Saturday, December 31, 2011

`Many Are Disappointed'

Four men bicycle across the English countryside. One of them, Harry, has plotted their route to a tavern along an old Roman road. They dream of beer and the youngest, Bert, of women. Ted, the oldest and the only married man, “said all he hoped was that the Romans had left a drop in the bottom of the barrel for posterity.”

The tavern is a tea shop. The hostess, “a frail, drab woman, not much past thirty, in a white blouse that drooped low over her chest,” explains that she doesn’t sell beer. The nearest pub, The Queen’s Arms, is ten miles away in Handleyford, a town the men have already bicycled through. They are disappointed, almost angry, and Ted thinks:

“Ease up, take what you can get. `Queen’s Arms’ – he remembered looking back. The best things are in the past.”

Not the thoughts of a young man. The story is V.S. Pritchett’s “Many Are Disappointed.” In nine pages, the English Chekhov delineates six characters, including the young daughter of the hostess. Almost nothing happens. The title is spoken by the woman:

“`You don’t sell beer,’ said Bert. He looked at the pale-blue-veined chest of the woman.

“`No,’ she said. She hesitated. `Many are disappointed,’ she said, and she spoke like a child reciting a piece without knowing its meaning. He lowered his eyes.”

“The best things are in the past.” “Many are disappointed.” Thoughts appropriate for the bottom of the year. Tonight is Amateur Night, when non-drinkers drink, a difficult night of revelry for many. The lonely grow lonelier. Desolate celebrators will wake with sick heads. A time to beware of the cozy seductiveness of the past and the disappointments we already plot for the future. Charles Lamb, no stranger to disappointment, was certain the best was in the past:

“No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.”

Friday, December 30, 2011

`To Lay His Axe at the Root'

To make room for a $11.3-million, three-story parking garage, the public library has cut down two dozen sycamores and tulip trees planted by its landscapers little more than a decade ago. Tulips are among the loveliest trees, particularly when their leaves turn buttery yellow in autumn. Their trunks are models of rectitude and in the spring the blossoms have a citrus-like fragrance. They please every sense except, perhaps, taste.

On this day one-hundred sixty years ago, Thoreau watched the dismantling of a 100-foot pine at the bottom of Fair Haven Hill. Though disapproving of arborcide, even Thoreau is caught up in the drama and suspense of waiting for the giant to fall:

“There now comes up a deafening crash to these rocks, advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushed to embrace the earth, and mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more and forever, both to eye and ear.”

My wife began reading Walden this week and after the first chapter said, “He’s a little self-centered, isn’t he? It’s all about him.” True enough. More than most writers, Thoreau requires us to learn how to read him properly, an education in which he both assists and hinders. He can be tiresome, especially if read as a philosopher, social commentator or literal autobiographer. He often writes like a Yankee prig. He’s best as a comedian and close observer of the natural world. Had they met him, most of his admirers would quickly have found him insufferable. At his best he’s a pure writer, an almost peerless arranger of words. It’s the self-righteous snottiness that’s most difficult to swallow. Both qualities mingle in the pine passage from his journal:

“A plant which has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, has this afternoon ceased to exist. Its sapling top had expanded to this January thaw as the forerunner of summers to come. Why does not the village bell sound a knell? I hear no knell tolled. I see no procession of mourners in the streets, or the woodland aisles. The squirrel has leaped to another tree; the hawk has circled further off, and has now settled upon a new eyrie, but the woodman is preparing to lay his axe at the root of that also.”

By noting the absence of mourners, Thoreau is really saying: “Only I, among all the citizens of Concord, am sensitive enough to mourn the passing of a tree.” Adolescent posturing is embarrassing in a man of thirty-four, even in the privacy of his journal.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"What These Can Only Memorize and Mumble'

My friend in Juba, South Sudan (“the world’s newest nation,” he reminds us), assumed I had read “Grandeur of Ghosts” by Siegfried Sassoon, a poet I know mostly by reputation, not experience. My friend’s taste in poems is reliably good and this one he calls “a keeper.” I read it the same day I learned of someone who compared reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead to “watching paint dry” (a stupid judgment and a cliché, facts not unrelated). Here is “Grandeur of Ghosts”:

“When I have heard small talk about great men
I climb to bed; light my two candles; then
Consider what was said; and put aside
What Such-a-one remarked and Someone-else replied.

“They have spoken lightly of my deathless friends,
(Lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble,)
Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,
What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered ....

“How can they use such names and be not humble?
I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.
The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said
What these can only memorize and mumble.”

The only way to speak of great writers is humbly, with gratitude, which doesn’t mean uncritically. Sassoon proposes not ancestor worship or genuflecting before someone’s canon but good manners, good sense and openness to the notion that we are small people inhabiting a small and rather mediocre backwater in history. We are desperately in need of instruction. Some of our forebears, Sassoon’s “deathless friends,” forgot more than we’ll ever know. To ignore them is discourteous and suicidal.

The cult of the new is self-regarding and delusory, though it forms the unexamined rationale for most bookchat (“small talk about great men”), online and elsewhere. David Myers often suggests a ten-year moratorium on critically examining works of literature. If enforced, a good ninety percent of the bookish blogosphere would evaporate in a yoctosecond, a happy prospect. Look at it common-sensibly: Little written in any era is worth reading. The past is a hell of a lot bigger than the present. Even if we dwelled in a Golden, not Leaden Age, most books worthy of our time would have been written decades or centuries ago. In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau exhorts us to “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all” (every reader’s most dire anxiety, save blindness).

By the way, all of Shelley and most of Blake are unreadable. And I’m not overly fond of Sassoon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

`Blown Up in a Steam Masheen'

One could dedicate a life to remembering the dead. Their numbers never dwindle. They remain as we knew them, fixed like photographs. Perhaps remembering them, celebrating some and condemning others, is an apprenticeship, wishful training for our own demise. If I remember the pre-deceased (a delicious obituary word made current since I wrote my first obit more than thirty years ago about a man named Miller, first name forgotten), am I likelier to be remembered? Probably not, but think how much life we already spend behaving in such a way as to ensure our remembrance, ill or fond. No “unvisited tombs” for us.

On Tuesday we remembered Osip Mandelstam and Charles  Lamb. Today, it’s Maurice Ravel, Theodore Dreiser, Fletcher Henderson and Sam Peckinpah (death endorses diversity). Lamb wrote to P.G. Patmore (father of the poet Coventry Patmore, you may remember) on July 19, 1827:

“I am so poorly, I have been to a funeral, where I made a Pun, to the consternation of the rest of the mourners, and we had wine. I can’t describe to you the howl which the widow set up at proper intervals. Dash [Lamb's dog] could, for it was not unlike what he makes.”

Lamb, you’ll remember, laughed at Hazlitt’s wedding. He meant no disrespect; or rather, disrespect from Lamb was a compliment. Genealogy says otherwise, but I’ve always suspected an Irish branch in the Lamb family tree. He was on to something with his hybrid of stoicism and comedy as a formula for facing death – and life. Later in his letter, Lamb briefs Patmore on his friends’ conditions:

“Procter has got a wen growing out of the nape of his neck, which his wife wants him to cut off, but I think it rather an agreeable excrescence: like his poetry, rather redundant. Hone has hang’d himself for debt. Godwin was taken up for picking pockets. Moxon has fal’n in love with Emma, our nut-brown maid. Becky takes to bad courses. Her father was blown up in a steam masheen. Coroner found it `Insanity.’”

The only true item in this litany concerns Moxon, the editors tell us, but do we really care? Would we otherwise remember Becky’s father and his “steam masheen?”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

`I Shall Never Like Tripe Again'

Characteristically, in the last letter he ever composed, written five days before his death on Dec. 27, 1834, Charles Lamb enquired of Mrs. George Dyer about the whereabouts of a misplaced volume:

“I am very uneasy about a Book which I either have lost or left at your house on Thursday. It was the book I went out to fetch from Miss Buffam’s, while the tripe was frying. It is called [Edward] Phillip’s Theatrum Poetarum: but it is an English book. I think I left it in the parlour. It is Mr. Cary’s book, and I would not lose it for the world. Pray, if you find it, book it at the Swan, Snow Hill, by an Edmonton stage immediately, directed to Mr. Lamb, Church-street, Edmonton, or write to say you cannot find it.”

