!”

For Bunting, modern poetry is unimaginable without Pound’s example. Even Philip Larkin had to acknowledge the Cantos, if only to dismiss their pretentiousness and incoherence. I suspect Larkin never went “a long way round” Pound’s work. He quickly deduced it was irrelevant to his purposes and went to work, as did Auden, Bishop, R.S. Thomas, Gunn, Bowers, Cunningham, Hecht, Justice and other major non-Poundian poets. To his credit, Bunting includes scree – heaps of rock fragments – in his alpine inventory.

In a chapter devoted to John Wesley, Ronald Knox writes in Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion:

“We do not form a just appreciation of Shakespeare if we think of him as an isolated phenomenon, a lonely meteor flashing through the skies of post-Catholic England. We have to see him in relation to a background; some acquaintance with Johnson, Webster, Ford, Massinger, and those other clients of the Mermaid is necessary before we can fix him in his right niche. He is not a solitary peak, but the summit of a range.”

Knox’s image is less vivid than Bunting’s and probably reflects a less personal, more accurate literary assessment. Imagine if, with identical words, Bunting were writing of Shakespeare and Knox of Pound. Both judgments would probably be inarguable and thus less interesting. There’s no avoiding Shakespeare. Pound, despite Hugh Kenner, is one among many Modernists. It’s easy to get lost in the mountains, which is one of many reasons they’re best appreciated from a comfortable distance.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

`A Virescent Rainbow Edged with Mauve'

The middle-school science teacher, in a class devoted to electromagnetic radiation, asked if anyone knew the great baseball pitcher Roy G. Biv. One kid, who raises his hand for every question and has never once known the correct answer, swore he know who Biv was but could no longer remember. The rest of the class, once the tittering subsided, was mute. Under the letters in the pitcher’s name, the teacher wrote:

“Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet”

It’s a mnemonic for remembering the colors in the visible spectrum and as they appear in a rainbow. The order is longest wavelength to shortest. The kids were not impressed but for me the linkage of memory and rainbows conjured Nabokov, their poet. Think of this passage from John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” in the novel of the same name:

“My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.”

No writer possesses so nuanced a color palette (“mauve,” “blood-orange,” “opal”). Nabokov praised Gogol for his visual acuity and his expansion of the Russian writer’s color sense. Nabokov writes in Gogol:

“Before his and Pushkin’s advent Russian literature was purblind…The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all. That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called ‘classical’ writer, accustomed as he was to the rigid conventional color-schemes of the Eighteenth Century French School of literature.”

Rainbows turn up frequently in Nabokov’s work, often in association with women or girls. In Speak, Memory (Nabokov wished to title it Speak, Mnemosyne), his recollection of a girl named Colette evokes an image of “a rainbow spiral in a glass marble,” and he speaks for the first time with another, Tamara, in “a rainbow-windowed pavilion.” An unhappy rainbow, of course, arcs across Lolita. Even in his translations, rainbows appear, as in his rendering of Fyodor Tyutchev’s “Appeasement” (which reads more Nabokovian than Tyutchevian):

“The storm withdrew, but Thor had found his oak,
and there it lay magnificently slain,
and from its limbs a remnant of blue smoke
spread to bright trees repainted by the rain –

“- while thrush and oriole made haste to mend
their broken melodies throughout the grove,
upon the crests of which was propped the end
of a virescent rainbow edged with mauve.”

“Virescent” – a splendidly precise Nabokovian word meaning almost but not quite green, becoming green, an effect I associate with the swollen buds of maples in late April in upstate New York. Indeed, botanists most often use the word, and Nabokov boasted his work mingled the “passion of science” with the “precision of art.”

[Enjoy Roger Boylan’s “Nabokov’s Gift.”]

Monday, December 14, 2009

`Some Flakes Have Lost Their Way'

My first thought is sawdust. Or confetti, shredded newsprint, the stuffing from an old chair. The mind fits the unfamiliar into familiar boxes. The sun is shining. Could this be snow? Wait, another flake. Such a feeble fall, I wait. No more than two flakes visible at once. I’m looking west, into the low sun. The drift is lackadaisical, half-hearted falling, a lateral lift, dip, another lift, gone. More verb than noun. Hardy knew it:

“Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.”

