Tuesday, May 31, 2011

`Hidden in Unexpected Terms and Places'

On Memorial Day morning I drove the boys to the playground in the big downtown park, taking advantage of the brief rainless spell. We noticed a collection of American flags beyond the trees and walked over to investigate. There was no ceremony, no dais or brass band, just dozens of flags hung on the sides of salmon-colored obelisks, part of the park’s decorative wall. On a monument covered with the names of donors to the park’s construction fund I noticed, for the first time, passages from poems by the Big Baby Poet, Theodore Roethke, whose work I associate with the ongoing infantilization of American letters:

“I see the green, and things to come.”

“To have the whole air!
The light, the full sun
Coming down on the flowerheads.”

And so forth – safely “green” greeting-card sentiments. Rightly, no one else was paying attention to them, merely jogging or walking dogs, enjoying time away from work and school, like us, on Memorial Day. I’ve been reading what I can find of R.L. Barth, poet, publisher and Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. In “A Letter to My Infant Son” (“outside Da Nang”) he writes:

“And what is courage? Too many things, it seems:
Carelessness, fatalism, or an impulse.
Yet it is none of these. True courage is
Hidden in unexpected terms and places:
In performing simple duties day by day;
In sometimes saying `no' when necessary;
In, most of all, refusing to despair.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

`Remembering, Honoring, Suffering As I Do'

Thanks to the patient tutoring of Helen Pinkerton, I’ve come to understand that Melville’s “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” is perhaps the great poem of the American Civil War. Part narrative, part interior and dramatic monologue, the poem is rooted in historical events: Confederate general Robert E. Lee appearing in the U.S. Congress on Feb. 17, 1866, before the Joint Sub-Committee on Reconstruction. The committee convened to resolve antagonisms between the Radical Republicans in Congress and President Andrew Johnson over how reconstruction was to be carried out.

In his poem, Melville crafts a fictional speech for Lee, in which the retired general holds both sides responsible for the war; in particular, the politicians (“intermeddlers”):

“I know your partial thoughts do press
Solely on us for war's unhappy stress;
But weigh--consider--look at all,
And broad anathema you'll recall.
The censor's charge I'll not repeat,
The meddlers kindled the war's white heat--
Vain intermeddlers and malign,
Both of the palm and of the pine…”

The final lines of Melville’s poem, spoken not by Lee but the narrator, ironically comment on the likely failure of politicians and others – Radical Republicans, in particular -- to learn from history:

“But no. Brave though the Soldier, grave his plea--
Catching the light in the future's skies,
Instinct disowns each darkening prophecy:
Faith in America never dies;
Heaven shall the end ordained fulfill,
We march with Providence cheery still.”

The poem is extraordinary, in part, because Melville, a strong Union supporter during the war, sympathetically projects himself into the voice of the great Confederate general and implicitly urges reconciliation. In the prose “Supplement” appended to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), in which “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” was published, Melville urged the Radical Republicans to practice “prudence, not unaligned with entire magnanimity,” and wrote:

“Benevolence and policy—Christianity and Machiavelli—dissuade from penal severities toward the subdued….”

Hershel Parker in Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 (2002) says Melville’s poem overrides “the lessons of history in the hope of promoting reconciliation.” Parker continues:

“He mythologizes the man [Lee] who had endured a public renunciation of military glory—something parallel to the grandeur of his own renunciation, for years now, of literary glory: informing the poem is Melville’s profound though covert identification with Robert E. Lee. Even Melville’s depiction of Lee’s choosing not `coldly to endure his doom’ and speak out is infused with his own decisions to write and publish Battle-Pieces. And once again he followed rhetorical precedent, classical and Shakespearean, as well as American classroom exercises, in inventing an imaginary oration for a real historical figure.”

Melville possessed the fiction writer’s essential gift of projecting himself empathetically into characters unlike himself. As Pinkerton writes in “`Brave Though the Soldier, Grave His Plea,’ Melville and Robert E. Lee” (The Sewanee Review, Spring 2010), “One of the reasons Melville saw the war as a profound tragedy, when other notable Union poets did not, was that he saw it from more than one perspective [a capacity exceeding the moral imagination of most contemporary `Poets Against War’].” Pinkerton adds another layer of historical resonance to our understanding of Melville and of the Civil War. In “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith, 2002), she channels Melville’s voice much as Melville channeled Lee’s. Near the poem’s conclusion, she has Melville refer to “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)”:

“You will remember, perhaps,
In my long poem dramatizing Lee
As spokesman for the South before the Senate,
I pled, with his imagined eloquence,
For reconcilement, magnanimity;
And in another, argued for charity,
As Grant showed Lee, which Lincoln meant to show,
Which truest soldiers felt for former foes,
Some of them men who fought and suffered most…”

Pinkerton intensifies Melville’s plea for “Benevolence and policy,” and his anguish, and concludes her poem:

“For the wound bleeds yet in my soul, divided
And suffering yet with them in spirit, but not,
Like them, endowed with holy faith. If I,
Remembering, honoring, suffering as I do,
See only a worldly end as their intention,
Share our time’s judgment of the Right made Law,
And its opinion that the Wrong put down
Validated all the blood, and fire, and hate,
Justified, too, the wrong we did our brothers,
Then I could not be true to those who lost,
To whose faith, I without faith, must return,
And in my meditations speak their names.”

[David Myers reflects on changes in the observance of Memorial Day by looking at poems by Allen Tate and Robert Lowell.]

Sunday, May 29, 2011

`The Only Way to Enjoy Even a Weed'

G.K. Chesterton, the most volubly entertaining of writers, was born on this date in 1874; or, as he puts it in the opening sentences of “Hearsay Evidence,” the first chapter of his Autobiography:

“Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.”

The Chesterton charm, anathema to some, is unapologetically on display – the love of paradox turning convention on its ear (“mere authority”), Dickensian inflation, Christian deflation and the flow of prose saved from mere journalese by incorrigible wit. As with any prolific writer, especially one who accepts the simple exchange of words for money (that is, a journalist), much of Chesterton’s work deserves forgetting, but much deserves wonder and gratitude. Read the Autobiography and its great final chapter, “The God with the Golden Key.” Chesterton tells us he grew “more and more disposed to seek out those who specialised in humility.” What follows is his inspired meditation on the dandelion:

“To take a convenient tag out of my first juvenile book of rhymes, I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking as a dandelion…in substance what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

`A Rare Humorist & Excellent Hearted Man'

What could be more gratifying than a friend becoming a friend with another of one’s friends? So it is when we learn a much-admired writer has among his favorite writers one of our favorites: Herman Melville loved the works of Charles Lamb.

On May 1, 1850, recently returned from a visit to England and the Continent, Melville wrote to Richard Henry Dana Jr., who had written a letter of introduction to Edward Moxon, his publisher in England, and given it to Melville before his departure. Moxon was Lamb’s friend and publisher, and in London gave his American visitor The Works of Charles Lamb (1848) and Thomas N. Talfourd’s Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1848). Melville writes to Dana:

“But knowing the nature of these foggy English, &; that they are not altogether impenetrable, I began a sociable talk, and happening to make mention of Charles Lamb, and alluding to the warmth of feeling with which that charming punster is regarded in America, Mr Moxon brightened up—grew cordial—hearty;--&; going into the heart of the matter—told me that he (Lamb) was the best fellow in the world to `get drunk with’ (I use his own words) &; that he had many a time put him to bed. He concluded by offering to send me a copy of his works (not Moxon’s poetry, but Lamb’s prose) which I have by me, now. It so happened, that on the passage over, I had found a copy of Lamb in the ship’s library--&; not having previously read him much, I dived into him, &; was delighted—as every one must be with such a rare humorist &; excellent hearted man. So I was very sincere with Moxon, being fresh from Lamb.”

[From Correspondence, Vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville, edited by Lynn North, 1993.]

We understand Melville’s fondness for Lamb. Both were “punsters” and otherwise comically disposed, albeit in different keys. Both fashioned a rich prose gumbo and reveled in the prose of Burton, Browne and Coleridge. Both knew suffering and loss. Among the epigraphs Melville appends to Moby-Dick (he calls them “Extracts”) are six lines from Lamb’s “Triumph of the Whale”:

“Io! Paean! Io! sing
To the funny people's King.
Not a mightier whale than this
In the vast Atlantic is;
Not a fatter fish than he
Flounders round the polar sea.”

