Friday, July 31, 2015

`As Big, Perhaps, as Four Oxen'

Handicapping literary reputations is a mug’s game but if I were calculating John Updike’s odds, I’d bet on a handful of his stories, reviews and poems – especially the poems. Leave the novels alone, as readers and critics seldom did during his lifetime. Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), was a collection of poems, and he published seven more. In his review of Collected Poems 1953-1993, Tom Disch acknowledged an obvious truth, one he knew from hard experience: “Updike enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist that his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible.” Disch went on to celebrate unfashionable dedication to form: “It is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity.” The same is true of Disch, whose poetry easily eclipses his fiction. Theirs is a poetry of wit. In his Collected Poems, Updike distinguishes between poetry and light verse, and prints them separately. In his preface he formulates the difference:

“My principle of segregation has been that a poem derives from the real (the real, the substantial) world and light verse from the man-made world of information—books, newspapers, words, signs. If a set of lines brought back to me something I actually saw or felt, it was not light verse. If it took its spark from language and stylized signifiers, it was.”

Take “The Menagerie at Versailles in 1775,” from his second book of verse, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963). Updike rightly classifies it as light verse, though an earlier generation might have judged it an act of avant-garde audacity. In his notes, Updike describes it as a "found poem" drawn from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the passage for Oct. 22, 1775. Boswell quotes prose notes kept by Johnson when visiting the French court’s zoo. Updike lineates the prose and revises the punctuation. Otherwise, it’s Johnson verbatim. There’s a poignancy to the passage that Updike may or may not have been aware of. Here’s Johnson:  

“Rhinoceros, the horn broken and pared away, which, I suppose, will grow; the basis, I think, four inches across; the skin folds like loose cloth doubled over his body; and cross his hips; a vast animal, though young; as big, perhaps, as four oxen.”

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines rhinoceros as “a vast beast in the East Indies armed with a horn in his front.” You can quibble with his geography but the definition is typically pithy and common-sensical. In his notebook passage, I detect a muted sympathy for the de-horned beast. Johnson’s ungainly appearance and deportment are often remarked upon. For Europeans of the eighteenth century, a rhinoceros was a monstrous, frightening freak of nature. You’ll find none of that in Johnson’s brief account. Look at this passage in Boswell, dated May 17, 1775:

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

`I Love the Light'

Whittaker Chambers, author of the finest American autobiography, was a gloom-minded man divided against himself, serious if not exactly humorless but certainly unburdened with joie de vivre. After the Hiss trial and the publication in 1952 of Witness, Chambers and his family retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he raised cows and sheep, and continued to write. Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, and three years later Random House published Cold Friday, a collection of his articles, letters and diary entries. The title is borrowed from the name of a field on Chambers’ land. Of it he writes: “Most fields invite the world; Cold Friday confronts it.” The former communist might be describing himself.

Chambers was an urban man, a journalist at home in big cities. In the pieces devoted to life on the farm, he reveals a need for rootedness and a love of nature and agriculture, though a subdued pastoral theme is detectable in Witness. Chambers is no Thoreau, though Rebecca West, in her review of Witness (Atlantic Monthly, June 1952), described its author as “a Christian mystic of the pantheist school, a spiritual descendent of Eckhart and Boehme and Angelus Selesius.” In his diary on June 12, 1952, Chambers writes:

“Toward dawn, fighting off sleep. To rouse myself, I climbed the ridge. The woods and the opposite ridge pearled with light, the hollows between filled with shadow. Behind, the grey band of concrete state road (no cars or even a truck at that hour). I thought: Quiet the land with sleeping. This is the oldest continuity, known to man—the peace of pre-morning in the fields, within which even I, for an hour, am one of the oldest of human figures—a man watching his flocks by night.”

Chambers echoes Psalm 35:20 in the King James Bible: “For they speake not peace: but they deuise deceitfull matters against them that are quiet in the land.” He almost tries on the role of King David as a shepherd boy. In “Exercises,” a sketch written in both prose and verse, Chambers stands on a hill on his land with “a young man, cut wholly to the modern fit,” who finds the skull and bones of a groundhog. (See Richard Eberhart’s poem.) The bones elicit a characteristic Chambers meditation, as he sees in “any seeming-peaceful field a scene of incessant death struggle and murder as horrifying as a battlefield.” He continues:

“I thought, too, of the multitudinous necessity of death—the multitudes, in numbers defying the mind, who have lived, died, been killed, without leaving any memory, without trace or so much as a pathetic small skull and crumbling bones. Millions upon millions, vanished absolutely, as if they had never been at all—no smallest memento or memory; no apparent meaning. The thought of those meaningless numbers thunders like surf in the mind, and drowns our probities in the surge of energy without purpose. The point is not that God notes every sparrow that falls, but that he lets it fall—without trace. I love the light. The groundhog loved the light. The sparrow loved the light. Night falls.”