It’s over in a minute and I doubt what I’ve seen. No accumulation, nothing to measure, no one to verify the sight. So, has the first snow fallen? I check the weather online: No precipitation reported. An image of horror comes back from the conclusion to Tolstoy’s "Master and Man":

"Vasily Andreich was stiff, like a frozen carcass of meat, and when he was pulled off Nikita his legs were stuck awkwardly apart just as he had placed them. His bulging hawk-like eyes were iced over and under the trimmed moustache his open mouth was packed with snow."

[translated by Paul Foote in Master and Man and Other Stories, Penguin, 2005]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

`Do Not!'

A reader scolds me for expressing insufficiently spirited condemnation of SUVs and the plastics industry. The charge surprises me because I’ve never sat in an SUV let alone driven or purchased one, and I’ve never felt notable fondness for polymers as a class of materials though I’m grateful for the ring of reinforced plastic that holds my left shoulder in place and for the plastic keys and mouse with which I write these words. My anonymous reader classes me with “the Earth haters,” as “a cheerleader for capitalism” who “rape[s] the planet” and doesn’t appreciate the critical importance of recycling. Honestly, that’s not me. You have me confused with someone else, though you seem familiar enough with Anecdotal Evidence to quote it at length. I’m the guy who uses those spiral light bulbs that give me a headache when I read by one for too long.

I can’t go more than a week or so without reading Stevie Smith, whose humor and good sense are dependably bracing and who, I’m certain, had no wish to rape the planet. Let me suggest my critic read a Smith poem bearing a title he/she already enjoys using – “Do Not!”:

“Do not despair of man, and do not scold him,
Who are you that you should so lightly hold him?
Are you not also a man, and in your heart
Are there not warlike thoughts and fear and smart?
Are you not also afraid and in fear cruel,
Do you not think of yourself as usual,
Faint for ambition, desire to be loved,
Prick at a virtuous thought by beauty moved?
You love your wife, you hold your children dear,
Then say not that Man is vile, but say they are.
But they are not. So is your judgement shown
Presumptuous, false, quite vain, merely your own
Sadness for failed ambition set outside,
Made a philosophy of, prinked, beautified
In noble dress and into the world sent out
To run with the ill it most pretends to rout.
Oh know your own heart, that heart's not wholly evil,
And from the particular judge the general,
If judge you must, but with compassion see life,
Or else, of yourself despairing, flee strife.”

“Prinked” is a fine, neglected word also found in “Next, Please” by Philip Larkin, another poet for whom thoughts of death are never far away and who was among Smith’s most appreciative champions. Dr. Johnson defines “to prink” as “To prank; to deck for show” – in other words, to posture, to behave in such a way as to solicit attention.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

`I Wish It Were Impossible'

While the students wrote sentences using new vocabulary words, the Language Arts teacher played a CD of Classic Rock Hits from the nineteen-seventies. She’s about 30 and has no living memory of these songs when they were first inflicted on us. While the kids fumbled with “disposition” and “conjecture,” she swayed and hummed and said the music reminded her of riding in a convertible in Southern California. They reminded me of Watergate and public drunkenness. Among the tunes were “Stuck in the Middle with You” (its fey mellowness forever righteously violated by Reservoir Dogs), “Let Your Love Flow,” “Rocket Man” and “American Pie.” In Johnsonian Miscellanies, editor George Birkbeck Hill collects an anecdote reported by Johnson’s friend William Seward:

“Dr. Johnson was observed by a musical friend of his to be extremely inattentive at a concert, whilst a celebrated solo player was running up the divisions and subdivisions of notes upon his violin. His friend, to induce him to take greater notice of what was going on, told him how extremely difficult it was. `Difficult do you call it, Sir?’ replied the Doctor; `I wish it were impossible.’”

Friday, December 11, 2009

`Until the World's Four Walls Go Down'

I’ve just read a clumsily written but heartfelt and morally sound essay by Piotr Wilczek, a professor at the University of Warsaw Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies. Whether the clumsiness is due to an imperfect command of English or his standing in academia, I can’t say, though I dread the shiver of unhappy anticipation I feel when preparing to read something written by a contemporary university professor. Wilczek’s title is “Marcus Aurelius, Henryk Elzenberg, and Zbigniew Herbert: An Encounter,” an examination of Herbert’s “To Marcus Aurelius,” from his first book, Chord of Light (1956). The unknown quantity to most Western readers will be Elzenberg. Herbert wrote the poem in 1951 and mailed it to his intellectual mentor. Wilczek explains:

“As a student of philosophy in Toruń, Herbert attended the lectures of Henryk Elzenberg, a prominent university teacher of philosophy. In the worst Stalinist period Elzenberg lost his position at the university and was forbidden to teach students. Thus these two outstanding Polish intellectuals were obliged to live on the margins of society at a time when many intellectuals in the West praised the communist regime and its generosity toward writers and artists. Zbigniew Herbert was a freelance poet with no permanent job who lived in the suburbs of Warsaw, and Henryk Elzenberg was a professor who was forbidden to teach at the University of Toruń, and instead conducted illegal seminars at his home.”