That same day, Dec. 22, while on a stroll, Lamb tripped, fell and landed on his face. A modern biographer, Lord David Cecil, describes the aftermath: “He was taken back bruised and bleeding. A day or two later alarming symptoms began to show themselves.” Lamb had contracted erysipelas, an acute streptococcal infection. Because of the resulting reddening of the skin, the condition is known as ignis sacer (“holy fire”) and St. Anthony’s fire. One of Lamb’s friends, Thomas Talfourd, hurried to see him. Cecil reports:

“He found Lamb not apparently suffering but half-conscious and murmuring unintelligibly. Soon he fell asleep and died.”

Another soul, one of millions, who could have been saved with a regimen of antibiotics. Lamb was fifty-nine. Five months earlier, Coleridge, his friend since they met as schoolboys at Christ’s Hospital, had died. Wordsworth was convinced the shock hastened Lamb’s death. Lamb’s eulogy is heartbreaking:

“When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief. It seemed to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world, that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve; but since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations.”

Since 1796, Lamb had cared for his matricidal sister Mary, who periodically had to be removed to a madhouse in Islington. Mary was entering another bad spell when her brother suffered his fatal fall. She lived until 1847.

“St. Charles” may be pushing the matter, but Lamb strikes me as an exemplary human being. He wrote like an angel and dedicated his life to caring for Mary. Yes, he drank to excess, a pastime he extolled in letters and essays, but he seems never to have been malicious or gratuitously hurtful. Count, if you can, the writers who still make us laugh after almost two centuries. In the final sentences of that final letter about the missing book, Lamb writes:

“I am quite anxious about it. If it is lost, I shall never like tripe again.”

Monday, December 26, 2011

`Mendelian Exuberence'

A superior Christmas haul: The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems by Eric Ormsby, Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade, Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson and a 10-DVD Laurel and Hardy collection. The other stuff is practical and not worthy of mention.

We were invited by the in-laws to a Christmas brunch, and while there a windstorm blew across the city. The streets and lawns were festooned with garlands of fir, pine and cedar. The air was scented with pitch, and our hands crusted with it after we cleaned up the yard. We carried the fragrance indoors, petting the cat so he could spread the Yuletide cheer, and my fingers are sticking to the keys. Without deploying the word, Ormsby suffuses the day and his poem with Christmas wonder in “Microcosm”:

“The proboscis of the drab grey flea
Is mirrored in the majesty
Of the elephant’s articulated trunk. There’s a sea
In the bed-mite’s dim orbicular eye.
Pinnacles crinkle when the mountain-winged, shy
Moth wakes up and stretches for the night.
Katydids enact the richly patterned light
Of galaxies in their chirped and frangible notes.
The smallest beings harbor a universe
Of telescoped similitudes. Even those Rocky Mountain goats
Mimic Alpha Centauri in rectangular irises
Of cinnabar-splotched gold. Inert viruses
Replicate the static of red-shifted, still chthonic
Cosmoi. Terse
As the listened brilliance of the pulsar’s bloom
The violaceous mildew in the corner room
Proliferates in Mendelian exuberance.
There are double stars in the eyes of cyclonic
Spuds shoveled and spaded up. The dance
Of Shiva is a cobble-soled affair –
Hobnails and flapping slippers on the disreputable stair.
Yggdrasils
Germinate on Wal-Mart windowsills.”

By fractal correspondence, each conifer sprig is a tree. Its pitchy oils hold terpenes, reacting with air molecules to form particles called aerosols – the smell of Christmas. The aerosols turn water vapor, visible as mist and fog, into clouds. The clouds cool the Earth, drop their rain and nurture the firs, pines and cedars.

“The smallest beings harbor a universe
Of telescoped similitudes.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

`Where the Torn Bracken Lies'

For almost half a century Jean Burden (1914-2008) was the poetry editor of Yankee magazine, a publication my mother subscribed to and one seldom prized by the cognoscenti. I enjoyed its Farmer’s Almanac folksiness and reminders of New England’s rural past, mingling maple syrup and granite. Robert Frost was born in California and fixed New England in smoky amber. Burden lived and died in California and polished the homely jewel. After her death Poetry published one of her poems in memoriam in its September 2008 issue:

“This much we do without thought,
without eyes:
it is a wood to be gone through at night
with no road to follow,
with no light

“We know no more than what our hands can touch,
but put one foot before the other,
surely, forest-wise,
feeling where the reed is bent,
where the torn bracken lies.”

I hear echoes of Frost’s best-known poem but mostly I hear a quiet allusion to Dante’s “una selva oscura” (“a forest dark,” in Longfellow’s English). The metaphor of life as a journey through dark woods is hardwired into some of us. Think of dreams and the Brothers Grimm. For our ancestors, a primal woodland signified lumber and plentiful game as well as savages, brigands and “no road to follow.” Maine-born Longfellow gives us “the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Burden suggests we’re not the first to venture through this forest. We merely remain attentive, maintain momentum, follow the almost-invisible path blazed by others – the bent reed, the broken fern. As in life, so it is in writing. None of us is the first down this path. Guideless, we cover much ground without progress, wandering in diminishing circles, living

“…the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can’t be compared with anything. That’s why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the desolate little soul.”

[The quoted passage is from Zbigniew Herbert’s “Animula,” from Labyrinth on the Sea, in The Collected Prose 1948-1998.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

`With Nothing But New Words'

Seventy-three years ago this week, Osip Mandelstam was starving, sick and out of his mind in the frozen transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka near Vladivostok, where he had been transported for “counter-revolutionary activity.” He was a Jew, a poet and a citizen of Western Civilization. He was buried in a common grave and his brother was notified of his death three years later. We think he died Dec. 27, 1938.

Even before the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West, the poet’s widow Nadezdah Mandelstam, in her 1,100-page memoir (published in English as Hope Against Hope, 1970, and Hope Abandoned, 1974), chronicled Stalin’s industrial-scale erasure of blameless people, among whom was her husband. During those years of putative détente, Clarence Brown translated The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (1965) and in 1973 published Mandelstam, the first study in English of the poet. In 1974, Brown and W.S. Merwin translated his Selected Poems. Reading these books in 1974 was like discovering a new continent, one whose existence had been elided from history. In the words of Arthur A. Cohen (in Osip Emilievich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon, 1974) he was “the greatest and most difficult poet of modern Russia.”

In “Mandelstam” (One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems, 2011), Glyn Maxwell describes a devotion to Mandelstam and his work that recalls my own:

“Knowing no word of his I embrace his every
word. They're all there is. He died for only
them. I imagine the obstinate syllables
of his name like a bothering hand on the lapels
of Stalin now and then. I imagine him
having it brushed away. Neither of them
strikes me as caring greatly about the dull
ache the other makes elsewhere in his skull,
not even when those closest to them come
wondering What are you going to do about him?

“Only a slow accrual of discomfort
can do it, and only at night at a point where hurt
and thought converge and clarify the future
with nothing but new words, whether a line
begun forever or one jotted sentence.”

For Guy Davenport in “The Man Without Contemporaries” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), it also comes down to words, the next word:

“Mandelstam wrote anywhere and everywhere. We can scarcely begin to realize his world in which the pencil stub and the three pieces of paper you have is all the pencil and all the paper you are ever going to have.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

`The Season of Mirth and Cold Weather'

One strives haphazardly after charity, good will and a bright festive spirit. These are the moral amenities of the season, a joy to recognize in others, a trial to achieve in one’s self. Even Charles Lamb, who with Dickens is the writer I most readily associate with the happy observance of Christmas, found the task difficult. In a Dec. 23, 1822, letter to his friend Bernard Barton he writes:

“Christmas, too, is come, which always puts a rattle into my morning skull. It is a visiting, unquiet, unquakerish season. I get more and more in love with solitude, and proportionately hampered with company. I hope you have some holidays at this period. I have one day,--Christmas Day; alas! too few to commemorate the season. All work and no play dulls me. Company is not play, but many times hard work. To play, is for a man to do what he pleases, or to do nothing,--to go about soothing his particular fancies.”