Within months of reading Lamb and meeting Moxon, Melville was writing Moby-Dick. Lamb worked in the accounts department of the East India Company for thirty-three years, an experience he writes about in “The Superannuated Man” (The Last Essays of Elia, 1833). I fancy that the dedication Melville gives to “Etymology (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)” at the start of Moby-Dick is a stylized portrait of Lamb:

“The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

Might Bartleby have something in him of Lamb?

Friday, May 27, 2011

`The Fascination of Tinkering With Rhythms and Meanings'

“…it’s very difficult to break a habit of seventy years. The fascination of tinkering with rhythms and meanings and verbal structures is, after so long, a deeply engrained habit.”

Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to an interview with Geoffrey Hill in The Oxford Student, the newspaper at Oxford University, where Hill serves as the Professor of Poetry. The interview is conducted by a student, Jessica Campbell, who betrays no familiarity with Hill’s work. She is well-intentioned but seems unusually interested in the poet’s reputation for “difficulty.” Hill’s speech, always courteous, resembles his poetry in its mania for precise expression. He is, Campbell says, “intensely concerned about being misrepresented.” And who isn’t?

Hill celebrates his seventy-ninth birthday on June 18. Ten days later, Enitharmon Press will publish his new book of poems, Clavics, in the United States. I put in my order a month ago. In the interview, Campbell asks, “Does it matter if poetry is unpopular?” and Hill replies, with admirable forbearance:

“Not at all: I cannot understand the contemporary clamour which insists that unless poetry is popular it is somehow failing. Poetry will survive however few its readers.”

His faith is touching but one wonders how many Americans, even among the infinitesimal sliver who bother with poetry for adults, will read Clavics? Not to read Hill is comparable to serious readers in the nineteen-twenties or -thirties refusing to read Eliot or Yeats, regardless of their feelings about these poets. If Hill is right and poetry (writing it, reading it) survives, our time will be remembered by the happy few as the Age of Hill. Here is “Epiphany at Hurcott” from Without Title (2006):

“Profoundly silent January shows up
clamant with colour, greening in fine rain,
luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole
brightest at sundown.

“On hedge-banks and small rubbed bluffs the red earth,
dampened to umber, tints the valley sides.
Holly cliffs glitter like cut anthracite.
The lake, reflective, floats, brimfull, its tawny sky.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

`Scented With Days to Come'

Last week, one of the kindergarten teachers filled a wide-mouthed stoneware pitcher with bluebells and set it on the counter in the office. The color of the bottom half of the pitcher, a glossy Delft blue, almost matches the color of the flowers. “Nice thing about bluebells,’” she said, “they stay pretty even when they’re dead.” No one spoke the obvious corollary aloud, but she was right: The bluebells, enough to fill a peck basket, are drooping but the color remains vivid.

This week she brought in a vase of lilac sprigs from her yard. The blossoms are pale violet, the leaves heart-shaped, and the fragrance fills the room. “My favorite smell,” the teacher said. It reminded me of walks through the George Landis Arboretum in Esperance (“Hope”), N.Y., the only place I’ve ever seen a strawberry moon. You smelled the lilacs from half a mile before you saw the first flower. Once they reminded me of Whitman; now, Janet Lewis’ “Girl Help” (The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, 2000):

“Mild and slow and young,
She moves about the room,
And stirs the summer dust
With her wide broom.
In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
She stops to rest,
And stops to breathe,
Amid the summer hum,
The great white lilac bloom
Scented with days to come.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

`The Only Fault I Could Find With Them'

Most of the fifth-graders, including my middle son, have been playing their instruments only since the start of the school year. In front of us like a wall of densely packed hoplites sat the clarinets, about thirty-five of them; to our left, the flutes. Behind them, brass and percussion (lots of percussion). Around them bristled their chrome-plated music stands. In the back row, visible rarely and then only the tops of their carefully brushed heads, sat Michael and the rest of the trombone section – all boys, all reveling in the comic potential of their chosen instrument.

Tuesday evening was the big spring band concert, the one they’d been rehearsing since fall. The program emphasized slow tempos and oil-rig rhythms – “Eagle Summit March,” “Musette” (“J.S. Bach Arr. Feldstein and O’Reilly”), “Galactic Episode,” “Cardiff Castle” and “Lamb Chop Rock” (a welded-together arrangement of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). Each piece possessed the under-appreciated quality of brevity.

The real show, heavily choreographed, was the audience, holding aloft digital cameras and camcorders, as though making offerings to indifferent gods. As listeners, they were forgiving. Applause was loud and sustained, rivaling the performance.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with a retired teacher, age seventy-two, who volunteers at school. He’s been listening to the late pianist Oscar Peterson, one of whose final performances he attended in Seattle about five years ago. We swapped Peterson stories, I urged him to give Art Tatum another listen, and then told him about Tuesday night’s impending band concert. He said:

“I remember those days. It’s not about the music, you know. That was usually awful. You’re there for the kids.”

Moran, the narrator in the second half of Beckett’s Molloy, recalls the Elsner sisters, “not bad neighbours, as neighbours go,” and their cook, Hannah. Of them he writes:

“They made a little too much music, that was the only fault I could find with them. If there is one thing gets on my nerves it is music.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

`Birds Don't Fly Through My Skylight Nowadays'

Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky – we know him as Joseph Brodsky – was born on this date in 1940, in Leningrad, and though he died at the absurdly young age of fifty-five, he outlived the U.S.S.R., a victory of sorts. A few months before his death on Jan. 28, 1996, Brodsky granted one of his final interviews to The Argoist, an arts journal in England. Here’s an exchange from that interview, as reprinted in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (edited by Cynthia Haven, 2002):

“A.: You glibly put [Mikhail] Sholokov’s Nobel Prize (1965) down to `a huge shipbuilding order placed in Sweden’ (Less Than One). How credible do you find the `All Literature Is Politics’ argument.

“J.B.: It’s bullshit.”

Now that’s a poet. In a more discursive mode, Brodsky interviewed Czesław Miłosz in 1989. The result is collected in another book edited by Cynthia, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations (2006). Here’s an exchange between the two giants I find amusing:

“J.B.: This is the last question related to the literature of the absurd—literature and, by the same token, the experience of the absurd. What I would say about your operation, about your writing, is that you seem to me, not seem to me—well, I am using these interviewer’s terms—to have incorporated the absurd into your, so to speak, palette, and on occasion you use it, as just another device—that is, it hasn’t become for you the last word of style, of stylistic operation. Would you agree to this?

“C.M.: Ya.”

Cynthia’s latest book, just published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, is An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. Included is “Spring in Berkeley,” a remembrance by the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who writes:

“Of course, the only Russian poet truly close to Miłosz was Joseph Brodsky, who had already lived in the States for five years (beginning in 1972). I remember how delighted Miłosz was about most of Brodsky’s poems, though not all of them; he highly praised, for example, `1972’ (`Birds don’t fly through my skylight nowadays’). Brodsky, in turn, once said, `Miłosz is the most accomplished man I know’ (the word accomplished was said in English).”

[Cynthia in visiting Poland and has just returned from Lithuania, and writes about Brodsky in Monday's post.]

Monday, May 23, 2011

`Other Such Obsolete Stuff''

Several students, mostly girls, seem always to be reading or at least carrying books, whether at lunch, in the halls or on the playground. I watched one girl, with her book held hymnal-fashion in front of her face, walk into a wall and correct her course, apparently without losing her place in the text. Another is a Pakistani-American fourth-grader already of bookish, even scholarly bent. Three nights a week she looks forward to studying Arabic, and has written script for me in the sand on the athletic field. She’s on her third rotation through the Harry Potter books and last week showed up at school with a white-on-black button pinned to her vest:


Simple and eloquent, a slogan I can endorse, and a delightful vision of Paradise: Quiet people reading books they enjoy. The fourth-grader reminds me of the brief banquet speech Isaac Bashevis Singer gave on Dec. 10, 1978, two days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Singer lauds his first language, Yiddish, and gives ten explanations for writing books for children. All are admirable; the final four, genius:

“They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff. Number 8) They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes. Number 9) When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority. Number 10) They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

`A Little Machine; a Petty Contrivance; a Toy'

“Samuel Johnson is palmed off in classrooms as a harmless drudge of a lexicographer, yet open the Dictionary anywhere and find precision and eloquent plainness.”