Such a scene is almost impossible to imagine in the United States. Herbert was not yet 30 when he wrote the poem. His devotion to Elzenberg, who had published a volume on Marcus Aurelius 30 years earlier, was both filial and principled, in a time and place that had outlawed loyalty and intellectual honesty. As Wiczek writes: “The poem is an expression of allegiance to the roots of Western civilization.” Here is “To Marcus Aurelius,” translated by Alissa Valles (The Collected Poems: 1956-1998):

“Good night Marcus put out the light
and shut the book For overhead
is raised a gold alarm of stars
heaven is talking some foreign tongue
this the barbarian cry of fear
your Latin cannot understand
terror continuous dark terror
again the fragile human land

“begins to beat It’s winning Hear
its roar The unrelenting stream
of elements will drown your prose
until the world’s four walls go down
As for us? – to tremble in the air
blow in the ashes stir the ether
gnaw our fingers seek vain words
drag off fallen shades behind us

“Well Marcus better hang up your peace
give me your hand across the dark
Let it tremble when the blind world beats
on senses five like a falling lyre
traitors – universe and astronomy
reckoning of stars wisdom of grass
and your greatness too immense
and Marcus my defenseless stars”

Herbert’s gesture – reaching across centuries to grasp Marcus’ hand – is a vow of solidarity with his teacher and the Western intellectual tradition. Wilczek goes too far when he calls the poem “an allegory of Polish history, of Soviet occupation.” Allegories, typically, are one-dimensional. The speaker of the poem is too colloquial, too sarcastic, too aware of the barbarian victory but resolved not to sound smugly self-satisfied, to turn the poem into an Us-and-Them rant. In 1992 Herbert published Rovigo, containing "To Henryk Elzenberg on the Centennial of His Birth,"which includes these lines:

"Your severe gentleness delicate strength
Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone
Patient indifferent and tender all at once"

Behind every Herbert poem stands a man who has suffered losses and on whom nothing is lost. In Polish Writers on Writing (edited by Adam Zagajewski), Herbert says in an interview:

“I had the feeling that my individuality was not absolute, certain, finished, that it was by an accident that I was born into the Herbert family. I could have been that child in the courtyard with whom I played, that daughter of the Jewish shopkeeper with whom I was so in love–she was my first love. Here we return to empathy, which for me is something completely natural and even, let’s say, a precondition of writing.”

Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations (VIII, 59), as translated by George Long:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

`By Instinct, Habit, and Necessity"'

A good haul from the library: Ten items on hold had arrived – three books each for my younger sons and me, and a CD of music from Shakespeare’s time. We count on libraries as models of efficiency and organization (almost miraculous if you consider interlibrary loan) but a good library also boosts the likelihood of happy serendipity. Merely by scanning tables and shelves, looking for nothing in particular, I found promising gems: Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson; The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser; and best of all, a new book I hadn’t known existed: Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes.

Johnson’s father, Michael, owned a bookshop in Lichfield, a setting second only to a library in its appropriateness for the future author of the Dictionary and editor of Shakespeare. In his first chapter, “Lichfield,” Nokes writes:

“About this time, too, he found his love of Shakespeare; he was sitting in the kitchen at home one day, reading through the early pages of Hamlet, and was so moved by the ghost scene that he rushed upstairs, to the outside door, to see living people about him. In a bookseller’s house he found much to lose himself among, and quickly developed his lifelong habit of reading deeply but haphazardly, never following a book to the end; often he annotated, as he did to a copy of Visscher’s Atlas, numbering its pages and writing out a contents table in the back.”