One commiserates with Lamb, especially in his characterization of the season as “visiting, unquiet, unquakerish.” Later in the same letter he asks Barton “where I could pick up cheap Fox's Journal?” Barton was a Quaker, a poet and writer of hymns, a serious fellow fortunate to have so unserious a friend as Lamb. That same year, Charles Lamb published in London Magazine the essay he was born to write, “A Few Words on Christmas”:

“Oh! merry piping time of Christmas! Never let us permit thee to degenerate into distant courtesies and formal salutations. But let us shake our friends and familiars by the hand, as our fathers and their fathers did. Let them all come around us, and let us count how many the year has added to our circle. Let us enjoy the present, and laugh at the past. Let us tell old stories and invent new ones--innocent always, and ingenious if we can. Let us not meet to abuse the world, but to make it better by our individual example. Let us be patriots, but not men of party. Let us look of the time--cheerful and generous, and endeavour to make others as generous and cheerful as ourselves.”

Like all of us, Lamb was a fractured soul. He longed for solitude and preached Yuletide bonhomie. He was no hypocrite, merely a man. In “A Few Words” he asks, “And what is Christmas?” and supplies his own answer:

“Why, it is the happiest time of the year. It is the season of mirth and cold weather.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

`P Raises His Head, Fixes the Audience'

Age and physique unimportant.”

The stage direction is repeated three times, applied to three of the four characters in Beckett’s brief play Catastrophe, written and first performed in 1982. We never see the fourth character, Luke, “in charge of the lighting,” though he speaks two lines offstage. When I heard of Vaclav Havel’s death on Sunday, I thought of the play, dedicated by Beckett to the Czech playwright and dissident, then in prison. After his release in 1983, Havel returned the favor, dedicating his play The Mistake to Beckett.

Age and physique unimportant”: Under the Czech communists – or Cuban, or North Korean, or any utopians – everything about the individual is unimportant. Reckoned by totalitarian logic, the collective, an abstraction, is the only reality; the individual, the only reality, is a pernicious abstraction. In Catastrophe, a stringent parody of theater and governance, the Director (D) and his assistant (A) manipulate the Protagonist (P) as he stands mutely on a stage. Until the final stage direction, he remains as malleable as clay in the sculptor’s hands, a motor to be tinkered with at the whim of the mechanic, “the engineer of human souls.”

In the play-within-a-play, A asks if P should wear “a little . . . gag?” D replies: “For God's sake! This craze for explicitation! Every i dotted to death! Little gag! For God's sake!”

Throughout the play, P’s head has hung submissively downward, and P and A arrange his hands and clothing as though he were a man-sized doll. In Catastrophe’s most grimly funny line, D says: “Could do with more nudity.” Beckett conceals the play’s muted hint of hope between brackets, in the final stage direction:

“[Pause. Distant storm of applause. P raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies.
Long pause.
Fade-out of light on face.]

Beckett died in Paris on Dec. 22, 1989, age eighty-three, as Ceauşescu delivered his final speech in Romania and the Brandenburg Gate reopened in Berlin. Seven days later, Havel was elected the last president of Czechoslovakia by the nation’s Federal Assembly. Shortly after the first of the new year I reminded Guy Davenport, in a letter, of Beckett dedicating Catastrophe to Havel. Davenport, who had met the Irishman and corresponded with him, replied:

“Beckett was not a political man. He was a compassionate man.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

`Its Intrusion, Its Siege, Its Intense Presence'

“Whoever comes here with the palette of an Italian landscape painter will have to abandon all sweet colors. The earth is burnt by the sun, parched from drought, it has the color of bright ash, sometimes of gray violet or violent red.”
The Texas Forest Service reports as many as half a billion trees have died as a result of the state’s “unrelenting drought.” The species hardest hit in Harris County – that is, Houston – is the loblolly pine, a native of the Southeast, a tall, scrappy-looking tree that resembles a bottle brush. More than 5,000 dead trees, most of them loblollies, have already been cut down in Memorial Park. This greenest of cities has grown two-tone, with unbecoming bald patches. Loblolly means “mudhole” or “mire.”
“The landscape is not only before your eyes but beside you, behind you, and you feel its intrusion, its siege, its intense presence. Tall trees are rare; occasionally a lofty oak – the Zeus of trees. Clumps of greenery cling to the slopes, small bushes stubbornly struggling to survive. On the roads, on gentler hills, the wild olive tree with its slender leaves mobile as fingers, silver-green underneath. Low against the earth, thyme and mint—the aromas of heat.”
In “Attempt at a Description of the Greek Landscape” (Collected Prose: 1948-1998), Zbigniew Herbert writes of the Mediterranean world he loved and honored. For him it represented the root of civilization, the harsh, dry garden of our culture. As a Pole who survived Nazis and Stalinists to practice his craft, he knew humans can flourish in arid, unpromising landscapes, just as they can wither in well-watered places.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

`The Tug and Its Barges Will Sink With Us'

In the Dec. 27, 1941, issue of The New Yorker – published less than three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the issue on the newsstands Christmas Day – appears a “Talk of the Town” piece, a feature customarily breezy, feuilleton-like and as was the magazine’s custom, printed anonymously. The author was Wolcott Gibbs, for more than thirty years one of the magazine’s reliable warhorses. The piece appears in Backward Ran Sentences (Bloomsbury, 2011), a generous selection of Gibbs’ work edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Gibbs starts his thirty-line “casual” with characteristic (of the magazine, of Gibbs) indirection:

“Christmas, of course, is an anachronism in New York. It belongs to non-converted brownstone houses and gaslights and streets banked high with snow, to a day when there were still suburbs on Manhattan Island. The perpendicular city has no place for it.”

The tone is familiar, nostalgia vying politely with au courant fashion, a muted protest against modernity. Only slowly does the author’s true subject become apparent. Not once is Hitler mentioned, nor the impending fall of the Philippines and Indochina to the Japanese, yet the war suffuses each sentence like incense at High Mass. Gibbs, who loved Long Island and lived for years on Fire Island, quietly echoes Fitzgerald: “The picturesque past is attached to the thrusting present, like a barge to a tug, moving at a constant interval with it through time.” No preaching, no rabble-rousing, no sentimental appeals. The even tone, never strident, never slips. Gibbs turns on his own metaphor:

“When we try to imagine the times and the people who will look back on the grotesque complexity of New York in 1941 and say Christmas was really Christmas in those simple, far-off times [I have the eerie sense he is speaking here directly to us, not to an abstract “readership”], our mind rejects the whole impossible picture. The terrible unborn who are going to remember us as quaint and cheerful figures in an old daguerreotype are as unthinkable to us as men from Mars [the single false, hackneyed phrase in the piece, despite the then-recent Welles/Wells allusion]. We give them up. In fact, we give up the entire complicated analogy; as far as we’re concerned, the tug and its barges will sink with us. In the final perspective of history, it may well be that you are enjoying a nice, old-fashioned Christmas right here and now. We leave you with this thought, for whatever comfort you may find in it, but it sounds like lunacy to us.”

Always tonally agile, Gibbs mastered many voices. The writer who occasionally rises to near-sublimity was also a gifted parodist, film and theater critic, and “humorist” (a dicey designation). Gibbs begins “The Man and the Myth,” published Dec. 22, 1928, with a line that made me laugh out loud: “Santa Claus was born in Latvia on May 8, 1831.”

Collecting Gibbs (1902-1958), whose reputation has evaporated, is a welcome act of literary reclamation. Jacques Barzun called him “a man of courage.” He was a contemporary of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell at The New Yorker. They rank among the greatest American writers in any genre. Gibbs is a lesser figure but a reminder of the magazine’s glory years, roughly 1940 through the early nineteen-sixties. He holds up better than such better-known colleagues as Thurber, Benchley, Parker and Perelman. Before Backward Ran Sentences, the only Gibbs I had read was More in Sorrow, the collection he was reading in proofs when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The New Yorker in its most recent incarnation reflects the nation around it – self-absorbed, politically strident, smitten by celebrity, ultimately trivial. Worse, most of it is badly written. Gibbs’ nimbleness and clarity are long gone. The magazine’s tug and barge sank a long time ago.