The suggestion is from Guy Davenport’s “Louis Agassiz,” collected in The Geography of the Imagination, and I followed it. Bibliomancy, opening a book at random for purposes of divination, can be benignly amusing when not practiced in earnest. One’s reading life, after all, is ordered by systematic study, yes, but also by serendipity. “The necessity of amusement,” William Cowper writes in a letter, “makes me sometimes write verses; it made me a carpenter, a birdcage maker, a gardener; and has lately taught me to draw…” So it is with reading, a reliable source of amusement, among other things. I opened Johnson’s Dictionary blindly and pointed at the entry for “knack”:

“A little machine; a petty contrivance; a toy.”

For usage, Johnson cites a passage from Part II, Canto 3, of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras:

“First, He expounded both his Pockets,
And found a Watch, with Rings and Lockets,
Which had been left with him, t'erect
A Figure for, and so detect.
A Copper-Plate, with Almanacks
Engrav'd upon't, with other knacks…”

Knack, meaning “deception, trick, device,” entered English in the mid-fourteen century. The origin is uncertain, possibly the German knacken, “to crack.” The modern meaning of knack as a special gift or skill dates from Shakespeare’s youth. So too does knickknack, close to Butler’s sense of trifles, inconsequential objects, such as “Almanacks,” books of poetry, blog posts.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

`Each Year I Find Something New'

Salsify, the flower that sounds like a verb. Picture spheres of gossamer – that’s salsify gone to seed. At that stage it’s mistaken for dandelion, but salsify is lighter, more elegant, with a hint of Buckminster Fuller design. Known as goatbeard, it’s cousin to the sunflower. In The Drawings of Charles Burchfield (1968), I found a charcoal rendering from 1960 of three salsify flowers gone to seed, with this comment by the artist (who died in 1967, while the book was in production):

“One of a series of drawings which were done because of the fascinating shape of the flowers—somewhat like a pinwheel.”

Shape is to an artist like Burchfield what sound is to a poet like Wallace Stevens – simultaneously fuel and engine. I’ve often written about Burchfield, a fellow native of Northeastern Ohio. His best-known works are strange visionary depictions of natural scenes in which trees vibrate and glow. The drawings – some, études for paintings; others, like the salsify, done out of unembarrassed joy – are humbler and emotionally more somber. I’m unable to find images from the book online, but the salsify drawing is a wonder. The seeds, drawn with charcoal, are delicate as spider web. In fact, they look remarkably like a pen-and-ink drawing from 1949, “Sun and Cobwebs,” which shows a field in late summer when orb weavers are busy.

I favor Burchfield’s small studies of insects and plants – “Hawk Moth and Nicotiana” (1946) and “Queen Anne’s Lace” (1954). Of the latter, the artist writes:

“I never tire of drawing these exquisite flowers. From bud to full bloom, to its final closing into the cup-shaped seed baskets, the flower takes on infinitely varying shapes [that word again]. Each year I find something new.”

I don’t remember another writer noticing the “cup-shaped seed baskets” of the Queen Anne’s lace. They survive into winter and some remain at the top of stems even the following summer beside the next growth of blooms. Burchfield doesn’t mention the “tiny purple blemish” observed by William Carlos Williams. Other Burchfield triumphs include “Crows and Pussy Willows” (1960), “Cecropia Moth Hiding Under Oak Leaves” (1961) and “Three Dandelion Seed Heads” (1961). Of his “Sunflower Head Hanging,” done in Conté crayon in 1960, Burchfield writes:

“One of a group of drawings done for the pure joy of putting down on paper a beloved subject. In a slum section of Buffalo, I found a group of very tall sunflowers, growing in and filling a tiny bit of land in front of a house, and spilling out over a fence.”

Another Burchfield admirer, Guy Davenport, puts it like this in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994):

“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

`New Variations on Ancestral Glories'

“In my mind the idea of tradition incorporates the concept of a contract in which our ancestors, ourselves, and our descendants are obliged to keep one another’s interests in mind as we manipulate our surroundings.”

This serves as a useful definition of the obligations imposed on those practicing one of the arts or sciences; indeed, any human occupation requiring skill, training and imagination, whether cooking, boxing or writing sonnets. The speaker is the sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith, in an interview published in the latest issue of Dappled Things. Smith speaks movingly of his debt to his teachers and cites as an example

“…a stonemasons’ tradition, in which the current generation of masons starts the process of preparing lime-mortar for their sons’ use twenty years in the future, and at the same time make use of the mortar prepared by their own fathers.”

In the other arts, the cross-generational contract is less direct and may skip a dozen generations. No writer is truly original. Good writers recycle, and always have. Straining after novelty signals an attention-seeking poverty of imagination. Smith is a figurative sculptor, often of religious subjects, and once a statue of John Steinbeck. He says:

“Modern art movements are disdainful of monuments, and especially a monument to the achievements of an individual. Three things breed this repulsion: the individual being represented is old, dead, and it’s not me! The modernist program is essentially motivated by contemporary culture’s fixation with the new, a dread of mortality, and rampant egotism.”

Amen. As Smith is a sculptor, I thought of “On an Early Cycladic Harpist (2600 - 2500 B.C.) in the J. Paul Getty Museum," by Helen Pinkerton (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002). The poem is from a series, “Bright Fictions,” devoted to works of art. Here, Pinkerton writes of a small marble statue from the Cyclades, islands near Crete:

“Oval the sweep, the motion horizontal.
The arched harp seems the entrance to a world
Where sunlight falls on singing faces, arms
Uplifted - instrumental to mused charms.
He listens. Then, singing, hears his contrapuntal
New variations on ancestral glories.
seeing is hearing, hearing touch, sometimes,
Some places. Enter where, immemorially,
Memory holds, sifting, the unlost stories.”

Tradition: memory accuated: “New variations on ancestral glories.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

`You Walking Off, Soft as New'

A simulacrum of spring has arrived in the Pacific Northwest – unclouded sunlight, birdsong, greenery, mushrooms, the season’s first mosquito. As if to commemorate the belated event, Dave Lull sent a poem by Kay Ryan I hadn’t read before and that seems never to have been collected in her books. “Spring” appeared in the May 26, 2001, issue of The New Republic:

“It would be
good to shrug
out of winter
as cicadas do:
look: a crisp
freestanding you
and you walking
off, soft as

The fantasy is appealing -- metamorphosis, shedding the shell of the old self, born again, radical spring cleaning. Perhaps an indelibly American fantasy, in the land of self-invention, with the “Territory ahead” always looming. Ryan should be congratulated for writing a poem about cicadas without mentioning the sound they produce with the tymbals on the sides of their abdomens. A stage in the development of a cicada or other insect, between molts, is known by a lovely word adopted unchanged from the Latin – “instar.” Go here to see “a crisp / freestanding you” (and visitor) and here for you “soft as / new.”

I find two more Ryan spring poems. “Sonnet to Spring” is from Elephant Rocks (1996):

“The brown, unpleasant,
aggressively ribbed and
unpliant leaves of the loquat,
shaped like bark canoes that
something squashed flat,
litter the spring cement.
A fat-cheeked whim of air—
a French vent or some similar affair—
with enough choices in the front yard
for a blossomy puff worthy of Fragonard,
instead expends its single breath
beneath one leathery leaf of loquat
which flops over and again lies flat.
Spring is frivolous like that.”

Ryan notices a peculiar phenomenon -- one leaf on an otherwise still afternoon abruptly flipping or even moving along the pavement. The convergence of vent (wind) and Fragonard is typical Ryanesque wit (so is the “front yard”/”Fragonard” rhyme. Go here for “frivolous.”