I hear Sophocles, Matthew 10:29-31 and Matthew Arnold. Chambers must be thinking of the anonymous millions already claimed by communism, with millions more to follow in subsequent decades. And remember the lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

“Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

“Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
         The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
         That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

Gray died on this date, July 30, in 1771, at the age of fifty-four.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

`Speak Again'

Words are tools but also toys. If their job is communication, their avocation is amusement. Not every writer and reader would agree. I admire George Orwell’s best essays (not the fiction) but his sense of humor is vestigial. When he says that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he’s only fractionally correct. People choose to enfeeble language out of laziness and an eagerness to sound like everyone else. Linguistic distinction (that is, precision, concision, color and music, not necessarily profanity or gibberish) is discouraged. Thus: awesome, cool and the poetry of Mary Oliver. The late D.J. Enright thought otherwise. He advises in the first stanza of “First Words, Last Chances” (Old Men and Comets, 1993): “Words you’ve never used / And have always wanted to – / Get them in quickly.” What follows is a tour-de-force of rare words teetering on the cusp of nonsense, A Clockwork Orange or Finnegans Wake. For instance:

“It fell on your head
Her old boyfriend’s framed photo –
Fearsome xoanon!”

I didn’t know that Scrabble-friendly xoanon. From the Greek for “to scrape, carve,” it means “a primitive rudely carved image or statue (originally wooden), esp. of a deity.” Apparently the ex-boyfriend is still idolized. This stanza is particularly good:

“Vox angelica
(Voicing vale or ave?)
Or vox humana?”

I learned what a vox humana was in 1967 from “The Intro and the Outro.” This stanza can be decrypted with a dictionary handy:

“Jalousies muffle
Criminal conversation –
Discalced and unfrocked
Ithyphallic, perforate –
A case of jactitation.”

That last word I learned from Tristram Shandy: “After much dispassionate enquiry and jactitation of the arguments on all sides,—it has been adjudged for the negative.” Such games, indulged unrelentingly, grow tiresome. Some occasions call for plain speaking and sobriety of manner. But limiting our words to one narrow frequency, as advised by the more humorless among the language police, spells tedium. Monotonal words stripped to utilitarian starkness come to signify nothing. Remember Lear’s contemptuous command to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

`Prose Is the Language of the Intellect'

Chapter 18 of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, “Baroque Prose,” opens audaciously. Highet christens the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “the age of prose” (he’s not the first to do so), and says the era’s prose is “superior in quality” to the poetry produced in the same period. Limiting our sample exclusively to poets writing in English, this is the era that gave us Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson, and that represents a mere skimming of genius. But Highet makes a compelling case:

“The reason for the superiority of baroque prose is plain, and may sound like an over-simplification; but no better has been suggested. It is that intellect predominated over emotion and imagination in the life of the time, and controlled them: prose is the language of the intellect.”

Highet identifies two general schools of prose. One he traces to the influence of Cicero; the other, to Seneca and Tacitus. The Ciceronian strain he describes as a “full, ornate, magnificent utterance in which emotion constantly swells up and is constantly ordered and disciplined by superb intellectual control.” Its critics felt that “the `big bow-wow’ style of speaking and writing was bogus.” They argued for a plainer, more “natural” handling of language. Of this second style, Highet lists seven masters in English and French: Bacon, Browne, Burton, La Bruyère, Milton, Montaigne and Pascal. Representing the first, neo-Ciceronian style he gives Addison, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Bossuet, Louis Bourdaloue, Burke, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Gibbon, Swift and Johnson. It’s pleasing to know such lists are not mutually exclusive. Readers and writers need not be partisans of either. Johnson, in fact, wrote a largely admiring life of Browne, and told Boswell that The Anatomy of Melancholy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” The names of at least half of my favorite writers, the ones whose books I return to most frequently, can be found on the two lists. Here’s Highet on Browne:

“Yet prose is not only a tool. It can also be an instrument of music. The most skillful, least monotonous, and subtlest of the baroque musicians in words was Browne, who produced his finest effects by blending simple Anglo-Saxonisms with organ-toned words from Rome.”

And here is Highet on Gibbon, whose great history he criticizes harshly, especially for its well-known antagonism to Christianity and its sometimes “monotonous” prose, but deeply admires as literature:

“Gibbon’s great range would be useless without his analytical power. He had a highly developed sense of intellectual and aesthetic structure. Through this he controlled the enormous and shapeless mass, a thousand processes and a million facts, so that they arranged themselves in large but manageable groups, seventy-one of which made up the entire work, and, uncluttered by appendixes and excursuses and annexes, formed an architectural whole of truly baroque grandeur.”

One of the signal events of my life was reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire some fifteen years ago. Finishing it left me elated and mildly depressed, the way we feel after leaving a household where one has been generously welcomed as a member of the family. Even non-readers of his history know that Gibbon said “history is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” but the Decline and Fall at the same time documents a noble achievement in human history, despite all the political savagery (which has remained steadily present in subsequent centuries). I have never found Gibbon’s sonorities “monotonous.”