[Go here to read a review of the Gibbs anthology by one of his literary descendants, Joseph Epstein.]

Monday, December 19, 2011

`Happy in Himself'

“I'm one of those readers who love old and sometimes half-forgotten books and who do a lot of rereading, one of those who shun best sellers and can't understand their fellow travelers opening shiny volumes that they bought 10 minutes earlier in an airport bookstore.”

Adam Zagajewski transcribes my thoughts during the flight from Houston on Friday. I spent most of the five hours rereading Richard Yates’ A Good School (1978). My seatmate, a woman of about my age, divided her time between playing solitaire on her laptop and reading what appeared to be fiction on another handheld device. I’m guessing, of course, because she didn’t encourage conversation (fine by me) and because I could see blocks of text on the screen, short declarative sentences, many in dialogue form. Among our fellow passengers, also engaged in “opening shiny volumes,” she had much company. In his novel, set in an Eastern prep school in the nineteen-forties, Yates refers to “the tireless, self-renewing business of horsing around.”

Zagajewski is among the fifty readers who, on Saturday, told the Wall Street Journal “what they enjoyed reading in 2011.” Especially enticing are the titles suggested by Richard Holmes (the great Coleridge biographer) and Marilynne Robinson (soon to publish a collection of essays appropriately titled When I Was a Child, I Read Books). Zagajewski selects the Scottish poet John Burnside who, he says, “creates a world in which dreams and realities mix up, and yet we recognize in his verses our thoughts, aspirations and reveries.” In the first stanza of “The Good Neighbour,” Burnside describes one sort of reader:

“Somewhere along this street, unknown to me,
behind a maze of apple trees and stars,
he rises in the small hours, finds a book
and settles at a window or a desk
to see the morning in, alone for once,
unnamed, unburdened, happy in himself.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

`The Friendly Fat of Days'

The plane took off from Houston at 7 p.m. (CST) Friday when the sky was already a light-absorbing blue-gray, and for five hours we unsuccessfully chased the sun and landed in unambiguous night in Seattle just before 10 p.m. (PST). On Wednesday the sun will rise here at 7:55 a.m. and set at 4:20 p.m. Later that night, at 9:30, when the axial tilt of the North Pole is furthest from the sun (23° 26'), we will, without feeling a thing, pass the winter solstice, and so begin the longest night of the year.

On both Wednesday and Thursday we will know eight hours, twenty-five minutes and 17 seconds of day – that is, sunlight, the skim-milk sort that reaches us west of the Cascades. On Friday, the cycle resumes and we’ll enjoy an additional six seconds of day. Calendars and clocks come down to fine calibrations of angularity, and without effort or knowledge our lives conform to planetary motions, until one day we leave the grand cycle behind. Among the sonnets in John Updike’s Americana and Other Poems (2001) is “December Sun”:

“December sun is often in your eyes,
springing a foliage of lashy rays
and irritating dazzle, to replace
the foliage now stripped from all the trees.
The planet rolls and tilts beneath our feet;
the tilt obscurely works to clip the day
a minute shorter; coldness infiltrates
the web of sticky seconds and we freeze.

“The year! We’re chained to it as to a wheel
that breaks us, but so slowly we don’t feel
a thing except at sunset, or sunrise,
when shallow angles form a kind of knife
that slices through the friendly fat of days
and bares the clockwork guts that make us die.”

[Go here to read all of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day, cited by Helen Pinkerton in her comment.]

Saturday, December 17, 2011

`He Is Nothing of Any Thing'

Boswell reports that Johnson is characteristically common-sensical, with a moral twist, when it comes to holiday observances:

“Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.”

Johnson here is less concerned with ecclesiastical niceties than with human nature. We procrastinate (see The Rambler #134). I have Christmas presents yet to buy, eight days before the big day, but here is a fitting and convenient way to assuage Johnsonian anxieties: Samuel Johnson Christmas ornaments. I’m partial to the Hodge, made of “high quality porcelain”:

“Instantly accessorize bare wall-space with our Hodge Ornament (Oval) Oval Ornament. Makes great room or office accessories, fun favors for birthday parties, wedding or baby shower Ornaments, or adding a unique, special touch to gift-wrapped packages. Comes with its own festive red ribbon for hanging. Hang 'em up!”

Also tempting are “Daddy’s Little Lexicographer” and the cucumber ornament, with an inscription edited down from this passage in Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:

“It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”

But I’ve settled my mind on the ornament inscribed “A man may be so much of every thing that he is nothing of everything.” This comes late in Boswell’s Life, when Johnson is seventy-four and a year away from death. Here is the full passage:

“I shall here insert a few of Johnson’s sayings, without the formality of dates, as they have no reference to any particular time or place.

“‘The more a man extends and varies his acquaintance the better.’ This, however, was meant with a just restriction; for, he on another occasion said to me, `Sir, a man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.’”

Prudent words. Well-roundedness, like open-mindedness, has its limits. In small type, J.V. Cunningham’s epigram might almost fit on a cheery Christmas ornament:

“This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

`An Appreciation of Close-work'

“A comparatively modern word: not found before 17th cent.”

So says the Oxford English Dictionary of canny, a word written more often than spoken, at least in the U.S., though its first cousin, uncanny, is a Madison Avenue word, pretentious hyperbole. With canny I think clever, competent, crafty, up for the task, shrewd. Richard Stark’s Parker is canny, a con man and ex-con. Odysseus is the model of canniness and cunning. Lawrence I. Lipking writes in his life of Samuel Johnson:

“Actually Johnson never set foot on Grub Street. Yet he enjoys identifying with Odysseus, the canny hero who is never more dangerous than when he masquerades as nobody [“μή τις,” as he tells Polyphemus].”

Canny connects with can (“know how to”) and ken (“knowledge”). Among the more obscure definitions is “Of humour: Quiet, sly, ‘pawky’,” a meaning “used by English writers as characteristic of Scottish humour.” Sly is good, foxlike, dissembling. The title of the American poet Campbell McGrath’s “An Irish Word” refers to canny. Here are the opening stanzas:

“Canny has always been an Irish word
to my ear, so too its cousin crafty,
suggesting not only an appreciation of close-work,
fine-making, handwrought artistry,

“but a highly evolved reliance on one’s wits to survive,
stealth in the shadow of repressive institutions,
`silence, exile, and cunning,’ in Joyce’s admonition,
ferret-sly, fox-quick, silvery, and elusive.”

Sticking with Joyce for the moment, canny shows up three times in Finnegans Wake, most suggestively in a phrase that reverses the initials of the novel’s protagonist, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker:

“Ear canny hare for doubling through Cheeverstown they raced him, through Loughlinstown and Nutstown to wind him by the Boolies.”

“Ear, can he hear?” Anyone can play this game. Canny scholars have built careers around it. Joyce advised in the Wake: “Wipe your glosses with what you know.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

`The Great Hearsay of the Past'

Guy Davenport writes in “The Concord Sonata,” his mingling of essay and story collected in A Table of Green Fields (1993):

“We lose not our innocence or our youth or opportunity but our nature itself, atom by atom, helplessly, unless we are kept in possession of it by the spirit of a culture passed down the generations as tradition, the great hearsay of the past.”

“The Concord Sonata” is a meditation on that cryptic passage in Walden in which Thoreau recounts his loss of “a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove,” and his long search to recover them. Davenport glosses “this beautiful parable” with the help of a passage written by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) that Thoreau may have read.

The scholarly acuity of Davenport’s conclusion doesn’t concern me here, though I’ve spent decades pondering the teasing multiplicity of meanings Thoreau packs into so small a space. Rather, it’s the sentence quoted above, in particular “the great hearsay of the past,” that haunts me the way Thoreau haunted Davenport. In his next sentence Davenport writes: “Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes.” It’s this embodiment of tradition, of being most ourselves when we enter the thought of another, an act of sympathetic imaginative projection, I find most interesting and, finally, at my age, comforting and true. Davenport describes Diogenes as “an experimental moralist” – a precise characterization of Thoreau.

When young, each of us is Adam. We mistake ignorance for vision and sincerity for truth. We’re taught from every direction and remain proudly unteachable. Age, of course, confers no guarantee of remission from this state. Old fools are nearly as common as young ones. Without a living tradition, an elective affinity with the past, we vaporize, “atom by atom, helplessly.”