“Spring” is from Flamingo Watching (1994):

“Winter, like a set opinion,
Is routed. What gets it out?
The imposition of some external season
or some internal doubt?
I see the yellow maculations spread
across bleak hills of what I said
I’d always think; a stippling of white
upon the grey; a pink the shade
of what I said I’d never say.”

Here, too, spring is the new, what ought to be expected yet comes as a surprise. “Maculations” and “stippling” are lovely words for what some consider blemishes. Pink is the color of a blush, “the shade / of what I said I’d never say.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

`Do You Know About Plants?'

Helen Pinkerton described a visit she and Janet Lewis paid to Yosemite during the national park’s centennial celebration in 1990. Lewis had been invited to read her poem “For John Muir, a Century and More After His Time.” Helen writes:

“We also walked around, viewed the falls, as ever, and the trees and the Tuoluome River. That was long ago, but was one of the best of my many visits to Yosemite. You should see sometime, if you haven't already, the magnificent ponderosas on the Valley floor.”

I’ve never visited Yosemite and know it only from Ansel Adams’ photographs and Muir’s The Yosemite and some of his other writings. I’ve always resisted fetishizing certified “scenic splendor,” and have never visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and most of the rest of the American West. Partly, this is pig-headedness, I know, but it’s also the conviction that much of what is most beautiful is already there in front of my face. No ponderosas stand in the back yard but I like my Douglas fir and big-leaf maple. If I were hiking Yosemite, I’d feel the same way. Helen goes on:

“I don't subscribe to what I call the `religion of John Muir,’ which, by the way, is a prevalent religion in California, but I do understand its sources in the physical beauty of the Sierra Nevada landscape And I do admire Muir's prose.”

What Helen is describing, I think, is the secular religion of nature worship, nature mysticism, neo-paganism, pantheistic ecstasies, call it what you will. It blurs into the Church of the Environment and other sentimentalities. It amounts to a militant remnant of Romanticism, often tinged with contempt for one’s own species. To say you “love nature” is a statement without content. It means nothing and is uttered to assure one’s place among the faithful.

In “Spring in Berkeley,” collected in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by Cynthia Haven, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova writes:

“Trees were a permanent motif in Milosz’s poetry [as in Lewis’ and the poems of her husband, Yvor Winters] and conversation. He had an instinct of a botanist, naturalist, or hunter—no doubt also inherited from traditional Lithuania. Once, he asked me as we were walking across the university campus, overgrown with subtropical verdure, `Do you know about plants?’ From his intonation, it was clear that he couldn’t imagine a poet who did not.”

I too expect poets, from Chaucer onward, to know about trees and flowers. It’s part of the job description, like knowing meter and rhyme. That’s very different from the “religion of John Muir” and its empty pieties. In “The Empty Hills,” subtitled “Flintridge, Pasadena,” a poem from the nineteen-thirties, Winters writes:

“Here is no music, where the air
Drives slowly through the airy leaves.
Meaning is aimless motion where
The sinking humming bird conceives.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

`O My Brother, You Have Been Well Taken'

For both readers and writers, books beget books; poems, poems. For an adventure in fecund bookishness – book spawn -- read An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by Cynthia Haven. Each portrait leads to other volumes.

Among the contributors is Richard Lourie, novelist (The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin) and longtime Miłosz translator and friend. In 1964-65, Miłosz recorded at his home in Berkeley a series of conversations with the Polish poet Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), a twentieth- century representative man. He’d been a Communist when young but after fleeing the Nazis was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years imprisoned in Poland and the Soviet Union. During this period Wat, a Jew, converted to Catholicism.

The transcribed Miłosz-Wat conversations were published in Polish in two volumes in 1977, under the title Mój wiek, and Lourie translated a one-volume edition, My Century, in 1988. Like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, it remains an essential guide to the madness of the last century, and the hope of survival and redemption. In “Love at Last Sight,” Lourie’s remembrance of Milosz, he writes:

“I was present at many of those [recording] sessions—Wat sitting by the window, the curtains open, the sunlight falling on his face, a blanket on his lap as if the prison cold was still in his bones.

“At those sessions I saw Czesław in a different light. He showed Wat deference. In part it was because Wat was eleven years older, in part it was because of Wat’s frail health, but really it had a deeper cause: Wat had a sort of spiritual seniority, a quality of presence that is instantly detected in prison cells.”

Wat took his own life (as did Koestler) in Paris in 1967. Forty years later in A Treatise of Civil Power, Geoffrey Hill includes “In Memoriam: Aleksander Wat”:

“O my brother, you have been well taken,
and by the writing hand most probably:
on photographs it looks to be the left,
the unlucky one. Do nothing to revive me.

“Surrealism prescient of the real;
the unendurable to be assigned
no further, voice or no voice; funérailles,
songs of reft joy upon another planet.”

Thirty pages later in the same book is Hill’s “Harmonia Sacra":

“Harmonia sacra, a few sacred crumbs,
and we're a scared people. Not even now
sapped or snapped, the willing of the form
of nationhood, royalist, republican,
the seventeenth-century vision of harmony
that all gave voice to and that most betrayed.
This sounds like Herrick but without his grace.
I sing of times trans-shifting were his words.”

The allusion is to Robert Herrick’s “The Argument of his Book.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

`You Have to Have Some Basis in Being'

My ten-year-old returned dripping from a Boy Scout campout in the mountains, and brought home everything in black plastic trash bags that made an audible splat! when dropped on the kitchen floor. His sleeping bag was swollen and heavy with rain, and wouldn’t fit in our washing machine, so I made rare visit to the coin laundry where washers and driers are spacious enough to accommodate Shetland ponies. Odd that a place dedicated to cleanliness should smell so unhygienic. The word that came to mind was “fetor,” exacerbated by cigarette smoke, blaring television and bawling children.

I was not, however, without resources. In my bag I carried An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by my friend Cynthia Haven and recently published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Collected are thirty-two remembrances of the great Polish poet (1911-2004), as well as Cynthia’s generous introduction, “From Devenir to Être” – that is, in a Thomistic sense, from becoming to being. Cynthia quotes something Miłosz told her during an interview at his home in Berkeley a decade ago:

“We are in flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir [no italics in the original]. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

This is bracing and common-sensical. It’s no coincidence Miłosz was a Pole, whose land was ravaged by ideologies dedicated to “denying any attempt at truth.” Let Cynthia take over:

“The first victim in our technology age has been time, even more than space. The net effect isolated us in the `Little Now’ of devenir. As a result, we lose the ability to think and learn from the past—the very past in which the `now’ is invisibly rooted. We become walled off from the world, which comprises centuries as well as nations. Without such context, we only fetishize culture—extol it without understanding it, memorialize it without being able to profit from it.”

From Miłosz, a poet of genius, such words would be laudatory but hardly unexpected. From an American, a writer and blogger, they are cause for hope. For the last week, Cynthia has been in Kraków, celebrating and taking part in the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival. The poet was born June 30, 1911. All week, Cynthia has posted impressions from what sounds like a city-wide, even nation-wide party, including here, here, here and here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

`Whatever the Forest and Field Have to Offer'

A new word learned, another hole in my ignorance plugged: malacology. Not the study of evil but of the phylum Mollusca, including snails, slugs, octopi and squid. I found a slender volume, almost a pamphlet, Western Society of Malacologists Field Guide to the Slug (1994), written by David George Gordon and published by Sasquatch [!] Books of Seattle.

I have a soft spot, so to speak, for gastropods. Growing up in Ohio, I knew only small, dirt-colored species, creatures notable to an eight-year-old only for the copious slime they trailed and their miraculous ability to traverse the edge of a razor blade without dismembering themselves. At age twenty, in the Savoy region of France, I first saw their larger cousins, eight or ten inches long, the color of pumpkins, and not confined to the underside of rocks and logs. These giants crossed sidewalks and outdoor tables. That visit also included my first taste of escargot.

Last week on the playground, a group of girls announced, without revulsion, they had found a slug. He was modestly sized, about three inches, and in danger of desiccating, so I moved him from the pavement to the grass, much impressing the girls. One of them is a native of France, and unselfconsciously bilingual. I said, “Ah, escargot! Très bien!” She laughed, but I still don’t know if French distinguishes snails from slugs.