I’m happily reimmersed in Johnson’s life, having earlier this year – the good doctor’s tercentenary was Sept. 18 -- read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography and Jeffrey Meyers’ Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, and dipped periodically and therapeutically into Boswell. At home, freighted with books, I found Ben Kipela, whose blog is devoted to the work and legacy of Yvor Winters, had posted “The Library,” a poem by Timothy Steele (editor of an essential book, The Poems of J.V. Cunningham). Read it but also read Kipela’s discussion. Steele’s final stanza is apropos:

“Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity.”

Like the squirrel, we hoard – acorns, books. As Kipela writes of the poem, “It makes me want to get over to the library and gather some nuts for the winter -- though I really don't need much encouragement to do that, summer or winter.” We nourish ourselves, of course, but books transcend mere sustenance. Some of us feast:

“By instinct, habit, and necessity.”

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

`Better Minds Speak to One Another'

Pleasure at having one’s tastes confirmed by a writer one has long respected is approximately the moral opposite of Schadenfreude, a misdemeanor of the self. William H. Gass turned 85 this year, which means I’ve been reading him for almost half of his life and for far more than half of mine. He’s a writer who should not be judged by his most vociferous admirers, cheerleaders for the avant-garde. I’ve come to think of him as an old bookman, the avatar of a wayward scholar from the 17th century – our Burton or Browne. Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to a new essay by Gass in which he writes:

“I miss the leisure that let me read just for fun, not to critique, or pronounce, or even to put on a list, but simply to savor. I do, from time to time, pick up old friends who never disappoint but will promise me a page or two of pleasure between art and ordinary life, like Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins.”

Macaulay was only a name to me some 20 years ago when I found Pleasure of Ruins appropriately misshelved in the Classical Studies section of Lyrical Ballad Books in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Originally published in 1953, this was a 1984 Thames and Hudson paperback with a cracked spine and blurbs from Anthony Powell and Eric Newby. The book looks older than it could possibly be. The typeface is crabbed and the illustrations murky, but Macaulay’s text, to quote a terrible poem, turns Pleasure of Ruins into “a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” It represents an undefined genre I have a weakness for – discursive rambles unified only by their loosely defined subject and the writer’s learning and sensibility. As Guy Davenport writes of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare:

“It is a book that belongs to that scarce genre which we can only call a book, like Boswell’s Johnson, Burton’s incredible Anatomy, Walton’s Compleat Angler.”

Pleasure of Ruins is almost qualified to enter that company. Three years ago I recommended Macaulay’s book, among others, to Brad Bigelow at The Neglected Books Page. For some readers, 466 pages devoted to dilapidation can only be a joke that overstays its welcome but Macaulay’s subject is not merely the physical remains of crumbling buildings but our enduring fascination with them. She takes her epigraph from Henry James’ Italian Hours -- “To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity” – and admits she almost titled her book A Heartless Pastime. What redeems the book, even for those who profess no interest in ruins, is the prose:

“Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St. Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminutae sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt [“things that are lacking something are for this reason ugly”], and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.

“But such wholesome hankerings are, it seems likely, merely a phase of our fearful and fragmented age.”

These are the dolefully witty closing words of Pleasure of Ruins. She turns Aquinas on his head. Savor the echo of “wholeness” in “wholesome hankerings,” and permit “phase,” “fearful” and “fragmented” to fade away. Gass writes:

“In this book the best minds speak to the best minds. Sorry. In this book better minds speak to one another. I overhear them, as I listen in to all the books I love. They have the secret (it is probably for a cookie) and I mean to pry it out of them. [I already know what it is. It is the music.]”

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

`How Things Work'

The shelves above the shop teacher’s desk are crowded with textbooks, instruction manuals and other dusty odds and ends, but one title grabbed my attention: How Things Work. Such chutzpah is irresistible.

It’s a 590-page hardcover with reinforced binding, dense with text on the left-hand pages and “1071 two-colour [black, red] drawings” on the right. No author is given. The copyright page notes that Wie Funtioniert Das? was published by Bibliographisches Institut in 1963. In Great Britain the volume was retitled, with comparable hubris, The Universal Encyclopedia of Machines. That’s the translation, put out by Heron Books of London in 1967, I held in my dust-covered hands. For distribution in the U.S., the book was again retitled, without explanation – thus, How Things Work. Here’s the opening paragraph of the foreword, signed “The Publishers”:

“This volume is not a reference book in the ordinary sense. It has been designed, instead, to give the layman an understanding of how things work [italics in the original], from the simplest mechanical function of modern life to the most basic scientific principles and complex industrial processes that affect our well-being. The result is, we believe, a unique book – a graphic and original introduction to the modern world of technology.”