As readers born into English, we have reason to be proud. Our inheritance is enormous and we come by it naturally, without effort. Is it possible to be a patriot for one’s language? Patriots secure in their gratitude don’t feel the need to loudly demean citizens of other countries or speakers of other languages. They merely celebrate (and defend) their gifts. Highet, for instance, is respectful of Dr. Johnson but not an enthusiast. He praises the non-Ciceronian stylists for the “great deal of quiet solitary thinking and reading [they did] in large libraries,” adding parenthetically, (”poor Johnson in his father’s bookshop).” Consider this from The Rambler #38, published on this date, July 28, in 1750:

“There is one reason, seldom remarked, which makes riches less desirable. Too much wealth is very frequently the occasion of poverty. He whom the wantonness of abundance has once softened, easily sinks into neglect of his affairs; and he that thinks he can afford to be negligent, is not far from being poor. He will soon be involved in perplexities, which his inexperience will render unsurmountable; he will fly for help to those whose interest it is that he should be more distressed, and will be at last torn to pieces by the vultures that always hover over fortunes in decay.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

`A Well-Stocked Head'

The most entertaining book I have read this year is The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature by Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), first published by Clarendon Press in 1949 and reissued this year in a paperback edition by Oxford University Press (with an eminently ignorable new foreword by Harold Bloom). Highet’s learning is massive and lightly worn. His book is greatly entertaining because Highet is entertained by the greatest books and writers. His manner is not pedantic or school-marmish, and he doesn’t proselytize. One could fill a commonplace book with passages from The Classical Tradition. Highet respects readers enough to assume they too wish to read the best books. Take his treatment of Petrarch: 

“Dante had a bookshelf, a large one. But Petrarch had the first living and growing library, in the modern sense. The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.” 

What a marvelous phrase, representative of Highet’s epigrammatic style: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.” About my mention of respect: I’ve read hardly anything by Ronsard, and now I’ve made a note to remedy that. Art is not democratic (most of us, for instance, can’t write or play the violin well), but access to art has never been more democratic, with ready digital availability of almost any work. Highet continues: 

“The books which Dante knew, he knew deeply; but they were not many. Petrarch knew neither the Bible nor Aristotle so well, but he knew classical literature better than Dante, and he knew more of it. For he discovered much of it, and stimulated others to discover more. He did not discover it in the sense in which Columbus discovered America, or Schliemann Troy. The books were there, in libraries, and still readable. But they were in the same position as out-of-print works nowadays, of which only one or two copies exist, in basements or forgotten dumps. Hardly anyone knew they were there; no one read them; and they were not part of the stream of culture.” 

A book without a reader is half a book or less. Readers complete the job only started by writers. One thinks of the great Melville revival, circa 1920. A decade earlier he was remembered, if at all, as a writer of South Sea romances, loosely clumped with those other salty dogs, Stevenson and Conrad. Within a few years he was acknowledged as author of that mythical beast, the Great American Novel. Highet describes Petrarch’s central role in the rediscovery and reevaluation of Cicero. The poet befriended literature, as all true writers do. Near the conclusion of his pages devoted to Petrarch, Highet writes movingly: 

“Much to his grief, Petrarch never managed to read a book in Greek; but he did search for Greek manuscripts (he acquired a Homer and some sixteen dialogues of Plato) and finally, through Boccaccio, got hold of a Latin rendering of both the Homeric epics. Like a true book-lover, he was found dead in his library, stooping over a book; and the last large-scale work he began was to annotate the Latin version of the Odyssey.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

`I Loved My Aunt'

Stevie Smith recognized that much of life is consumed with giving and receiving casual, low-grade hurts. They color our days. Some are almost benign, reminding us to preserve our self-respect. Some are cold-blooded, spawning, with time, murder and suicide. Lock two humans in a room and someone’s ego will start agitating. A friend reminds me of Smith’s “Pad, pad” (Harold’s Leap, 1950): 

“I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

“What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.”

The first stanza is almost a limerick. For three and a half lines, until “tigerish crouch,” we expect greeting-card sentiments. Then comes the “Dear John.” The speaker, evidently a man, hath no fury. He is a little man, defeated, resigned, some might say a wimp. The drawing that accompanies the poem makes this explicit. The woman, seated on a couch, is dressed like a flapper. She’s smiling and looks ready for the next dance. The man, drawn in profile and only from the chest up, looks stricken. His mustache sags. His appearance almost justifies her ruthlessness. She’s having a grand time at his expense. Smith was no sentimentalist when it came to love, romance, friendship and other human relations. In the preceding poem, “Le Singe Qui Swing (To the tune of Green-sleeves)” and the accompanying drawing, the title creature stands on a swing hanging from a branch. He is male. His tormentor, again, is female and smiling, hanging out a window. The second stanza belies the drawing: 

“Oh ho the swinging ape,
The happy peaceful animal,
Oh ho the swinging ape,
I love to see him gambol.” 