This meditation on “the great hearsay of the past” started not with Davenport, Thoreau or Diogenes, but James Boswell, something he reports in his Life of Johnson:

“I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: `There is nothing, Sir, too little for a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

`Content to Be My Guest'

The Christmas season officially arrived at 7:12 a.m. (CST) Tuesday when I heard Louis Armstrong on the car radio “talking to all the kids from all over the world at Christmas time” – that is, reciting Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “T’was the Night before Christmas.”

Away from my kids, Christmas had thus far felt abstract, like Election Day. Tinsel and trees went on sale in the drugstore before Halloween, when three holidays (including Thanksgiving) shared shelf space, but that didn’t count. Snow in Houston is a rumor. Houses on my street have been decorated, but most are strung with white lights, a Unitarian custom more sepulchral than festive.

Later in the day I was reading Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1979), his first book of autobiography, when I happened upon another reminder of the season:

“The Christmas beetles and cowboy beetles held jamborees around the street-lights, battering themselves against the white enamel reflectors and falling into the street. They lay on their backs with their legs struggling. When you picked them up they pulsed with the frustrated strength of their clenched wing muscles.”

The Christmas beetle was new to me, a six-legged jewel native to James’ birthplace, Australia. Some thirty-five species belong to the genus Anoplognathus and earn the common name by entering the adult stage of their life cycle at Yuletide. Despite their beauty, they’re deemed pests because of their bottomless appetite for eucalyptus foliage. They are creatures of the antipodal summer solstice, corresponding to our June bugs.

After a little searching I found another Australian poet, Les Murray, had included a poem titled “Christmas Beetle” in his first collection, The Ilex Tree (1965):

“From the cool night this glossy stranger came,
Attracted by the candle’s yellow flame,
Blundering in jerky flight around our room.
Dazed by the light his bronze wings noisily fanned,
And lest he burn into an odorous fume
I caught and held him prickling in my hand
And threw him back into his home, the night.
A pebble dropped and then whirred into flight.”

I like Murray’s sense of seasonal hospitality. Many would swat a bug into a smear on the wall. Instead, the poet takes him safely home. The final phrase puns, appropriately, on “word into flight.” Christmas is about homecoming, or at least finding a home. Among the most eccentric Christmas poems I know is Marianne Moore’s “To Pierrot Returning to His Orchid,” which is addressed to another sort of arthropod, a spider, and closes like this: “You are here; apparently / Content to be my guest — Say so. / It is Christmastime.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

`The Circus and Menagerie Combined'

The squirrels on campus have grown sleek and fat like landlocked otters, and I’ve taken to filling my jacket pockets with peanuts to keep them looking prosperous. They’ve become spoiled and have learned to gather in packs when they see me coming. They sit upright, looking expectant, paws extended in gestures of entitlement, aping their human cousins, waiting for a handout.

Campus is home to two species -- eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). The fur of the latter is brownish-gray, like the hair of an aging redhead. It’s the largest North American squirrel and the most common around Houston.

They’re brazen. Some will take a peanut from my hand. Others wait for me to throw it. They’re roguish, grabbing one peanut, darting to conceal it under dead leaves and running back for another. Then one of his colleagues snatches the hidden nut and the first guy runs after him, sometimes with another nut already in his mouth. I’ve seen four peanut-stuffed squirrels spiraling up the trunk of an oak, furious with greed, though it looks like courtship playfulness to us.

Thoreau enjoyed the company of squirrels and recognized the role they play in oak propagation. In a fascinating journal entry from Sept. 4, 1851, one that suggests how his writing mind worked, Thoreau first likens us to squirrels, then squirrels to us:

“In the summer we lay up a stock of experiences for the winter, as the squirrel of nuts,--something for conversation in winter evenings. I love to think then of the more distant walks I took in summer.

“At the powder-mills the carbonic acid gas in the road from the building where they were making charcoal made us cough for twenty or thirty rods.

“Saw some gray squirrels whirling their cylinder by the roadside. How fitted that cylinder to this animal! `A squirrel is easily taught to whirl his cylinder” might be a saying frequently applicable. And as they turned, one leaped over or dodged under another most gracefully and unexpectedly, with interweaving motions. It was the circus and menagerie combined. So human they were, exhibiting themselves.”

Thoreau refers to the Acton Powder Mill in Concord where gun powder was manufactured. In his journal entry for Jan. 7, 1853, he describes the aftermath of an explosion at the factory that killed three workmen. The 1851 passage is playful but already with a hint of danger. The gaseous form of carbonic acid is an odorous but nontoxic byproduct of gunpowder production, here stored in iron cylinders. The squirrels spin on them like unknowing clowns.

Monday, December 12, 2011

`Whoever Owned It Before Me'

On Saturday I watched the 1987 movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road and then stayed up too late reading the book by Helene Hanff (1970) on which it's based – a multi-media first for this reader. The film, nicely acted by Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is modest and quietly moving, and Bancroft’s wordless scene near the end, in which her character reflects on what she has lost and what she might have had, wrung a few tears out of this jaded admirer of the Terminator films.

The movie seldom strays far from the letters exchanged by Hanff, a New York City writer and lover of antiquarian books, and Frank Doel, the chief buyer for a book dealer in London, between 1949 and 1968. The two never meet, and the film more than the book hints at a nascent stirring of epistolary romance. The scene in which Doel sits in his office reading a love poem by Yeats, though quite lovely, has no counterpart in the book.

Could a comparable friendship happen today? “Love is multiform,” John Berryman writes in “Canto Amor,” but could it endure in an age of online book dealers and PayPal? The technology of book acquisition has changed more since 1987, when the movie appeared, than it had in the preceding four decades. Hanff mails cash to London, where a bookkeeper enters her account balance by hand in a ledger like Bob Cratchit – or Charles Lamb at the British East India Company.

In her first letter to Marks & Co., Booksellers, written Oct. 5, 1949, Hanff requests essays by Hazlitt, Stevenson and Leigh Hunt, and a Latin Bible. Today, I could have them all by midweek and never touch a human being, even digitally. I’m not succumbing here to nostalgia. We’ve lost something, yes, but gained much. Most of us in Hanff’s place seek books, not a friend, and I don’t necessarily want to meet the person who fetches a volume for me off a shelf in the Amazon.com warehouse. But I might.
Interestingly, the book and movie offer little evidence that Frank Doel is anything more than a desultory reader. He’s a knowledgeable, conscientious tradesman. The only thing we see him read, other than letters and invoices, is the Yeats poem. Unlike Hanff, he never romanticizes books and reading. In the fourth of her letters reproduced in the book, Hanff writes:

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to `I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered `Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

`The List Would Fill the Book'

“Talking, drinking, and smoking go better together than any three other pleasant things upon this earth. And they are best enjoyed in company, which is almost as much as to say they are not best performed at home.” 

I love conversation (with the proper company), no longer drink, and never smoked, but otherwise heartily endorse Arthur Ransome’s prescription in Bohemia in London (1907) for a civilized gathering. The English are better at this sort of thing than we Americans. Perhaps it’s our inveterate one-upmanship. Especially among men, conversation soon turns competitive and boastful, often in an un-playful manner. As one person speaks, the other treads water, waiting to rebut what his friend hasn’t yet finished saying. Conversation with women is always easier and usually more interesting. 

Ransome suggests we adjourn to a coffee-house or tavern: “Get you and your company into a cosy room, with a bright fire and a closed door, where you may be free before the universe.” Freedom: that’s the essential ingredient for a successful kaffeeklatsch or kegger of conversation. No censors or dullards, no scripts, no policing for political correctness. What I’m describing is an exclusionary democracy, where the First Amendment applies only to those already admitted to the club. Ransome channels Charles Lamb:                                                                                                                                                                                 

“Then may your words express the mood you feel, the liquor hearten you, and the smoke soothe you in argument; and if with that you are not happy, why, then, the devil fly away with you for a puritanical, melancholiac spoilsport, whom I would not see with my book in his hands, no, not for four shillings and sixpence on the nail.” 