That sounds as though it were translated from the German by what the book calls a “Programme-Controlled Electronic Computer.” They’ve even included a page devoted to “Translation Programme for a Programme-Controlled Computer,” which begins like this:

“For translation into another language, a text must first of all be coded as a sequence of machine words. For example, one of the numbers 01 to 32 can be assigned to each of the 32 characters of a teleprinter [a word my spell-check software doesn’t recognize]. A word of n letters will then occupy 2n decimal places in the storage and may, in certain circumstances, occupy several consecutive storage locations.”

Forty-two years after the fact, it’s tempting to feel superior to such earnest explanations, but it’s noteworthy that I do understand it, and wish I had had a copy of How Things Work in 1967, when I knew nothing about computers. I’ve always loved browsing in such audacious books.

No preliminaries follow the foreword. The next page is an explanation of “Distillation,” then “Centrifuge,” “Fire Extinguisher,” “Temperature Measuring Instruments” and “Dry Ice.” There’s something quite mad about the entire enterprise, and yet I find it charming and deeply interesting, like the human imagination. Technical explanations can be fiendishly difficult to write without lapsing into redundancy or ambiguity. “The Publishers” do it fairly well (see their explanations of “Dry Cleaning” and “Explosives”). The book reminds me of what Guy Davenport wrote in his introductory note to The Hunter Gracchus:

“I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”

Monday, December 07, 2009

`Beames the Blessed Onely See'

When I despair of civilization – of courtesy and wit – my reliable antidote is Nige, who today shares a 60th birthday with another agent of consolation, Tom Waits. Nige is fortunate in his choice of co-natalist. I share my day of birth with the former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Andrew Motion. As a gift I offer Nige a favorite Waits ballad, “Time,” from Rain Dogs (1986); in particular, these lines:

“Oh and the things you can't remember
Tell the things you can't forget
That history puts a saint
In every dream”

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to the words and music of another poet-musician, a countryman of Nige’s and contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Thomas Campion. Basil Bunting described him as “a poet who was even more of a musician than a poet,” and the same might be said of Waits. Here’s a selection, “Never weather-beaten Saile…,,” one of the lute songs (Campion was the king's lutenist) in A Book of Ayres:

“Never weather-beaten Saile more willing bent to shore,
Never tyred Pilgrims limbs affected slumber more
Then my weary spright now longs to flye out of my troubled brest.
O come quickly, sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest.

“Ever-blooming are the joyes of Heav’ns high paradice,
Cold age deafes not there our eares, nor vapour dims our eyes;
Glory there the Sun outshine, whose beames the blessed onely see:
O come quickly, glorious Lord, and raise my spright to thee.”

My edition of The Works of Thomas Campion, edited by Walter R. Davis, glosses “affected” as “longed for,” and “spright” as “spirit.” Happy birthday, Nige.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

`They Carry a Promise'

My review of They Carry a Promise by Janusz Szuber appears in issue 18 of The Quarterly Conversation.

`Now I Am Ice, Now I Am Sorrel'

My former boss at Rice University wrote to say a friend of hers, “the old guy whose passion was writing about the prosody of Milton’s `Samson,’” had died in November, age 78. I’ve heard Ann’s stories about Loren Blaine Hickey and regret having never met him. He lived one of those charmed, interesting lives – studying piano with Van Cliburn’s mother, performing with the USO during World War II, studying photography with Ansel Adams, running a photography business in Houston for 40 years, and for a hobby restoring native grasses on his farm in Austin County, Texas. Here’s Ann:

“Blaine loved nature. He loved poetry. He was what a friend from Luxembourg called a `rustic savant.’ He read widely, had travelled all over Europe, east and west, with his work (photographer for the Menil Collection), and was knowledgeable about so many topics. Yet he had only a high school education.”

Ann is organizing a memorial service for Blaine and has hired a trio from Rice’s Shepherd School of Music -- violin, viola and cello: “They will play some Ravel and Faure, whom he loved.” She asked me to suggest appropriate readings for the service:

“…something from Thoreau or someone else—prose or poetry—about nature. I can’t tell you what it should be about particularly, but something that in a fairly short passage conveys a deep love for nature.

“Am I sounding idiotic? I really don’t know where to start. He also loved Walt Whitman and particularly loved `Song of Myself,’ but I think it would take a special reader to do that justice—someone who had a real affinity for the piece.”