In the poem after “Pad, pad,” “The Broken Friendship,” both characters are female. Here we have a nursery rhyme devoted to human hurt and desolation – Smith’s defining dissonance: 

“Jolie Bear is gone away
Easter Ross’s heart is broke,
Everything went out of her
When Jolie never spoke.” 

Smith’s persona was girlish, whimsical and faux-naïve. In her own way she was “tigerish” – not predatory but cunning. Near the end of her life, Smith told Neville Braybrooke: “People think because I never married, I know nothing about the emotions. When I am dead you must put them right. I loved my aunt.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

`Exempt from Future Service All His Days'

“But few that court Retirement, are aware
Of half the toils they must encounter there.
Lucrative offices are seldom lost
For want of pow’rs proportion’d to the post.”

Perhaps it’s merely an urban legend fueled by the bitter among us who still must work for a living, but folklore claims retirement after long service amounts to a death sentence. The newly emancipated with their fat pensions find leisure appalling. How much golf can one man play? Idleness breeds boredom, irritability and self-loathing. Bad habits follow – drinking, gambling, daytime television. Death comes as respite.

We are confident, however, that another fate awaits Dave Lull, the Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian (OWL), who on Friday served his final day as Technical Services Manager at the Duluth Public Library.  Dave, I trust, has no plans to retire from his other job as the tutelary spirit of Anecdotal Evidence. Modestly, Dave calls himself “nitpicker.” I call him copy editor, fact-checker, hunter-gatherer and friend. My foolishness would appear even more blatant without his unheralded assistance. The ominous lines quoted above are drawn from William Cowper’s “Retirement” (1782). Here are the subsequent lines:

“Give ev’n a dunce th’ employment he desires,
And he soon finds the talents it requires;
A business with an income at its heels,
Furnishes always oil for its own wheels.
But in his arduous enterprize to close
His active years with indolent repose,
He finds the labours of that state exceed
His utmost faculties, severe indeed.
’Tis easy to resign a toilsome place,
But not to manage leisure with a grace,
Absence of occupation is not rest,
A mind quite vacant is a mind distress’d.
The vet’ran steed excused his task at length,
In kind compassion of his failing strength,
And turn’d into the park or mead to graze,
Exempt from future service all his days.”

Have an industrious retirement, Dave. As always, I’m grateful there’s a Lull in my life.

Friday, July 24, 2015

`Only Then Can He Do and Know Something'

A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon, Max Hayward, 1976) is based on the two letters per month Andrei Sinyavsky was permitted to write his wife from a Soviet forced-labor camp between March 1966 and June 1971. Starting in the late nineteen-fifties, and writing under the nom de plume he took from a legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz, the non-Jewish Sinyavsky published Gogolesque stories that flaunted the dreary strictures of socialist realism. He and another writer, Yuri Daniel, were charged with publishing anti-Soviet work abroad, and both were found guilty. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five. He left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in Paris and died in 1997. A Voice from the Chorus is a joy-filled grab bag of a book and something of a how-to manual for anyone who presumes to write:

“I work very hard at my job of polishing chairs, and my chairs shine better than anyone else’s, but I cannot cope with the output quota—it is hard for a slow person like me to move my hands with the necessary speed from one thing to another, reaching for a piece of leather, a scraper, or putty to fill in cracks and scratches. A good style (whether in writing or in chair-making) can only be achieved through lack of self-assurance, as I have observed. A stylist is usually a very diffident person who tries to compensate for his sense of inadequacy by careful attention to every word. A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion – as a genius can.”

In Sinyavsky’s fumbling slowness I recognize my own. That’s how I work. Instinct says: let it flow. Experience says: rewrite every damn comma. Think of Tolstoy, that great snorting rhinoceros crashing through the sitting room of literature. He could afford to be “slipshod” – that is, trust his immense gift. Mere mortals putter, fret and move commas. Writing for newspapers taught me to scorn “inspiration” and trust momentum, which in turn taught me that momentum reliably inspires, as does a deadline. Sinyavsky writes later in A Voice from the Chorus:

“I never cease wondering at the fact that a writer knows nothing, remembers nothing, can do nothing, does not know how to do anything, and that this impotence of his – his utter inability to say anything of note – makes him turn to the world and only then can he do and know something.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

`The Daily Texture of Our Lives'

“Samuel Johnson is a person not much appreciated in the United States. And the people who do like him are either like Yvor Winters, or nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans. But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic and he wrote some exceedingly acute things.”

Auden is not at his best in The Table Talk of W.H. Auden (Ontario Review Press, 1990), transcriptions of the poet’s conversations kept between 1946 and 1948 by a young admirer, Alan Ansen, and edited by Nicholas Jenkins. In his foreword, Jenkins notes that “Auden was never aware of any obligation to moderate or refine his comments.” Few of us would wish to be judged by our casual conversation, especially where alcohol was involved, as it usually was with Auden. Jenkins is merely being honest when he says the book “does not pretend to be a polished literary work.” Too many sentences begin with the phrase “I don’t like . . .” – always a reliable sign of bloviation. Still, Auden was an accomplished talker and literary raconteur. One can imagine him issuing pronouncements like the one quoted above, laced with provocation, and being assured of a happy reception from the star-struck Ansen.