There are such places. One is literature. Another is its anteroom, the more bookish precincts of the blogosphere. I work for a university and so have few opportunities to meet happily well-read, well-spoken people. Instead, I look to the blog roll on the left. No excuses for dull company accepted. Ransome writes: 

“What an illustrious company is ours: Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Herrick, Congreve—the list would fill the book.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

`Buying Groceries Instead of Buying Dreams'

A quick pass through the campus “bookstore” where I purchased two hooded sweatshirts as Christmas presents, was, as always, dispiriting. The book department consists of six shelves of publications by faculty and staff. Some are heavily technical, and I’m not qualified to judge their worth. The one title I’ve actually read was written by a friend but I can recommend it without bias. (In conversation, the author has described the Fugitive poet Donald Davidson, who figures in her Vanderbilt chapter, as “a stone-cold racist.”) The rest, having bypassed remaindering, await pulping.

Just that morning I had read the excerpts from Bohemia in London posted by Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. I had never read Arthur Ransome but was intrigued enough to get the book from the library. It’s the first American edition, published in 1907 by Dodd, Mead & Company. I found the passage in “The Bookshops of Bohemia” where Mike left off, and resumed reading:

“There is something more real about this style of buying books than about the dull mercenary method of a new emporium. It is good, granted, to look about the shelves of a new bookshop, to see your successful friends and the authors you admire outglittering each other in smart, gold-lettered, brilliant-coloured bindings; to pick up pretty little editions of your favourite books—what pretty ones there are nowadays, but how sad it is to see a staid old folio author compelled to trip in a duodecimo--; all that is pleasant enough, but to spend money there is a sham and a fraud; it is like buying groceries instead of buying dreams.”

For book lovers and dedicated readers, Ransome’s chapter is a respite from the looming loss of literacy. With approval he quotes Lamb on reading. He describes Charing Cross Road as “the only street whose character is wholly bookish,” and writes:

“By these shops alone are there always a crowd of true bookmen. There are the clerks who bolt their lunches to be able to spend half an hour in glancing over books. There are reviewers selling newspaper copies. There are book-collectors watching for the one chance in ten thousand that brings a prize into the four-penny stall. There are book-lovers looking for the more frequent chance that brings them a good book at a little price, or lets them read it without buying it.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

`And You Don't Know Chickadees?'

On a Monday morning about a month ago I entered the engineering quadrangle and observed a great hole in the air. All that remained of a forty-foot water oak (Quercus nigra) was a low stump and a scattering of wood chips. Over the weekend a grounds crew had erased the great tree, leaving a hint of their motives: at the heart of the stump, filling half of its four-foot diameter, was a gaping wound of rot extending eighteen inches into the ground. The tree had been ailing and an earlier crew had already trimmed away the dying branches. It came as no surprise, especially as our eight-month drought persists, but there’s always sadness when a giant falls.

In her final book of poems, Silence Opens (1994), Amy Clampitt concludes “Green” with these lines:

“Petals fall, leaves hang on all
summer; chlorophyll,
growth, industry, are what they hang
on for. The relinquishing

“of doing things, of being occupied
at all, comes hard:
the drifting, then the lying still.”

A failing tree, like a failing person – “The relinquishing / of doing things” – is hard to watch, and most of us some day will learn the lesson with varying degrees of aptitude. Thursday morning I watched six freshmen demonstrate a tree-watering system they had devised in their introduction to engineering design class. Their design was simple and elegant – a ten-foot length of PEX bent into a circle for fitting around a tree trunk, a connector and two ball valves. They calculated the optimal size for drilling spray holes (.043 inches) and their spacing (10 centimeters). After three prototypes it works beautifully, and the university arborist is interested in adopting their design.

All this greenery – 4,200 trees (minus one) and shrubs representing eighty-eight species on 295 acres – makes the campus an inviting way station for birds, migratory and otherwise. On the way to the library at lunch on Thursday, I heard the crisp tapping of a woodpecker high in a post oak. I had to stand and wait until he moved into sight before I could identify him as a downy – small, white-bellied and fuzzy-looking. I’ve learned that an earth-science professor leads an almost daily birding walk on campus, and I hope to join him. The group has observed 111 species since September, and at least 15 of them were first-time sightings.

In an essay that started as a 1986 lecture, “Predecessors, Et Cetera,” Clampitt recalls a stay at Yaddo, the artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when she saw “a fair number of nuthatches and tufted titmice, and lots of chickadees.” (I lived two miles from Yaddo, and can confirm her list.) She asks, “Does anybody here not know chickadees?”

One day, as she’s walking around the grounds with another Yaddo resident, she mentions the chickadees. “What are those?” the other writer asks, and Clampitt writes:

“Well, that did give me pause. If the writer had been a poet, I think I might have said, `Man, you call yourself a poet and you don’t know chickadees?’ But he wasn’t, and I didn’t.”

Thursday, December 08, 2011

`Not Another Best-of-the-Year List'

David Myers at Literary Commentary asked some of us to contribute to his “Not Another Best-of-the-Year List.” The company is excellent, including Joseph Epstein, Terry Teachout, Ruth R. Wisse and David himself.

`Immune to Certain Social Conventions'

By the time a writer is given a newspaper column, in most cases that means his work is no longer readable. Exceptions are few. The first columnist whose work I awaited with eagerness was Eric Hoffer. His “Reflections” was syndicated in U.S. newspapers, including The Cleveland Press, from January 1968 to April 1970 – my high school years. I read the columns, clipped them and pasted them in a scrapbook. From them I moved on to Hoffer’s books, in particular The True Believer, and I suspect Hoffer, a longshoreman by trade, was among the reasons I became a newspaper reporter.

The work of another columnist, Thomas Sowell, never attracted me until I read his piece eight years ago on Hoffer, who I sensed had been virtually eclipsed from cultural memory. Sowell distilled Hoffer’s vision and used his insights to presciently diagnose the ebbing “Occupy” fad:

“People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: `A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding,’ Hoffer said. `When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.’”

Now Kevin D. Williamson has written a fine essay/review devoted to Sowell at Commentary:

“One of the great and brilliant things about Thomas Sowell is that he, like most nerds, appears to be simply immune to certain social conventions. This is a critical thing about him—because the social conventions of modern intellectual life demand that certain things go studiously unnoticed, that certain subjects not be breached, or breached only in narrow ways approved by the proper authorities.”

The same might be said of Hoffer.

`Cauterized, Chipper, Astute'

In some people, appearance and deportment conspire to suggest an animal, a zoological reflection of their truer selves. Jimmy Cagney is a pug and Samuel Beckett a hawk. Likewise, some animals suggest human types, a linkage known at least since Aesop. Eric Ormsby toys with avian allegory in “Some Birds”:

1
“Observe that heron’s hyperbolic stride,
the sinister way in which it seems to glide
on underwater rollerblades until
it halts and leans to peep across the sill
of the cattails and hypodermics its kill –
speared bullfrog or a bream. The great blue
is terrible and righteous when it pierces,
a marshy critic with a malice-javelin
deflating the fat white bellies of its catch.
I loath, yet am infatuated with, that heron.

2
“The gallinules will shame me for my ponderous
approach to life. They have a buoyant levity
as they paddle plumply on the rank canal.
I hope to apply against my debacles
their aqueous placidity. Their horned feet
trundle the muddy depths to keep afloat.

3
“Anhinga rookeries with their
brash, almost crackly chatter
set my arm-hairs on edge and give me
the gags,– that putrescent glitter
of fish-skin against gray twig,
under the leisurely parade of
self-important cumulus, leaves a
tufted taste in the mouth.”

All three are indigenous to Ormsby’s native Florida and the American Southeast, and all, even the heron, are faintly exotic birds but familiar human types. The giveaway with the great blue heron is “a marshy critic with a malice-javelin.” Whether book reviewer or office colleague, we know him – biting in a machine-like way, predatory, mean for the sake of meanness. “Hypodermics” as a verb is nice, suggesting euthanasia, viciousness masquerading as mercy. All of us know the sort, “terrible and righteous when it pierces.” The final line acknowledges our fascination (a form of envy?) with the type.