Thoreau’s journals are rich with passages in varying keys celebrating the natural world. Perhaps the elegiac is appropriate, as in this entry from November 16, 1850:

“The era of wild apples will soon be over. I wander through old orchards of great extent, now all gone to decay, all of native fruit which for the most part went to the cider-mill. But since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no wild apples, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up among them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures which he will be debarred from.”

Texas is not renowned for apples, wild or otherwise, but I like Thoreau’s mingling of sadness and whimsy. This passage, from June 6, 1857, starts with one of Blaine’s interests, grass, but turns to the seasons of the year and (echoing Ecclesiastes) of a man’s life:

"This is June, the month of grass and leaves...Already the Aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone…We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind.”

Or this, from March 18, 1858:

"Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence. How happens it that the associations it awakens are always pleasing, never saddening; reminiscences of our sanest hours? The voice of nature is always encouraging."

That’s a start, but Ann adds:

“I really could use some help on this. I’d like to have a second reading, too. Some Shakespeare would be nice. He loved the Bard.”

I’ve just reread Richard II and words spoken by John of Gaunt in Act I, Scene 3 may be appropriate:

“Look, what thy soul holds dear, imagine it
To lie that way thou go'st, not whence thou comest:
Suppose the singing birds musicians,
The grass whereon thou tread'st the presence strew'd,
The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more
Than a delightful measure or a dance;
For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite
The man that mocks at it and sets it light.”

Saturday, December 05, 2009

`A Sluggish Eternity'

The teacher called a birthday party for herself. Students were to provide entertainment, loosely defined. If they entertained, 10 points; if not, zero. My student made an origami crane more elegant and precise than anything he’s ever written. Another boy bravely botched two card tricks. The brown-nosers baked cookies, cupcakes and brownies. On his electric guitar without an amplifier a long-haired boy plucked, almost soundlessly, “Hysteria” by Muse. A violinist valiantly wrestled with Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás,” and another hinted at “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

The final birthday present was my favorite. A very young-looking seventh-grader with red hair, a button-down shirt and chinos stood at the front of the room, hands clasped in front of him as though he were praying, and rattled off from memory pi calculated to the fifty-fifth decimal place. He spoke conversationally and enunciated each number. It was poetry, as beautiful and moving as the queen’s final speech in Antony and Cleopatra. Nobody clapped and the flustered-looking teacher asked, “How do we know those were the right numbers?” The kid shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. I never doubted the numbers were correct nor would Wisława Szymborska. Here’s her pi:

“The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended, six five three five, at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief -- a mouse tail, a pigtail -- it is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers
a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,.
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging, a sluggish eternity
to continue.”

[From View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, 1995]

Friday, December 04, 2009

`Friends Are Calling "Yoo-Hoo""

How often does a poem generate the pleasurable momentum of a well-told anecdote or short story? Frost and Robinson could pull it off, but not many since. There’s something shameful about telling good stories, judging from most of the recent poems we read (and most of the stories, come to think of it), which is peculiar because stories, telling them and listening to them, are primal human acts. They entertain us and help make sense of the world, and most everyone outside of the nation's English departments enjoys them.

In the car I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” the Leroy Anderson warhorse. She recorded it in 1960 for her album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. I love Christmas music, popular and sacred, but never paid much attention to “Sleigh Ride” which always sounded prefabricated. The words are by Mitchell Parrish, best known for his lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” and they give Johnny Mercer nothing to worry about:

“Outside the snow is falling
And friends are calling 'Yoo-hoo.'
Come on, it's lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you.”

But I listened to the words as Fitzgerald sang. Her voice is my favorite among female singers -- the directness of delivery, the purity of diction, the cool absence of histrionics, the sense of song as superior speech. At her best, Fitzgerald convinces and even makes mediocre lyrics sound convincing. For a few minutes in the car, on a chilly gray morning, I listened to a song about songs -- “gliding along with a song,” “sing a chorus or two,” “We'll be singing the songs / We love to sing without a single stop” -- and about courtship and a postwar vision of Americana. There’s a narrative implied and I had never heard it before. Who is this mysterious Farmer Gray? Such are the thoughts of an under-caffeinated listener on his way to work.