“Malacology” was coined in English in the nineteenth century, from the Greek malakos, “soft,” by way of Latin and French. “Slug,” in the sense of a “shell-less land snail,” dates from the early eighteenth century. Oddly, the word first shows up in English in the early fourteen-hundreds, and refers to a lazy person. The gastropod took its name from a familiar human type. Of course, a slug can also be a bullet, a counterfeit coin, a punch in the face or a shot of liquor, and there are slugfests, sluggers, slugabeds and Nancy’s friend Sluggo.

In his monograph, Gordon says Washington is an “evolutionary hotbed for gastropods,” including twenty-three species of slugs. In a chapter titled “The Slug in Brief,” he reproduces the slug menu:

“Whatever the forest and field have to offer: fungi, lichens, green plants, worms, centipedes, certain insects, animal feces [is there any other sort?], carrion, other slugs.”

In the chapter on slug anatomy, we learn its mouth and anus are arranged with disturbing proximity, and that it can “attain top speeds of 0.025 mile per hour.” Gordon includes no recipes in his little book, but for that we can turn to A.J. Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris:

“We ordered a couple of dozen escargots en pots de chambre to begin with. These are snails baked and served, for the clients convenience, in individual earthenware crocks, instead of being forced back into shells. The snail, of course, has to be taken out of his shell to be prepared for cooking. The shell he is forced back into may not be his own. There is thus not even a sentimental justification for his reincarceration. The frankness of the service en pot does not improve the preparation of the snail, nor does it detract from it, but it does facilitate and accelerate his consumption. (The notion that the shell proves the snail’s authenticity, like the head left on the woodcock, is invalid, as even a suburban housewife knows nowadays; you can buy a tin of snail shells in a supermarket and fill them with a mixture of nutted cream cheese and chopped olives.)”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

`No Ascetic Can Be Considered Reliably Sane'

Never have I known so many people eager and happy to tell me how I ought to live my life. Perhaps because I’m deficient in busybody genes, and have no wish to proselytize or meddle, I expect the same of others. Unsolicited advice, always presumptuous, is never welcome and often dangerous.

The school nurse, apropos of nothing, told me to eat more yogurt. The fourteen-year-old I tutor twice a week told me to buy a new car because mine has a crack in the rear bumper. A teacher told me to read Keith Richards’ memoir. A reader of this blog told me to stop reading Yvor Winters. My barber told me to become a vegetarian: “You’ll be a happier person,” she promised.

That final comment, from an excellent barber, distills what I hate most about efforts to usurp my will and run my life: arrogance and self-righteousness, and the assumption that someone else knows better than I what’s good for me. What if I don’t want to be happier? What if I suspect I’m already too happy? What if I wish to indulge in the occasional cheeseburger? Beware, always, of do-gooders and their casual fascism.

A.J. Liebling would have understood. No one better appreciated the centrality of enjoyment in our lives. He savored and celebrated the pleasures of food and drink, Pierce Egan and George Borrow, French culture, boxing and newspapers. For a man plagued late in life with depression, who died prematurely of overindulgence, Liebling is a world-class enthusiast, and that’s why some of us regularly reread his books. For today’s militant neo-Puritans, his example is a nightmare. For some of us, it’s a dependable source of joy and excellent prose. In Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), he writes:

“No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall, they should have known he was not to be trusted.”

[ADDENDUM: A retired professor of English in Wisconsin writes: "This wonderful piece should be sent to every liberal in Washington--and beyond." Thank you, but let's not leave out the conservatives.]

Friday, May 13, 2011

`We Learn to Write by Reading'

A teacher patiently explained to me that writing is a form of meditation, a way for students to “access their true selves” and “unleash their creativity.” I must have appeared obdurate, so he reiterated: “We’re all writers but we’ve been trained to believe we can’t be artists, that only special people can be writers or musicians.” He was just getting started:

“Kids who want to write get inhibited when they read books. They have to look inside themselves. That’s where it all comes from.”

This stuff was too good to trust to memory so I wrote it down in the staff bathroom, on the back of a sheet instructing us to watch out for a father who had threatened a kid on school grounds last week. More than four-hundred fifty students attend the school where I work, and I haven’t yet met one who enjoys writing or betrays any gift for it (necessarily related qualities, in my experience). On the day the teacher shared his philosophy of writing with me, Bill Vallicelli, The Maverick Philosopher, posted a refutation of such soft-headedness. The author is one I know only by name, Leo Strauss, and the source is his Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952):

“It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written. (Quoted from Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza's Ethics, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. ii.)”

One occasionally reads something so pithily self-evident it opens a little window in the mind and sunlight illuminates a formerly dim corridor. Who can imagine writing without reference, however subconscious, to the best we have read? Every decision we make when crafting a sentence was learned from someone, whether Mom or Henry James, and tested against our sensibilities. In eight sentences, Strauss eight times uses some form of “careful.” By definition, one takes care when reading and writing with seriousness. “We learn to write by reading”: the thought is hardly new. More than three-hundred years before Strauss, Ben Jonson writes in Timber, or Discoveries (1640):

“For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.”

`Only By Experience of Its Contrary'

With minimal exertion one could assemble a substantial anthology drawn from Dr. Johnson’s reflections on happiness. He returns obsessively to the subject and devotes much of his only novel, Rasselas, to the theme. For Johnson, happiness is dense with contradiction, elusive to attain and understand. For many moderns the state can be defined as getting one’s way, and they’re unlikely to get it with Johnson. In The Rambler #203 he writes:

"It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation."

My thoughts turned Johnsonian when one of the kindergarten teachers handed me a sheet of paper and said, “You’ll appreciate this.” On it was a drawing of a St. Valentine’s Day heart that resembled a Clovis spear point. The artist was a relentlessly cute five-year-old girl in her class. Inside the heart, below the teacher’s name, she had written:

“I hope you hav[e] a Happy ending of your lif[e].”

She closed with “Love,” followed by her name and the name of her preschool brother. Her teacher, a vigorous 40-or-so, didn’t take the note as a prophecy of imminent death. Instead, she quoted Art Linkletter and said she thought it was cute. I’m not convinced. Kids revel in ambiguity, real or imagined, and the note recalls one of those drawings that challenge perceptions: rabbit or duck? As though to test my reaction, the teacher ended up in the hospital emergency room later that day. She was diagnosed with an unpleasant but hardly fatal condition, and released the following day. Johnson writes in The Adventurer #67:

“Happiness is enjoyed only in proportion as it is known; and such is the state or folly of man, that it is known only by experience of its contrary.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

`Subject Matter is Accident'

“Theme is essence; subject matter is accident.”

So writes poet-publisher R.L. Barth in his “Preface” to The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000). He describes Lewis as “fundamentally a domestic poet,” and assures us this designation is neither dismissive nor patronizing. Her subject matter, he notes, “is frequently what we would consider domestic: gardens, housework, children, domesticated animals.” The same might be said of many poems written by Lewis’ husband, Yvor Winters. Barth adds, apropos of both poets:

“Any perceptive reader recognizes immediately that, whatever their domestic subject matter, the themes of many of the poems transcend the merely domestic: love, death, memory, acceptance.”

Barth’s point is that the essential gift of a good or great artist (the Dutch still-life painters come to mind) is to see fundamental themes in the humdrum (is whaling really so grand?). Barth reiterates: “We must not confuse the subject matter with the themes.” The commonplace remains so only to the commonplace mind.

I’ve been browsing in 100 Years of Farm Journal (Countryside Press, 1976), a volume culled from the archives of the largest national farm magazine, founded in 1877. The book reproduces full pages, including ads with their extravagant claims:

“I’ll Set You Up in the Oil Business!”

“Fleming’s Lump Jaw Cure!”

“End Diarrhea in Chicks!”

“Turnip Seeds!”

“I Learned this Priceless Harness Secret from a Pail Handle!”

