Wednesday, July 24, 2013

`Books Are People Talking About Other People'

If remembered at all, Merrill Moore (1903-1957) is pigeonholed as one of the more prolific and less accomplished Fugitive poets, the doctor who dabbled in sonnets, analyst to Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. He was, certainly, a sport of nature, a sonnet-machine whose lifetime output of fourteen-liners may have exceeded 40,000. In 1938 he published M: One Thousand Autobiographical Sonnets, followed by Clinical Sonnets (1949), Illegitimate Sonnets (1950), Case-Record from a Sonnetorium (1951) and More Clinical Sonnets (1953) He called his office the “sonnetorium.” I remembered my discovery of Moore forty years ago thanks to another poet and a critic, all by way of a friend. On Monday, Nige wrote about his rereading of Keats and Embarrassment by Christopher Ricks, perhaps the single most readable book of literary criticism published in my lifetime. Read it and you’ll never think about blushing in quite the same way. I pulled out the book again and read the chapter “Somebody Reading,” in which Ricks quotes the wonderful letter Keats wrote to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana on Sept. 20, 1819: 

“Writing has this disadvantage of speaking one cannot write a wink, or a nod, or a grin, or a purse of the lips, or a smile law! One cannot put one's finger to one’s nose, or yerk [OED: “a smart blow or stroke”] ye in the ribs, or lay hold of your button in writing ; but in all the most lively and titterly parts of my letter you must not fail to imagine me, as the epic poets say, now here, now there ; now with one foot pointed at the ceiling, now with another ; now with my pen on my ear, now with my elbow in my mouth.” 

Rick contrasts Keats’ understanding of the act of writing, its inadequacies and joys, with the theorizing of a psychologist and a sociologist. He writes: 

“Keats set such store by the attempt to imagine a writer or reader because doing so will release reading and writing from the inevitable anxieties of solitude—narcissism, solipsism, lonely indulgent fantasizing. It is for such reasons that many of us set such store by the public discussion of literature. To write about literature, argue about it, teach it; these, though they bring other anxieties, are valued because they can help to restore a vital balance of private and public in our relation with literature.” 

The act of forever recalibrating the balance of inner and outer, private and public, seems to be the essence of living with books, reading and enjoying them, sharing our enjoyment and applying their lessons (on blushing, for instance). So much remains unshared and interior – and it must. But so much is talked and written about, in emails, blogs, book chat, book reviews and scholarly articles. Ricks then quotes a sonnet by Moore written in 1941, “Eyes in Libraries,” collected posthumously in Poems of American Life (Philosophical Library, 1958):

“I observe peculiarities
In the movements of the human eyes
Over desks of special libraries. 

“Eyes there rove a bit more than is wise,
Often show inquisitiveness or surprise,
Notice gloves and shoes and socks and ties
And even query whose and whats and whys. 

“You can notice peculiarities
In the motions of the people's eyes
In and near to public libraries. 

“Men and women go there to sit and read
But they squirm and rove, survey each other
Not as sister, quite, and not as brother,
But more with nervous desire or anxious dread.” 

Among other things, Moore’s sonnet suggests the erotic crackle often felt in libraries, the heightened sense of connection and possibility. Libraries, I’ve often thought, are sexual places because “books are people talking about other people.” Here’s another sonnet by Moore, “Books Are Men”: 

“Millions of people talking about other people
In book-shop talk and literary reviews,
Passing gossip, criticism, trade-news 

“Like church organs whose chimes are set in the steeple
To scatter down when crowds congregate within
The battle cries of unknown soldiers lost
In wars lamenting the ultimate gain and cost 

“Of whether the right were good and evil were sin
And who did just what thing in just what way,
Millions of volumes dusty on millions of shelves 

“And everywhere dust, settling down and grey
On faces that might have shown white in the bright moonlight
Somewhere once, perhaps on a certain night.
Books are people talking about other people.”

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