That night, in the December issue of The New Criterion, I read “Home for the Holidays,” a seasonal poem in the form of a shaggy-dog story, by Michael Spence. I started reading and continued because I wanted to know where he was headed: What happens next? By the end of the poem’s 70th line, I'd been absorbed into another world – a good sign of a good story – and the meaning of the title, another tired Christmas cliché, was comically transformed. As Parrish writes at the end of his holiday poem:

“These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives.”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

`Unadulterated Gin'

The most pleasing sentence I’ve read this week was written not by a poet but a journalist:

“Junipers in the mountains were thickly hung with berries, and the air was unadulterated gin.”

The first two-thirds, through “berries,” is nothing special, an observation anyone who recognizes a juniper (the tree with the widest natural range in the world) could make. Only someone who knows his liquor and times his prose as deftly as Groucho timed a joke could have written the rest. “Unadulterated gin” evokes Prohibition and bathtub gin, which lends a comic tang to a sentence that starts on Mount Tobin in northwestern Nevada.

[A digression, from Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees: “It is the flavor of the berries which imparts to gin its characteristic aroma and tang, for they are used in the preparation of this alcoholic drink which would otherwise be a nearly tasteless eau de vie. Indeed our word `gin’ comes from the French genièvre, as gin is still called in Flanders and Belgium. And that, in turn, derives, of course from the name of the tree in French, genèvrier.”]

The author is John McPhee and the sentence, a throw-away, comes early in Annals of the Former World, a chronicle of modern geology and a love song to the North American continent.
McPhee is hardly obscure. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, he has published 31 volumes and won a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve read all his books at least once, and the best of them – The Pine Barrens, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, Annals of the Former World – stand with the best American writing of recent decades. That he’s a better writer than most of the novelists working today seems obvious, yet there’s a tentative, hedging-of-bets feel to his literary reputation. He doesn’t write fiction or poetry (though both disciplines inform his work), and for nonfiction to earn attention and respect it must almost always be fashionably topical. McPhee’s subjects have included oranges and a wine-maker in the Swiss army. In Annals, a volume often devoted to plate tectonics, McPhee writes like this without diluting the difficulty of his subject-matter:

“Mountains are not somehow created whole and subsequently worn away. They wear down as they come up, and these mountains have been rising and eroding in fairly even ratio for millions of years – rising and shedding sediment steadily through time, always the same, never the same, like row upon row of fountains.”

At its best, McPhee’s prose is poetic -- that is, notable for precision and concision -- but there’s nothing ornamental or prettified about it. So many much-touted prose styles resemble strings of Christmas lights on a shotgun shack, contributing nothing and emphasizing the squalor and emptiness. McPhee admires competence and problem-solving in his subjects, qualities embodied in his prose. Among American writers he most resembles the Thoreau of the journal, not in “philosophy” (a dreaded word in this context) but in his regard for craft. I’ve written before of McPhee’s admiration for the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and here’s a pertinent sample from Thoreau’s journal, dated Nov. 28, 1860:

“Go to the English Government, which, of course, is representative of the people, and ask, What is the use of juniper berries? The answer is, To flavor gin with. This is the gross abuse of juniper berries, with which an enlightened Government – if ever there shall be one – will have nothing to do.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

`There is Pride and Pride'

Mallet and chisel in hand, the shop teacher used a familiar word in an unfamiliar but colorful way. The students are building kalimbas – African thumb pianos – and the first step is to carve, saw, chisel or burn a design into the block of wood that serves as the instrument’s base. They draw the design with a pencil and ruler, clamp the wood in a vise and go to work. “You don’t want the wood flush with the top of the vise,” the instructor said. “You want it a little proud.”

Intuitively I knew what he meant – a sure sign of a good metaphor. A proud chest swells and a proud block of wood, not flush with the top of the vise, swells in its own way. An online glossary of woodworking terms confirmed my understanding: “To just protrude above the surface so it is sticking out a bit.” Next, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition), which gives this as the ninth of its nine definitions of “proud”:

“orig. dial. or local.`Large; projecting in any direction; of a roof: high-pitched’; also `said of a fulcrum when it is placed too near the lever end’…also techn.: slightly raised or projecting.”
The earliest citation dates from 1824 and refers to the straw protruding from the top of a haystack as “proud.” Like all the others, it’s drawn from a “nonliterary” source – no poems or novels. A 1960 reference is from Board and Table Games by R.C. Bell:

“The inlay pieces were fitted into them [recesses], leaving an excess standing proud.”

