Thursday, April 09, 2015

`A Special Kind of Delight'

“Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place.”

On Tuesday, a thick volume on the top shelf in the French Literature section of the university library grabbed my attention. It was not literary value but the color of the cover that attracted me, like a hummingbird to bee balm. Best call it butterscotch, pumpkin pie or some other suitably confectionary name. On a dusty, ill-lit shelf, it was beautiful. The book in question was Tristan Corbière’s Wry-Blue Loves: Les Amours Jaunes and Other Poems (Anvil, 2005), as translated by the English poet Paul Dale. I have wanted to read Corbière (1845-1875) for decades and never got around to it. Eliot and Pound championed his work, along with Jules Laforgue’s (1860-1887), another literary blank for this reader. John Berryman dedicated Love & Fame (1970) to “the suffering lover & young Breton master.” So I borrowed the Corbière and stayed up too late reading him. Dale quotes Pound describing Corbière’s verse as “hard-bitten,” and I can see that. Here is a stanza from Dale’s free rendering of “Epitaph”:

“Poet, despite his verses’ flop;
Artless artist,--arse over top;
Philosopher bull,--in a china shop.”

[Poète, en dépit de ses vers ;
Artiste sans art, — à l’envers,
Philosophe, — à tort à travers.]

An invalid for most of his short life, Corbière died of tuberculosis at age twenty-nine. Judging from a first reading, he could be harshly satirical, as young men often are, but also present is what Dale calls the poet’s “fierce compassion and empathy for the suffering of the individual that he can barely disguise and control with his distancing ironies.” But I hadn’t come to the library looking for Corbière. The night before I had reread what may be my favorite literary essay by Joseph Epstein, “The Intimate Abstraction of Paul Valéry,” first published in The New Criterion in 2003 and collected in In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007). Ostensibly, the piece is a review of the first two volumes of Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks in English translation, but soon it becomes a meditation rooted in artistic empathy:

“He cared more for precision than profundity, and precision was only accessible through the utmost clarity: `the kind that does not come from the use of words like “death,” “God,” “life,” or “love”—but dispenses with such trombones.’ No trombones, no trumpets, no brass section in Valéry’s prose; a solo cello, deep strings played under perfect control and superior acoustical conditions, is all we ever hear.”

I wish I could write like that. Epstein sent me back to the five chaste white volumes of Valéry’s “charm and intellectual provocation.” That’s what I was doing in French Lit. when I stumbled on Dale’s Corbière, which sent me, by way of happy serendipity, to the English poet’s Edge to Edge: New & Selected Poems (Anvil, 1996) and Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven (Between the Lines, 2005). I also picked up H.L. Mencken’s Smart Set Criticism (ed. William H. Nolte, Cornell University Press, 1968).

The passage quoted at the top is from Wesley Hill’s “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading,” published Wednesday in First Things. Hill is a professor of biblical theology, not exactly my field, but his reading is not confined to that discipline:

“Not all reading should be `irrelevant.’ Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.”

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