Ormsby gives gallinules a more admiring treatment. They are as we wish to be -- “buoyant levity” and “aqueous placidity.” They “trundle the muddy depths to keep afloat,” not avoiding the troublesome murk we prefer to ignore. Despite their seeming equanimity, ornithologists tell us the purple gallinule “usually retreats quickly under cover if disturbed,” and their voice is characterized as “a gruff `kruk-kruk-kruk-kruk.’”

For Ormsby, the anhinga is a more ambiguous figure, heron-like but less nasty, its doubleness signaled by its common names -- water-turkey and snake-bird. Audubon describes it as “indefinitely gregarious,” yet the poet is almost sickened by its appearance: “putrescent glitter.” Audubon admires the anhinga’s cunning and grace, which go unmentioned by Ormsby:

“[It] is the very first of all fresh-water divers. With the quickness of thought it disappears beneath the surface, and that so as scarcely to leave a ripple on the spot; and when your anxious eyes seek around for the bird, you are astonished to find it many hundred yards distant…”

With Ormsby I share a north/south binocular vision. The north is plain and even harsh; the south, flamboyant and sometimes corrupt. A native of Florida, the poet lived for decades in Canada, now in England. I’m Ohio-born, a long-time resident of upstate New York, living in the sub-tropics of Houston. Ormsby anatomizes three water-dwelling birds of the South, but may reveal more in another bird poem, a northern one, “To a Bird in Winter” (Time’s Covenant, 2006 ):

“Thicket-whisperer, you
Cherish austerity,
Your small claws blue
Beneath the raggedy

“Habit of subzero
Song. And you will
Tutor me, flit-hero,
Accentual icicle,

“Prophet-minor of cold-
Crunched twigs and nettle-
Skeletons; your bold
Coal-chip pupil settles

“On me, where I follow
You, farther into hiddenness,
Aswarm in the swallow
Villas now left summerless.

“Remembrance of the sun
Glitters your retices;
Icy octaves bangle your dun
Beak that curettes crevices.

“Cauterized, chipper, astute,
You concentrate the frigid waste
In fierce fluff, my modest flute
That whistles to the holocaust.”

For Ormsby we coin a new job description: ornithological/Theophrastian maker of verses.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

`In the Smithy of My Soul'

An Irish-born professor and former dean of engineering, Michael Carroll, celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday on Tuesday, and we organized a party for him in one of the lab buildings. He’s a mechanical engineer but has also written two plays, both of which have been staged, and has composed crossword puzzles for the New York Times and various magazines. He’s a word lover and storyteller, and grew up speaking English and Irish. He loves Flann O’Brien (Keats and Chapman in particular) and is the only person I’ve known who has read An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) in the original.

The graphic designer and I put together a birthday card. On the front is a picture of Thurles, the town where Michael was born in North Tipperary, with Breithlá sona duit! (“Happy birthday!”) bridging the River Suir. Inside we inscribed Saol fada chugat! (“Long life to you!”). The same blessings appear on the birthday cake, in icing.

Several months ago Michael stopped by my office to talk about a story I was writing. He interrupted our digressions-within-digressions to ask if I remembered a passage in Joyce, something about “the smithy of my soul.” I did, for personal reasons, and I referred him to Chapter 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

I read A Portrait in ninth grade and had marked the passage. Its romantic grandiosity echoed in my adolescent bosom. A few years later, as a college freshman, I saw the sentences on a poster under a photograph of a young man with a guitar standing like Stephen Daedalus on the strand, gazing at the snotgreen sea. I bought it and taped it to the wall in my dormitory room.

On the back of the card, in a minute typeface, we added the phrase Tá m'árthach foluaineach lán d'eascanna. In English that’s “My hovercraft is full of eels,” which I knew Michael, a Monty Python enthusiast, would understand. What a blessing it is to have friends who get your jokes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

`That Is About Enough'

I spend most hours of most days alone, in the company of a cat, which is not at all the same as being alone. Like most of her species she is imperious and opportunistic. She is aggressively affectionate, especially when I’m trying to write, when she’ll walk across the keyboard, back arched, tail twitching, and perform a feline variation on the surrealist pipe-dream of automatic writing. Then she’ll snub me with frosty hauteur. Like Jeoffrey, she moves with “elegant quickness.”

In short, she is company, the sort I prefer when living two-thousand miles from my family. My thoughts on company are distilled in Les Murray’s poem of that name (from Lunch and Counter Lunch, 1974):

“Where two or three
are gathered together, that
is about enough.”

A comic variation on Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Murray’s poem echoes my allergy to collectives, whether rock concerts or anything bearing the prefix “Occupy.” Sharing Murray’s title is one of Beckett’s prose works, Company (1980), in which at one point he might be speaking of a cat:

“Crawling on all fours. Another in another dark or in the same crawling on all fours devising it all for company. Or some other form of motion. The possible encounters. A dead rat. What an addition to company that would be! A rat long dead.”

Beckett captures the uneasy, compromising nature of much company:

“Better hope deferred than none. Up to a point. Till the heart starts to sicken. Company too up to a point.”

Boswell reports Johnson saying of Jeoffrey’s master, the mad poet Christopher Smart:

“I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

Monday, December 05, 2011

`The Keats Brothers'

My review of The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George by Denise Gigante appears in Issue #26 of The Quarterly Conversation.

`A Whole Family of Him'

The Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker writes March 19, 1956, to Louis Zukofsky:

“I take down not my Bible but Marcus Aurelius and follow up with Lucretius and Thoreau’s Journal (The Heart of) and why couldn’t somebody like Thoreau—a whole family of him—have ever settled near me?”
More than two years later, on June 1, 1958, she writes again to Zukofsky:
“Cleaning the old cupboard I placed three books together that mean most to me—Marcus Aurelius, Thoreau’s Walden and Japanese Haiku and standing beside that is [Zukofsky’s] Test of Poetry.”
Niedecker and Thoreau – American Isolatoes (Melville: “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own”). Both lived by water and wrote about it -- Thoreau on the rivers and Walden Pond, Niedecker on Black Hawk Island (“The Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes.") Both celebrated silence and wrote of neighbors with suspicion, envy and gratitude. Many of Niedecker’s neighbors, as well as relatives, were unaware she wrote poetry. The citizens of Concord knew Thoreau as a surveyor, pencil maker and oddball in a time and place of oddballs. The “Visitors” chapter in Walden begins:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.”
Niedecker asks “why couldn’t somebody like Thoreau—a whole family of him—have ever settled near me?” Impossible. Thoreau made his final doomed journey to Minnesota, Wisconsin’s neighbor, but there was never anyone “like” him. Like her he was sui generis, a cast-iron eccentric, for better and worse. He would have wandered off into the marshes after turtles.
In her home library Niedecker owned copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. The latter is the 1927 Everyman’s edition. On a sheet of paper tucked into the volume is written in Niedecker’s hand:
“Of Thoreau - He chose to be rich by making his wants few. – Emerson”

Sunday, December 04, 2011

`Hardheaded, Realistic, Past Surprise'

Among Helen Pinkerton’s recent gifts is the Fall/Winter 1997 issue of Hellas: A Journal of Poetry and the Humanities, dedicated to the poet-critic John Finlay who died of AIDS at age fifty in 1991. Included are twelve poems and a brief prose piece by Finlay, and work by Edgar Bowers, Janet Lewis, David Middleton and Clive Wilmer, among others.

Helen’s essay “Acts of Resistance: Finlay on Winters’s `To the HolySpirit’” is an admiring partial disagreement with Finlay’s reading of Winters’ great devotional poem (as collected in Finlay’s Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought, 1994, which Helen also sent). Also in the Finlay issue of Hellas is a poem by R.L. Barth, who was then editing The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (1999) and The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), both published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. The poem is “To Yvor Winters, While Editing His Selected Poems”:

“What strikes me now most deeply is your trust.
Hardheaded, realistic, past surprise,
You turned a withering, harsh verse on lies,
Betrayed ideals, subverted justice, lust,
And scourged the statesman, scholar, poet, fool.
But even through the anger you were cool 

“In your assurance there were absolutes, by
However mindlessly ignored; the true
Was always just that, true; and some men grew
In hard-won wisdom which no Hell confutes.
Somehow such men, though few in number, would
Both keep alive and perpetuate the Good. 