Auden says “Yvor Winters” as though the name were the punch line to a joke.  It’s notable that almost seventy years ago, he was spouting some of the same silly prejudices we hear from literary types today. Consider his mistaken linkage of tastes in literature and politics, and the association of rudeness and membership in a political party. This is lazy and vulgar, and unworthy of a great poet. The final sentence, however – “But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic . . .” – sounds suspiciously autobiographical, an admission of grudging affinity.

In “Paralipomena to The Hidden Law” (Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, 2003), the late Anthony Hecht notes Auden’s “remarkable resemblance” to Dr. Johnson. Both writers had poor eyesight and held cleanliness in “utter disregard.” Both favored, in the words of Johnson biographer W. Jackson Bate, “the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it.”

Quoting Bate again, Hecht says Auden and Johnson shared a “lifelong conviction – against which another part of him was forever afterwards to protest – that indolence is an open invitation to mental distress and even disintegration, and that to pull ourselves together, through the force of attention and the discipline of work, is within our power.” The poets shared a belief that “effort in daily habits – such as rising early – was necessary to `reclaim imagination’ and keep it on an even keel.” In the vernacular, both were workaholics, least unhappy when most engaged in work – a lesson to us all. One knows from experience that concentrated work, mental or physical, is a tonic and relaxant, and idleness is corrosive of well-being.

Hecht notes that both Johnson and Auden were largely indifferent to their surroundings. “In addition, Bate wrote, Johnson `was able to distinguish between “loving” and “being loved” and to value the first without demanding equal payment through the latter,’ while Auden wrote, `If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.’” Continuing with Bate’s observations, Hecht writes: “Both men were determined, if at all possible, `to be pleased’ with their circumstances and with their fellow human beings, as a reproval of their own `impatience and quickness to irritability or despair. Johnson and Auden maintained, in Bate’s words, that “the `main of life’ consists of `little things’; that happiness or misery is to be found in the accumulation of `petty’ and `domestic’ details, not in `large’ ambitions, which are inevitably self-defeating and turn to ashes in the mouth. `Sands make the mountain,’ [Johnson] would quote from Edward Young.”

Both were courteous and respectful of others – rare qualities among artists of all types. Again quoting Bate, Hecht writes: “Both firmly believed that fortitude `is not to be found primarily in meeting rare and great occasions. And this was true not only of fortitude but of all the other virtues, including “good nature.” The real test is what we do in our daily life, and happiness – such happiness as exists – lies primarily in what we can do with the daily texture of our lives.’” Both men, in short, were thoroughgoing gentlemen of the middle class, religiously observant, who believed in regular habits even as they failed to live up to them. Getting back to Auden’s characterization of Johnson as a “great melancholic romantic,” Hecht concludes his comparison of the two like this:

“These resemblances might be carried one extraordinary step further: since both men were by nature disposed to admire neoclassical decorum and to exhibit it in their work, Johnson’s ability to praise the pre-Romantic extravagance of Richard Savage is a precedent for Auden’s `Romantic Iconography of the Sea,’ which is the subtitle of his Page-Barbour Lectures, The Enchafèd Flood.”

Later in Table Talk, Auden asks: “Don’t you think that’s right, though, about Johnson being the prince of middlebrows? But not so much in his poetry. And those Johnsonians!”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

`Trust Your Own Thieving Heart'

On occasion, a student will address me as “Dr. Kurp,” mistaking me for a Ph.D., I presume, not an M.D. (or D.V.M). There was a time when I would have failed to disabuse them of the error. As the first on either side of my family to go to college, a parade of initials after a name once impressed me. But after three years at the university I dropped out and remained a dropout for thirty years until I finally earned a B.A. in English in 2003 – an accomplishment that has had precisely no impact on my life, though I had a good time doing it. Since then I’ve known some smart Ph.D.’s, but more of middling intelligence, as well as some dummies. Jacques Barzun noted that “a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber.” Besides, two of the wittiest, not broadly but deeply read people I know are high school dropouts. Another distinction I’ve learned on the job: The smartest Ph.D.’s are generally in science and engineering. They actually know things, often useful things, unlike their weaker cousins in the humanities. In his memoir Try to Tell the Story (2009), the film critic and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of his own lackluster efforts at education:

“To this day, I am excited by reports of home schooling or of kids who somehow missed out on `school’ altogether, but who turned out to be smarter or more successful than those with formal education. So I love stories about Gore Vidal or Warren Beatty having no college degrees, and I am moved and sustained by the plain evidence that people like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin survived so many handicaps and deprivations and yet knew the human heart as if they had invented it.”