All of the cited sources in the OED appear to have been written by English authors, so I decided to call my certified American woodworking source, my brother, a picture framer for more than 35 years and recently proud owner, with a partner, of his own shop. “Yep, `standing proud,’” he said. Ken remembered Tracy Kidder used the word in House (1985) to describe nails not fully driven into wood.

The dual nature of “proud” as used colloquially – swollen with vanity versus rightly pleased with accomplishment – is reflected in my friend the shop teacher’s old-fashioned metaphorical usage. The block of wood is not square in the vise and looks ungainly, out of plumb, but to square it would be to risk splintered wood, cracked chisel blade, gashed finger. In Herakleitos and Diogenes (1979), Guy Davenport translates the Athenian slave and street philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.). Davenport calls him “a public scold, a pest, a licensed jester.” None of his work survives, only “comments as passed down through folklore to be recorded by various writers.” Among them is this:

“How proud you are of not being proud, Plato says, and I reply that there is pride and pride.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

`Like a Light Moving Briefly Behind a Closed Door'

“There are many kinds of revelation. But the most powerful is the vision which transcends the mental boundary between life and non-life, and Scotland is a place where this sort of revelation often approaches. Staring into a Scottish landscape, I have often asked myself why – in spite of all appearances – bracken, rocks, man and sea are at some level one. Sometimes this secret seems about to open, like a light moving briefly behind a closed door. In writing about birds and stones whose `inward gates are open, MacDiarmid came as near as one can to finding the answer.”

This is Neal Ascherson writing in the first chapter of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. I bought it when the first American edition was published in 2003, based on my enjoyment of Ascherson’s previous book, Black Sea (1995), a beautifully written meditation on barbarism and nation-building with stops along the way for Chekhov and Babel. The first chapter of Stone Voices carries an epigraph excerpted from Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach,” about which I recently posted:

“The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be…”

On and off for several weeks I’ve been reading MacDiarmid’s poems, puzzling through them, skipping over dull patches, savoring the heft and music of his words. That’s what keeps me coming back, when boredom or bafflement threaten my efforts to read him with a wide-open mind. Reading a new or difficult writer can be a work-in-progress. In his best poems, MacDiarmid is a lapidary – “one skilled in working with precious stones” – and this stones/words pairing runs through his poems and Ascherson’s book. The latter refers to “the dominance of geology over Scottish patterns of living.” In Annals of the Former World (1998), John McPhee, who describes geology as "a fountain of metaphor," writes:

"...the last Pleistocene ice sheet loaded two miles of ice onto Scotland, and that dunked Scotland in the mantle. After the ice melted, Scotland came up again, lifting its beaches high into the air."

A reader in England, Harry Gilonis, encourages me to persevere with “Raised Beach” and writes of an earlier version of the poem:

“…the old Norn words -- hraun Duss, rønis, queedaruns, kollyarun; They hvarf from me in all directions Over the hurdifell; klett, millya hellya, hellyina bretta, Hellyina wheeda, hellyina grø, bakka, ayre; And lay my world in kolgref.

“These words all come from a linguist's article on Shetland Norn that came into MacDiarmid's hands; they are specific terms for Shetland landscape features (`fell’ survives in Northern England placenames for `high moorland’). You don't really need to know too precisely what's what!”

But I like to, Harry. With a good or great poet, I develop a sense of trust. If he uses an unfamiliar word I want to know what it means, regardless of the language. MacDiarmid is a poet of the Scots, the Scots language and the Scottish nation, and my knowledge of all is feeble. I look up words and trace allusions. His closest poetic cognate in the United States is Whitman, and like him MacDiarmid is a windbag. Both poets benefit from judicious editing (as do Wordsworth and Tennyson, national poets in another sense). Ascherson, born in Edinburgh, suggests MacDiarmid’s specialness to some readers in Scotland:

“We drove on towards Galashiels, our last destination. It was a hot afternoon. Sleepily, I tried to remember all the rivers we had crossed on this journey: Forth and Tay, Don and Dee, Deveron and Spey, Ythan and Ugie, Eddleston Water and Gala Water and Tweed [even the names of rivers are beautiful in Scotland]. My head began to nod forward. I turned to counting the poets we had quoted along the way: Barbour and Dunbar, Alexander Montgomerie and W.B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, Shakespeare on occasion. Burns on many occasions, and King David, perhaps, if you attribute the Psalms, and of course `Anon.’”

Such company.