The writing, both ads and articles, mingles practicality and American folksiness, and the book is compulsively readable. Here’s a sort of found-poem from the October 1961 issue, titled “Now is the time to”:

Fix gates.
Pay taxes.
Tell jokes.
Clean closets.
Dance the polka.
Go duck hunting.
Read Psalm 118:6.
Watch your weight.
Buy shotgun shells.
Burn the mortgage.
Enjoy autumn colors.
Fill up on apple pie.
Invest in a chain saw.
Plant more lily bulbs.
Repair storm windows.
Have your eyes examined.
Green-wrap some tomatoes.
Have a family portrait taken.
Have flapjacks for breakfast.
Admire Mom’s chrysanthemums.
Start planning a winter vacation.
Keep an eye on the cattle market.
Give Aunt Minnie slips from your best geraniums.
Take Shorty with you when you visit the stockyards.”

You can hear echoes of Poor Richard, Thoreau, Will Rogers and Robert Frost, and most of the suggestions still make good common sense. The lines, you’ll note, are arranged by length and, if concrete poetry is suggested, form – what? Half a bell? A rudder or attenuated grand piano? It might almost be a Kay Ryan poem, without the eccentric rhyme scheme and tightly unwound moral. She has a new poem, “Linens,” in the May issue of Poetry:

“There are charms
that forestall harm.
The house bristles
with opportunities
for stasis: refolding
the linens along
their creases, keeping
the spoons and chairs
in their right places.
Nobody needs to
witness one’s exquisite
care with the napkins
for the napkins
to have been the act
that made the fact

Linens, spoons, chairs, napkins: “Theme is essence; subject matter is accident.”

[Ryan has two other poems in the May issue of Poetry: “All You Did” and “The Obsoletion of a Language.” Here is Psalms 118:6 in the King James Bible: “The Lord is on my side, I will not feare: What can man doe vnto mee?”]

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

`To Dispel What Moves You Overmuch'

Dave Lull recently caused me to do something I never do voluntarily – reread a piece I wrote in the happily forgotten past. It was five years old, and like most five-year-olds it was wordy, unfocused and emotionally self-indulgent. At the time, I thought I was doing my best to be concise and charging words with maximum meaning. Now it sounds slack and a little shrill, with too many words doing too little work.

Decades of newspaper reporting taught me that one of the reasons we write is to learn how to write. Another is to pick our models with exquisite care, and we’re unlikely to find them on the op-ed or sports pages. I love Sir Thomas Browne’s prose but I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to write like Hemingway or Raymond Carver. I fancy a style that’s neither corpulent nor anorexic. In Fred Astaire (Yale University Press, 2008), Joseph Epstein defines “true style” as “a way of viewing the world that at the same time exhibits a strong indication of what one thinks of the world.” He elaborates:

“In literature style tends to be represented by point of view. Beneath the surface of the complex worlds of their fiction, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, Willa Cather, and others reveal how they view the world—in its richness, variety, seriousness, comedy, darkness, gravity, and glory—and this view not merely informs but forms their styles.”

True style is neither filigree nor gingerbread, a fancy veneer epoxied to the white pine of mundanity, as it is for many purported “stylists.” What we write about dictates how we write it. If our “point of view” is, in Epstein’s sense, a hollow celebration of self, we’ll favor adjectives and rhetorical flourishes. If the world is our subject, we'll rely on nouns and verbs, matter and energy. True style is suffused with thought, not unmediated emotion. Yvor Winters said it:

“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”

“Write little” I’ve always taken to mean write sparingly, don’t over-indulge, don’t mistake quantity for quality. Mightn’t it also mean write with economical density, packing “Much in Little?”

Monday, May 09, 2011

`The Full Glare of Relentless Marigold Sunshine'

For Mother’s Day, the least substantial of holidays, not counting Father’s Day, I bought the boys a flat of marigolds to plant along the driveway. Among cultivated flowers it’s my favorite, as the dandelion is among the wildflowers of suburbia. Both are at once beautiful and homely, and neither is coy. Neither preens like an orchid. The acrid marigold fragrance attracts hardy folk, not honeysuckle-sniffers.

My job as a boy was harvesting marigold seeds in the fall, storing them over the winter in tobacco tins, and reseeding in the spring. The seeds resemble tiny darts or the barbs of a porcupine. Dry like clean hair, they rustle when you shake the tin. All these impressions – color, scent, sound – remain vivid after half a century and more, and represent my first understanding of seasonal cycles. Color and scent lend flowers an evolutionary advantage, but they also exist for our gratuitous pleasure. They look pretty and smell good just for the hell of it. They ease existence. Imagine a flowerless life at the poles or Death Valley. Wait for the marigold in Anthony Hecht’s “Despair” (The Darkness and the Light, 2001):

“Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.

“Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.

“But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.”

Sunday, May 08, 2011

`You Cannot Estrange My Heart from You All'

Thanks to this blog and email, I’ve rekindled friendship with a former newspaper colleague, now a writer in Las Vegas, whom I haven’t seen in almost twenty years. We were still approximately young and unmarried, and shared enthusiasms for journalism, jazz (Basie, Bill Evans) and comedy. He grew curious about me, found Anecdotal Evidence, wrote me a note, and twenty years evaporated. Ours was always a friendship rooted in mutual sympathy, ease of conversation and humor. He loves baseball and I hate all sports. I can’t take a bath without a book, and he sticks to newspapers, magazines and liner notes. None of that matters.

The poet of friendship is Charles Lamb, who possessed an enormous gift for it. Among his friends, some dating from childhood, he numbered Coleridge, Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Southey, Manning and Dibdin – not to mention his devotion to Mary Lamb, his tormented sister. On compatibility, Lamb writes in a Feb. 13, 1779, letter to Coleridge:

“’Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.”

Six weeks later, on April 7, he writes to the same correspondent:

“Do what you will, Coleridge, you may hurt me and vex me by your silence, but you cannot estrange my heart from you all. I cannot scatter friendships like chuck-farthings, nor let them drop from mine hand like hour-glass sand. I have two or three people in the world to whom I am more than indifferent, and I can't afford to whistle them off to the winds.”

Of course, Lamb also wrote to Coleridge, on Dec. 10, 1796: “I can only converse with you by letter and with the dead in their books,” and a month later: “Books are to me instead of friends.” Lamb knew depression and probably alcoholism – the latter, a disease of the self. I suspect one must savor solitude to be a good friend. The compulsively convivial are a pitiable lot. To Coleridge on Jan. 28, 1798, Lamb writes:

“Any society almost, when I am in affliction, is sorely painful to me. I seem to breathe more freely, to think more collectedly, to feel more properly and calmly, when alone.”

And among friends.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

`Like Treasure Buried and Forgotten'

In Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (1997), Robert De Maria Jr. divides Johnson’s book consumption into four categories and suggests they represent the ways all serious readers read: study, perusal, mere reading and curious reading. De Maria’s scheme appeals to my taste for non-dogmatic taxonomy, sorting the world into classes of things, lending it a sense of web-like relatedness. I say “non-dogmatic” because categories blur and we recognize them only after the fact.

On Friday, for instance, I continued reading the Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas (1998), a Penguin paperback edited by the late Ralph McInerny. This constitutes “study” – slow reading, note taking, reflection. Study not in the undergraduate sense of cloistered cramming; rather, unwavering attentiveness and concentration. I don’t know any other way to read philosophy, assuming I want to understand and retain it.

“Perusal”: Selected rereading of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997). Striking was a late poem (1966-67), “Montana Fifty Years Ago”:

“Gaunt kept house with her child for the old man,
Met at the train, dust-driven as the sink
She came to, the child white as the alkali.
To the West distant mountains, the Big Lake
To the Northeast. Dead trees and almost dead
In the front yard, the front door locked and nailed,
A handpump in the sink. Outside, a land
Of gophers, cottontails and rattlesnakes,
In good years of alfalfa, oats and wheat.
Root cellar, blacksmith shop, milk house, and barn,
Granary, corral. An old World Almanac
To thumb at night, the child coughing, the lamp smoked,
The chores done. So he came to her one night,
To the front room, now bedroom, and moved in.
Nothing was said, nothing was ever said.
And then the child died and she disappeared.
This was Montana fifty years ago.”