“Now you are dead these thirty years, and I,
Though none admires you more, am cynical
And unregenerate, product of all
The types you scorned, and say the great must die.
Attempting to refocus oversight,
I wait, Maestro, knowing which one is right.” 

Winters is “Maestro” as Henry James is “The Master.” Both hold us as writers and readers to uncompromisingly high standards, by “withering, harsh” dismissals of the mediocre, yes, but more importantly by the rigor of their work. In a letter, Winters says he tends toward “a predisposition on behalf of the hard, the brave, the reticent, and the stoical.” In an autobiographical piece collected in The Occasions of Poetry (1999), Thom Gunn (like Pinkerton and Bowers, a former Winters student) writes: 

“He was a man of great personal warmth with a deeper love for poetry than I have ever met in anybody else. The love was behind his increasingly strict conception of what a poem should and should not be. It would have seemed to him an insult to the poem that it could be used as a gymnasium for the ego.” 

Such gymnasiums proliferate in contemporary poetry, driving out the groceries and shoe stores, the services we need. In his selection Barth, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, includes Winters’ “To a Military Rifle," which begins:

“The times come round again;
The private life is small;
And individual men
Are counted not at all.
Now life is general,
And the bewildered Muse,
Thinking what she has done,
Confronts the daily news.”
 

No flag-waving, no suicidal appeasement, "hardheaded, realistic, past surprise."

Saturday, December 03, 2011

`Ingenuous, Possibly Childish Love of Literature'

Overheard at the Friends of the Fondren Library’s biennial book sale, uttered by an elderly man in a broad Texas drawl, who was holding three empty canvas book bags:

“I was hoping to get enough to last me the winter, but I don’t know if I’m gonna find enough to make it to Christmas.”

No, it wasn’t like back in ’07. The selection was thin and indifferently organized, with an unhappy paperback-to-hardcover ratio, slanted toward best sellers, cook books, overpriced art books and well-thumbed encyclopedias. A librarian explained: “It all depends on who dies during the year.” In other words, if a dead alumnus or faculty member with a substantial library bequeaths it to the Fondren, pickings improve.

I watched dealers swoop like hawks over the tables, some taking photographs of individual books and emailing them for evaluation back to the shop. I heard one say: “I only sell three of these a year. Do I really need to buy six more?”

For my kids I found a stack of cartoon books and Mad magazine paperback reprints. For myself I found three volumes, all of which I’ve read before, two of them among my favorite books: a first edition of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a seventh printing of Witness by Whitaker Chambers, and the North Point Press reissue of The Senses of Walden by Stanley Cavell. For a librarian friend I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and on her own she found a hefty music encyclopedia.

Here’s what Bellow wrote in a letter to Philip Roth on Dec. 12, 1969, after Roth had read Mr. Sammler’s Planet for the first time:

“Your note did me a lot of good, though I haven’t known what or how to answer. Of course the so-called fabricators will be grinding their knives. They have none of that ingenuous, possibly childish love of literature you and I have. They take a sort of Roman engineering view of things: grind everything in rubble and build cultural monuments on this foundation from which to fly the Bullshit flag.”

Friday, December 02, 2011

`The Joyless Tittering Duff'

I don’t have a copy of One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe (2010), edited by Molly McQuade, but its premise is inviting: “What one word means the most to you, and why?” Most of us, if honest, would answer I, the word we utter most often in conversation (and in blog posts). Eric Ormsby’s answer is more inspired, the “supple conjunction” or. He writes:

“It's not a showy word but a worker word, a syntactic functionary; and yet, for all its organizational aplomb, it secretly delights in nuance and ambiguity. Or stands like a squat bouncer at the revolving door of the disjunction. It bears the yoke of alternatives—`to be or not to be’—with all the robust orotundity of an ox.”

Shakespeare deployed or in his works 2,562 times, compared to 28,944 appearances by the, 27,317 by and, and 14,945 by a. Joyce uses or 958 times in Ulysses and 930 times in Finnegans Wake. In the latter novel, of course, Joyce gives pride of place (the last word, so to speak) to humble the, as he had more famously to Molly Bloom's yes in Ulysses, though the Wake circles back to its beginning. The novel’s final eleven words are common English monosyllables, as though even Joyce were getting tired of all the quadrilingual puns:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”

Like Ormsby, I too would select a suggestively simple word, one I’ve been rationing for the appropriate occasion: duff. I like the silly sound, the bounty of meanings and its ease of rhyme: bluff, buff, chough, chuff, cuff, fluff, gruff, guff, huff (Groucho in Duck Soup: “You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff”), luff, muff, puff, rough, ruff, scruff, scuff, slough, snuff, sough, stuff, tough and tuff.

Duff is also Homer Simpson’s beer of choice, a common surname and Arabic for “drum,” but the Oxford English Dictionary gives seven definitions -- four nouns, an adjective, two verbs – from “dough, paste” to “the buttocks, the backside” (as in “Get off your duff”). “Up the duff,” we learn, means “pregnant,” and “duff” in golf means “to perform (a shot) badly” (thus, “duffer”).

Best of all, “duff” is the stuff on the ground in a forest, decaying leaves, needles, branches and bark, midway between living biomass and soil. Richard Wilbur uses it in this sense in “To Ishtar”:

“It is all we can do to witness
The waste motions of empty trees,
The joyless tittering duff, the grass-mats
Blanched and scurfy with ice.”

In “Again,” Howard Nemerov writes of “Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor.” In his essay “Bears, Bears, Bears” (Red Wolves and Black Bears, 1975), Edward Hoagland says of a Minnesota biologist looking for black bear:

“If he’s near one of them and wants a glimpse, he lifts a handful of duff from the ground and lets it stream lightly down to test the wind before beginning his stalk.”

In the whimsical spirit of the word itself, Aldo Leopold writes in A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1949):

“Incoming [pine] needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October. All write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown. Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand. It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines.”

Thursday, December 01, 2011

`An Immense Heap of Little Things'

“An essay is a thing which someone does himself; and the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality.”

I was hooked by the time I hit the semi-colon but few readers are likely to share my enthusiasm. Perhaps the sentiment is too quintessentially English, too quaint or proudly imbued with amateur status. It’s not incisive but recalls my decades of newspaper training to become a dedicated generalist. Some reporters relish beats, and I briefly served time covering law and medicine, but there’s even a name for the non-specific journalistic specialty I most enjoyed: “general-assignment reporting.”

The job description suggests competence, a Boy-Scout preparedness to make the best of one’s materials, no excuses accepted. For many, an essay (or op-ed piece, or blog post) is an occasion of homiletic solemnity. I recall a blogger who was offended that I “happened upon” a book and that I habitually trusted in such serendipity. I was being distressingly unsystematic, as though writing were a branch of applied mathematics.

The author quoted above, immensely popular and prolific in his time but unknown to me before this week, is the English essayist and poet Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925). Like many productive people he appears to have been notably unhappy, proving that misery can be an effective goad to good work. The “charm of personality” he mentions is in the writing, not necessarily the writer. A few sentences later, Benson says of crafting a good essay:

“The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules.”

Gusto is a quality cherished by writers as various as Hazlitt, Marianne Moore and A.J. Liebling. It suggests enthusiasm, imaginative dexterity and a capacity for enjoyment. Benson lauds Charles Lamb because he “treated romantically the homeliest stuff of life, and showed how the simplest and commonest experiences were rich in emotion and humour.” Besides intelligence, wit and good manners, what’s missing from many blogs is writing suffused with pleasure in life and in its own creation. Think of Liebling overheard chuckling at his typewriter. The impulse to say something becomes tiresome unless accompanied by the means to say it well. Speaking of which (how’s that for an unsystematic transition?), here’s a passage I happened upon from a letter Coleridge sent his friend John Thelwell on Oct. 14, 1797:

“I can at times feel strongly the beauties, you describe, in themselves, & for themselves -- but more frequently all things appear little -- all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child's play ---the universe itself -- what but an immense heap of little things? -- I can contemplate nothing but parts, & parts are all little --!”

I know Coleridge, characteristically, is making a more grandiose point but doesn’t writing, for most of us, result in nothing more substantial than “an immense heap of little things?”