Vidal and Beatty are not my idea of admirable autodidacts, but I concede Thomson his point. He notes that Orson Welles dropped out of school, never to return, at age sixteen. He might have added that Henry James spent less than a year at Harvard Law School before dropping out. Melville, who had Ishmael boast that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” never spent a day in higher academia. Nor did Tolstoy, Twain, Conrad, Proust, Mencken and Orwell. Boswell says Johnson advised him “to have as many books about me as I could.” Combined with curiosity and attentiveness to other people and the world, that would seem to stand as a reliable recipe for a well-educated man or woman. Thomson qualifies his claims a little:

“Of course, I cheat: I was sent to good schools, and I was there more often than not on the financial sacrifice of others. I remember the current left by great teachers. So it was my attitude as much as my experience that told me the kid in school was an invader and a pirate—take what you can and trust your own thieving heart.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

`Servant to the Devil'

It’s probably a mistake to assume that civil servants and others holding public office ought to be at least as intelligent, educated and well-read as we judge ourselves to be.
“Book learning,” as my father and working men of his generation would have said, is overrated, and a taste for Proust is no preparation for public service. We’re already drowning in over-educated bureaucrats. C.H. Sisson entered the Civil Service in 1936 and, after enlisting in the army and serving in India, resumed working in Whitehall in 1945. He rose to the rank of Under Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and retired in 1972. In 1959, Faber and Faber published Sisson’s The Spirit of British Administration, a seemingly dry treatise that makes for unexpectedly good reading. Gauge the multiple layers of irony deployed in the following:

“It would be amusing to set out a new scheme of liberal education which might be supposed to produce minds sufficiently open and sufficiently trained to understand the trickles of thoughts behind the streams of opinion which determine political action. It would be possible to maintain that the requisite degree of understanding of what is going on in this country could only be found in young men who had read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and [Gregory Dix’s] The Shape of the Liturgy as well as, say, the Republic and the essays of Montaigne.”

I like the notion of artists holding down jobs outside academia and, even more importantly, outside the arts, and exercising real-world responsibility. It’s no guaranteed antidote to narcissism, but at least it would wean writers and others off art-welfare subsidies and contributes to their socialization. Consider the American examples of Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, neither of whom ever attended a workshop. (Kingsley Amis in Jake’s Thing: “If there's one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.”) Some of Sisson’s strongest enthusiasms are for such gainfully employed figures as Marvell, Swift, and William Barnes of whom he wrote: “The avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.” In a chapter titled “The Mind of the Administrator,” Sisson quotes from Some Do Not. . . (1924), the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End: “Abstractions caused by failing attention to the outside world are not necessarily in a writer signs of failing, as a writer.” Here are Ford’s subsequent sentences, not quoted by Sisson, regarding the novelist Mrs. Wannop, mother of Valentine:

“It may mean merely that she is giving so much thought to her work that her other contacts suffer. If that is the case her work will gain. That this might be the case with her mother was Valentine’s great and secret hope. Her mother was barely sixty: many great works have been written by writers aged between sixty and seventy. . .”

Ford, like Sisson, is a deft ironist, one who enjoys upending self-importance in himself and others. See the satirical couplet he wrote around the time of The Spirit of British Administration and published in The London Zoo (1961):

“Here lies a civil servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

`People Who Find Harsh Realism Exhilarating'

I’m always reading Guy Davenport, as though we were forever resuming an often interrupted but never concluded conversation, and not so much the stories as the essays, translations and other nonfiction. My Heraclitus is his. Guy stirred my appetite for aphorism with Herakleitos and Diogenes (Grey Fox Press, 1979; included in 7 Greeks, New Directions, 1995). Here is Fragment 40:
“The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.”
I read this for the first time while editing a weekly newspaper in Northwestern Ohio, my first job in journalism, a trade for which I was entirely untrained. “Editor” sounds grandiose, though it was my title. I wrote and edited most of the copy, and took photographs, which is how I taught myself to use a .35-mm camera and process film. Some of my favorite modern artists have been photographers – Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Wright Morris – and for a few years I presumed to ape their art. In the summer of 1980 I pulled over when I spied a collapsed barn partially concealed by weeds and vines. In the fallen building I discovered a readymade still life – knotted boards, a rusted spiral of cable, a dried-out thistle and, at the center of this arrangement of diagonals and loops, an empty bird’s nest: “a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.” I captured a perfectly realistic abstraction. The Toledo Blade sponsored a photo contest, I entered and won in some non-portrait, non-landscape category, and the paper reproduced my picture in its Sunday supplement. I’ve hardly taken another photograph.
“Everything flows; nothing remains. [Everything moves; nothing is still. Everything passes away; nothing lasts.]” (Fragment 2)
Somewhere I have a copy of that Sunday supplement, but no prints or negatives. I last visited Williams County twenty-five years ago, during the same trip in which I visited Guy Davenport for the first and only time. Presumably, the barn has dissolved into the soil or been replaced by a parking lot. I’ve just learned that Jack Bryce, the guy who gave me that first newspaper job a lifetime ago has died at age ninety-three. Jack didn’t teach me how to write but gave me the opportunity to teach myself while getting paid to do so. I think of Jack, a serious jazz fan, whenever I listen to Bill Evans, who died Sept. 15, 1980. At Jack’s urging, I wrote a eulogy for Evans and published it in our weekly. This convergence – Davenport/Heraclitus/Jack Bryce/Bill Evans – condensed while reading Eva Brann’s The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Dry Books, 2011). After identifying him as the only solitary, non-conversing figure in Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, the one writing with eyes averted, she writes:
“That is Heraclitus, an engaged solitary, an inward-turned observer of the world, inventor of the first of philosophical genres, the thought-compacted aphorism, prose that could contend with poetry. It is linguistically ingenious, teasingly obscure in reputation, but hard-hittingly clear in fact. Each saying contains a concentrated drop of meaning—the kind of writing one would often stop to look away from. Such a style, tense and beautiful, seems to be favored by people who find harsh realism exhilarating.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