Reading Cunningham once constituted study, especially of the early poems, cryptic in their concision, those his editor, Timothy Steele, calls “overly dense.” Study, ideally, with time and devotion, turns into perusal.

“Mere reading”: The May issue of The New Criterion, the only magazine I subscribe to, always a non-guilty pleasure. John Talbot, in “Classic Carne-Ross,” devoted to the late critic, classicist and anthologist D.S. Carne-Ross (whose Horace in English sits on my desk), writes:

“George Steiner called him one of the great readers of literature in modern history—Steiner put him on a list that included Montaigne, Coleridge, Heidegger, Nabokov, and Empson. He was also a superb prose stylist.”

“Curious reading”: The Rambler essays of Dr. Johnson. Curiosity is among the reasons I’m rereading them, this time in sequence, a few each day. Can one be curious about a text one has already read many times and knows in some detail? Of course. The best reading is always rereading, for one is simultaneously reading several texts, distributed over time. Johnson writes in The Rambler #87:

“We see that volumes may be perused, and perused with attention, to little effect; and that maxims of prudence, or principles of virtue, may be treasured in the memory without influencing the conduct. Of the numbers that pass their lives among books, very few read to be made wiser or better, apply any general reproof of vice to themselves, or try their own manners by axioms of justice. They purpose either to consume those hours for which they can find no other amusement, to gain or preserve that respect which learning has always obtained; or to gratify their curiosity with knowledge which, like treasure buried and forgotten, is of no use to others or themselves.”

Of the final sin Johnson names, I hope I may be forgiven.

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull suggests we peruse this.]

Friday, May 06, 2011

`The Beginning of the Awareness of Truth'

This week students take state-mandated tests, known euphemistically as “assessments.” Most use laptop computers, seated in class and conference rooms, in unaccustomed silence. I supervised the math testing for two fourth-grade boys. For two hours, both concentrated quietly except when yawning. One used scratch paper and pencil. Neither used the ruler or protractor. The questions were multiple-choice and the instructions urged them to choose the “best” answers, not correct ones. Jacques Barzun writes in “The Tyranny of Testing” (1962; collected in The Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002):

“Multiple-choice tests, whether of fact or skill, break up the unity of knowledge and isolate the pieces; nothing follows on anything else, and a student’s mind must keep jumping.”

The slower and less mature of the boys, when I asked if he felt confident of his answers, replied: “Mostly I guessed. I didn’t understand a lot of it.” Barzun writes in the same essay:

“…a pupil does not really know what he has learned till he has organized and explained it to someone else. The mere recognition of what is right in someone else’s wording is only the beginning of the awareness of truth.”

Educators, including some at my school, for whom public education is a branch of social work, would snort at the quaintness of Barzun’s language: “the unity of knowledge,” “truth.” Testing, for those who tutor and proctor – that is, babysit – starts to look like an elaborate game organized to gratify someone, certainly not students, though perhaps cousins to those Yvor Winters calls “the insensate, calm / Performers of the hour.” Surely they are not the sort of teacher David Mason celebrates in “Mrs. Vitt,” who says:

No child I taught was any grief to me.”

Thursday, May 05, 2011

`Stepping Up Stairs Through a Blaze of White Light'

On the way to school I pass a western yellow pine on the side of a hill, snapped at a point almost midway up the trunk. The top is still attached to the broken end of the upright stump and forms the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Intact, the tree stood more than one-hundred feet tall, stumpy by the standards of Ponderosa pines. One in Oregon tops two hundred sixty-eight feet. Its Latin name – Pinus ponderosa – makes schoolboys snort, though the pine moves Donald Culross Peattie to reverie in A Natural History of North American Trees:

“Of all western Pines this one seems to the beholder most full of light. Its needles, of a rich yellow green, are burnished like metal. When the shadowless summer winds come plowing through the groves, waving the supple arms and twigs, the long slender needles stream all one way in the current, and the sunlight—astronomically clear and constant—streaks up and down the foliage as from the edge of a flashing sword.”

Peattie’s prose gets a little plummy, but Ponderosas in sunlight and wind suggest the rippling grasses of a prairie. The bark is rusty-brown and cracked like the bed of a dried-up lake. I’m a deciduous man by birth and temperament – ever in flux – but the Ponderosa almost converts me. In Chapter 5 of The Yosemite, John Muir writes:

“Climbing these grand trees, especially when they are waving and singing in worship in wind-storms, is a glorious experience. Ascending from the lowest branch to the topmost is like stepping up stairs through a blaze of white light, every needle thrilling and shining as if with religious ecstasy.”

How many writers can speak authoritatively of climbing Ponderosa pines in a wind storm? With Muir, perhaps Thoreau, had he lived long enough to visit the western third of North America. Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis both wrote poems about Muir, the latter’s titled “For John Muir, a Century and More After His Time,” which concludes with these lines:

“…seasons strange
And dangerous moments on that stony range
That Muir was first to call the Range of Light;
Moments of wisdom and intenser sight.
And these I owe to one
Who built his campfire on the canyon rim,
Who woke at dawn, and felt surrounding him
The mind of God in every living thing,
And things unliving, from the snowy ring
Of peaks, to, near his bed, the smallest heather
Lifting a fragile head
to greet the sun.”

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

`A Dry and Withered Semblance of Life'

Dave Lull numbers among his favorite writers Samuel Pickering, whose latest essay collection, Journeys, was recently published by Texas Review Press. On page 20, Dave found himself “immortalized,” as he says, though in a rather anonymous fashion. Here’s the passage in question:

“During the week I'd received only one letter, this from a man who liked browsing used books, searching for things left by previous owners: letters, packing lists, birthday cards, flowers, and locks of hair. Between two copies of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies in a public library in Wisconsin, the man discovered a dried sparrow. The bird was odorless and was `shelved skull up, its spines oriented like the spines of the books on either side.’ `Gracious,' I said then grunted sleepily like a hog that had lounged away an afternoon in a corn crib.”

Pickering’s retelling of Dave’s story is good, but Dave’s is better. Here’s his version, describing what he found more than twenty years ago on a shelf in the Superior Public Library. This account is taken from the e-mail Dave sent Pickering in June 2006:

“The bird had obviously been dead for a while (stiff, dried, flattened, not much odor) before it was shelved in the stacks (the bird books were in that part of the collection shelved on a balcony). It was a sparrow. It was shelved head up, its spine oriented like the spines of the shelved books on either side, which were copies of the same book, one of Roger Tory Peterson's field guides (sorry, I don't remember which, but mostly [sic] likely it was the guide to the birds of Eastern and Central North America; this was a library in Wisconsin.)”

My favorite touches are the play on “spines” and the clinical description of the avian mummy: “stiff, dried, flattened, not much odor.” The conceptual artist who made a sparrow sandwich with two slices of Peterson was inspired but inscrutable. How do we read such an act? Was it a protest? If so, against whom or what? I’m assuming Peterson field guides get a fair amount of use among birders. So, was the sparrow pressed elsewhere, then inserted between the volumes, or was the pressing done on site? Who can plumb Wisconsin weirdness? And what did Dave do with the almost-odorless bird? Thoreau, of all people, provides some clues. In his journal for March 7, 1853, he writes:

“I read an account the other day of a snipe, I think it was, which, though neither plucked nor drawn, underwent no change but that of drying up, becoming a natural mummy for some unknown reason, as has happened to other, larger bodies. Methinks that many, if not most, men are a sort of natural mummies.”

You can see where this is going. Thoreau can’t resist outlandish metaphors or opportunities to belittle his fellow citizens. He continues:

“The life having departed out of them, decay and putrefaction, disorganization, has not taken place, but they still keep up a dry and withered semblance of life. What the salt is that saves them and robs the worms I do not know. Some bodies there are that, being dead and buried, do not decay, but after the lapse of years are found as fresh as if they had died but yesterday. So some men, though all true life was long ago extinct in them, wear this deceitful semblance of life. They seem to live on, without salt or season, from mere toughness or dryness or some antiseptic duality in their fibre.”

Perhaps the library stunt was not a protest against, say, hunting; rather, its target was library patrons and their “deceitful semblance of life.” Or maybe the perpetrator was a literary critic with a Dadist bent, chastising the desiccated semblances of bookness he found on the shelves of the Superior Public Library. Or maybe he was just a creep.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

`The Common Will for Which Explosion Spoke'

Every journalist eventually hears the complaint: “How come you only report bad news? Why don’t you report the good things that happen?” I've always sympathized with such critics. For years I covered criminal justice, and the news on that beat is grindingly bad, as it has always been and will always remain. Whenever I took such a call, I resisted the urge to point out the reader’s naïveté. That would have been discourteous and more than enough motive for yet another cancelled subscription. Still, for some of us, the urge to hear good news – whoopingly-and-holleringly unambiguous good news – is as primal as the urge for food and sex.

We heard the good news out of Pakistan first thing Monday morning, about 5:30. It was sweeter, of course, for the unlikelihood of it ever arriving. Like most Americans, we’d given up on ever seeing justice. To have the criminal removed so cleanly, without loss of American life, was more than anyone could reasonably have hoped for. It’s the self-contained, closed-case neatness that proves so satisfying, the long-deferred, good-guys-triumph, happy ending. Samuel Johnson writes in The Rambler #81:

“Justice is indispensably and universally necessary, and what is necessary must always be limited, uniform, and distinct.”

The strike in Pakistan was measured and precise, “limited, uniform, and distinct.” It closed the circle without broadening the diameter. Yvor Winters placed the words

“Europe: 1944
as regarded from a great distance”

between the title and the first stanza of “Night of Battle”:

“Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.

“In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.

“Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.”

Monday, May 02, 2011

`Diffident Sweet-Naturedness'

“What of the charge that all of his students write alike? We do. If you find a coherent poem written in rhyme and meter and published since 1945, chances are that one of us wrote it. Where else would it have come from? On the other hand, if you cannot tell the work of Helen [Pinkerton] Trimpi, a finely perfected devotional poet, from that of the head chronicler of Hell’s Angels [Hunter S. Thompson?], you had better give up. I am seldom taken for a lyric poet at all, still less one trained by Winters.”

Helen Pinkerton has loaned me a copy of The Southern Review, the Autumn 1981 issue devoted to Yvor Winters, her former teacher at Stanford University. The passage above is from “Notes from a Conservatory,” a reminiscence by the poet/librarian Turner Cassity (1929-2009), who studied with Winters in 1951-52. Winters is known for his pugnacious style as critic and teacher, but he inspired lasting devotion among students and academic colleagues. Thom Gunn contributes poems and a reminiscence to the Winters issue, Pinkerton a poem, and Kenneth Fields an essay.

The Gunn and Cassity remembrances are interesting for the way they combine anecdote with informal analysis of Winters’ poems, criticism and teaching methods. Both acknowledge their debt to their teacher and declare independence. Both are respectful but hardly uncritical. Cassity writes:

“His greatest failure, and really, the only one, was beyond his control. Painful, therefore, to have to draw up the indictment. It is that, in spite of his appreciation of the physical world—some of it—and in spite of his sharp sense of humor and great kindness, he was unable to convey to his poets any sense of what I shall have to call a largeness of life and a joy of craft. He could convey none because he had none, and he made too much of difficulty and struggle. He need not have let his masters overawe him; he was fully their equal.”

He was. Over the last year or so I’ve immersed myself in the work of Winters, Janet Lewis and some of the writers associated with them (Pinkerton, Gunn, J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers in particular). Just as Winters accepted no reputations as handed on by critics, judged poets by individual poems, and championed the work of unfashionable “minor” writers, so his work has pushed me to reevaluate some of my literary tastes and assumptions. As an autodidact, I’m predisposed to self-criticism and have often jettisoned early and not-so-early enthusiasms, and adopted new favorites. Winters encourages such scrupulosity in his poetry and criticism, and by the example of his own too-short life. Gunn writes:

“The complete disinterestedness, the modesty, the lack of anything self-serving, only made his character more seductive and his personality more inadvertently charming. It is difficult to explain his diffident sweet-naturedness to those who know his personality rather through the prickly and often eccentric footnotes of Forms of Discovery. His manner could be, in Marianne Moore’s word for it, `bearish’; it could be brusque, intolerant, even brutal; it could also be generous, good-humored, and relaxed. His wit was quiet and disarming. But he had to feel at ease with you first.”

All of which, as with Dr. Johnson, makes him deeply human and attractive. When I recently expressed to Helen Pinkerton surprise that no biography of Winters had been written, forty-three years after his death, she replied:

“He had no love affairs, no scandal whatever, no seamy side, and a successful marriage, and so no one has thought it profitable to write him up. I have often hoped someone with sense and an interest in a serious literary life (two literary lives actually) would research his life while some of the people who knew him were alive. So many have died recently: [Moore] Mike Moran and Turner Cassity. Bob Barth did a noble job with the letters for which I admire him tremendously. But Swallow Press (David Sanders) and he made little if anything on that book.”

[Go here for a video of Helen Pinkerton reading poems by her friend Turner Cassity, and here for more on Cassity by Cynthia Haven.]

Sunday, May 01, 2011

`The Occasional Shock of Recognition'

Many of the best thoughts inspired by something posted at Anecdotal Evidence never show up as comments. I too am not much of a commenter (or commentator), and prefer the less formal, more elastic medium of personal e-mails, so I’m grateful some readers share my preference. Here’s a recent sample of readers’ reactions, starting with one written Easter Sunday by a reader in New York City:

“On Thursday my husband & I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where the Magnolia Terrace was a sight to behold, despite the cold wind. Such a melting pot as you can hardly imagine, the high point being young Hasidic families, the women modestly & almost uniformly dressed in dark jackets & skirts, but the men -- outlandish huge round beaver hats & the strangest sateen dressing-gown-like coats. One would never see such observant people in (godless) Manhattan, so I have no idea if this is Passover finery worn only once a year, or perhaps their regular Sabbath garb.”

This is from a reader living an hour north of Toronto:

“I can’t even remember when or how I first found Anecdotal Evidence. I am pretty sure the search terms were: Lady Gaga, titties, steak sauce, emetic. But one or two of those key words might be off….I studied French and German at university, but (due to equal parts stupidity and cowardice) I ended up in the insurance and investment business after I graduated, working first as an advisor (read: salesperson), then as a technical writer and editor.

“About six months ago, like the man in Larkin’s Poetry of Departures, I chucked up everything and cleared off. I now hope to earn a modest living translating books that nobody will read.”

A reader in England writes about Thursday’s post:

“Awesome post! No, 'awesome' is a word I've never knowingly used and don't intend to any time soon. Isn't awesome to awe what dreadful is to dread and frightful to fright, wonderful to wonder, terrific to terror, and so on? The adjectives bleach but the nouns are colour-fast. I'd say awe itself was in fairly rude health, although a relatively recent military appropriation is shocking and awful.

“In the slightly truncated quotation you give from the The Orchards of Syon ('Memory finds substance in itself.'), Hill confines himself to stating what awe is not, though it's a telling enough negation. Fright and dread aren't peace either. The whole of section XIV is suffused with awe but it only comes into proper focus when it settles on what for many of us is its earliest source:

“`Later again, far higher on the fell,
a solitary lamp, notturna lampa,
night's focus focusing, LEOPARDI saw,
himself a stranger, once, returning late,
from some forsaken village festival.’

“'Awesome' might wax in usage and wane in meaning, but as long as there's a moon there will be awe, as well as the occasional shock of recognition.”

A reader of indeterminate residence, presently reading Paul Fussell’s Samuel Johnson and the Writing Life (1965), responded to Saturday’s post:

“Having over the years read all of the Rambler essays, marked up my copy profusely, I agree with Fussell, who admits to the reader: `Taken as a whole the papers of the Rambler are much too rich and complicated to be easily described.” Fussell, however, it seems to me, does a pretty good job in his examination of the essays.”

Of course, it’s always gratifying to receive thoughtful observations sparked by something one has written. But more importantly, it’s reassuring to know at least a few people are still reading, still writing, still navigating the intersection of books and life. They serve what William Cowper in a letter calls “a feast for an epicure in books.”