`An Acoustic Quality Called Roughness'

“There were a few striking works of art in [C.H.] Sisson’s house, drawings and paintings by modernists and contemporaries. These works were akin in sensibility to his poems, and resolutely modern in their refusal of a conventional or easy beauty. But the most revealing object was an ancient one, a piece of medieval stonework, the keystone to a small arch, the boss of which had been carved into a man’s head, the mouth wide open, and the entire head seeming to consist of, to be reduced to, the man’s cry.”
“Boss” was a mystery with a simple explanation: “a round prominence in hammered or carved work” (OED). The passage is drawn from “C.H. Sisson – a Memoir” (Agenda, Vol. 45, No. 2) by the English poet Robert Wells, who continues:
“Sisson produced this object on one of my visits—it was a recent acquisition—inviting me to share his pleasure in it. I could not. It was too stark, too shockingly expressive. Yet what it revealed was what I recognized in his poetry—the need to put words to what issued from that gaping mouth, to articulate the cry.”
From Wells’ description, the stone carving sounds interesting, a piece I might admire. Birth and death elicit legitimate screams – of pain, grief or exultation. Petulant, histrionic screaming at everything in between drains a man or woman of dignity. No wonder the kindergarten expressionism of Munch’s “The Scream” remains perennially popular. Wells quotes a brief poem from Exactions (1980), “The Goldfish”:
“Everything that is beautiful must be taken away
As that goldfish was. Shining, and plated with gold,
Its mouth trembling, its eye stony with solicitude
--I gasped when I saw it; it was my own cry.”
It’s the mingling of “mouth trembling” and “eye stony” that makes the poem. In a net or twitching on the ground, even in the water, no creature looks so pathetically helpless as a fish. In silence, the gaping mouth gulps futilely after oxygen. Wells sees more deeply into Sisson’s work: “To speak out—that was what counted for Sisson in poetry; and that the speech, to authenticate it, should keep something of the cry’s rough helplessness and vehemence.” I remembered a radio report I heard earlier this week on a study devoted to the acoustical analysis of screaming:
“When someone is talking, the modulation rate is about four or five changes a second. But when someone is screaming, it can jump to more than 100 changes a second. That gives the sound an acoustic quality called roughness.”
That “roughness” – a weathered quality I associate with Louis Armstrong’s voice – is the defining timbre of Sisson’s voice in poetry and prose. He has sufficiently mastered form – prosody, rhyme, the whole encyclopedia of musical effects – to play with dissonance without trivializing sound or sense, as in “In the Silence”:
“Perhaps silence is best,
But if there must be speech,
Then watch it closely, lest
It stretches out of reach.
The future is too far:
The past is all we are.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

`His Dreadful Practical Jokes'

In the poems of Jules Laforgue, Yvor Winters detects a strategy he describes as “romantic nostalgia (romantic because it has no discernible object, is a form of unmotivated feeling) canceled by an immature irony (immature because it depends upon the obviously but insignificantly ridiculous).” Winters discerns the same method in poems by one of Laforgue’s older contemporaries:   

“A few years earlier than Laforgue, Tristan Corbière had employed the same procedure in a few poems, most vigorously in Un Jeune Qui S’en Va,” but from his greatest work (`La Rapsode Foraineand `Cris D’aveugle,’ two poems which are probably superior to any French verse of the nineteenth save the best of Baudelaire), it is either absent or has lost itself amid an extremely complex cluster of feelings.”

This amounts to exultation from a poet-critic notoriously grudging with praise. You’ll find it in In Defense of Reason (Swallow Press, 1947). R.L. Barth reports on an anthology of French verse contemplated by Winters, and the three Corbière titles  mentioned in the passage above are included, as well as thirteen by Baudelaire. In his Wry-Blue Love: `Les Amours jaunes’ and Other Poems (Anvil Press Poetry, 2005), Peter Dale translates the three poems as “A Youngster on the Way Out,” “The Wandering Minstrel” and “Blind Man’s Cries.” Death is everywhere in Corbière’s verse, accompanied by parodies, put-downs and relentless joking. One hears echoes of Villon and Baudelaire and prescient pre-echoes of Apollinaire and Beckett. Here are the concluding stanzas of “A Youngster on the Way Out,” which will sound a little confusing out of context but give a taste of Corbière’s characteristic tone:

“Some trade! The dying trade . . . Penned
Enough, my study is complete.
Some trade: rhyme oneself to the end! . . .
A matter of habits that repeat!

“No: poetry is: to live on, while
Time away still, and suffer breath
For you, love; for my book and style.
There, look, it sleeps.
--No: it’s death!

“To feel your last of kisses chafe
Itself on my impoverished lip,
Death in your arms cradling me safe. . .
Undressing me of life, to kip . . .”
In his notes, Dale says the poem concerns “contemporary French literary issues,” and he helpfully glosses the appropriate names and dates, but clearly the poem is about a poet dying much too young. At the front of the volume, Dale also supplies an “Outline of the Life of Corbière,” in which he writes: “This bare outline does not convey the underlying loneliness, the suicidal tendencies, the cross-dressing and other eccentricities among his dreadful practical jokes which filled the interstices between these salient dates.”

The late Philip Levine wrote flat prose he marketed as poetry, but in “28” (A Walk with Tom Jefferson, 1988) he recounts a visit with Winters, his teacher at Stanford. The title refers to Levine’s age when he studied at Palo Alto:

“All one winter afternoon
he chanted in Breton French the coarse poems of Tristan Corbière,
his voice reaching into unforeseen sweetness, both hands
rising toward the ceiling, the tears held back so long
still held back, for he was dying and he was ready.”

Corbière was born on this date, July 18, in 1845, and died March 1, 1875 at age twenty-nine.

Friday, July 17, 2015

`He Still Keeps His Distance'

The best news our species has heard in a long time is that Pluto, downgraded from planet status (Dis-barred?), is still there, teasing and tempting, and now close enough for us to see the face of our distant neighbor. His looks, for a dwarf, are cool and remote – “ruggedly handsome,” with that complexion. His demeanor, for a god, invites only the intrepid. NASA’s New Horizons cruised silently, a mere 7,700 miles from his face, after a journey of 3.6 billion miles. One female, Venetia Burney, named him. Another, A.E. Stallings, sings him in “Pluto”:

“Demoted, he still keeps his distance,
his elliptical silence. Nothing
changes. The ferry makes its orbit,
gathering shades on the farther side.
His brothers in their separate spheres
dwarf him. His lot was always this cold
dim kingdom on the brink of exile,
older than the name for it is old.”

The “brothers” are Pluto’s moons -- Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. No, it’s not a Greek law firm or a Variety headline from eighty years ago today. Rather, the ferryman of the dead, the river of the dead, the goddess of darkness and light (and mother of Charon), the dog that guards Pluto’s underworld and the nine-headed serpent, respectively. In the final lines, Stalling reminds us that everything is older than the stories we tell about it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

`A World for Us to Live In and Delight In'

Writers are a petty and vindictive bunch, ever sensitive to slights real and imagined. Personal loyalty and literary judgment must always be weighed against sales and reputation. That one of the greatest comic voices in the language should rise to the defense of another stands as an astonishing minor miracle. On this date, July 16, in 1961, Evelyn Waugh published “An Act of Homage and Reparation to P. G. Wodehouse” in the London Sunday Times. One day earlier, Waugh had broadcast the talk over the BBC Home Service.  The piece is collected in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown and Co., 1983).

In 1940, as the Nazis moved across northern France, Wodehouse (1881-1975) was caught behind enemy lines at Le Touquet, where he had lived since 1934. The writer was interned for almost a year and then moved by his captors to Berlin, where he was persuaded to make five improbably light-hearted radio broadcasts collectively titled “How to be an Internee without Previous Training.” The talks amounted to amusing anecdotes about life in an internment camp. Not once did Wodehouse acknowledge that Germany and his homeland were at war. The British public was not amused and the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster was denounced by some as a traitor. George Orwell, among others, defended him.

Wodehouse was not Ezra Pound. He seems to have been a rare human being without hate or even rancor. He was guilty not of treason or collaborating with the enemy but of naïveté. Like most writers, he was politically ignorant. Unlike most writers, he never claimed to harbor a political thought. Wodehouse was created with one purpose in life – to amuse us. The broadcasts damaged but didn’t destroy his reputation among the true critics, his devoted readers. Waugh’s “Homage and Reparation” was written on the occasion of Wodehouse’s eightieth birthday. Referring to the wave of anti-Wodehouse sentiment during and immediately after the war, Waugh writes of his defenders:

“A great volume of protests came from the universities and from fellow writers. But they were not entirely unanimous, and it is significant of that shabby time that most of those few who supported the attack did so not on grounds of patriotism but of class.”

With the calumny out of the way, Waugh moves on to the more important task of celebrating Wodehouse’s books, some of the most pleasure-giving ever written. Here is a sampler of his praise:

“The first thing to remark about Mr Wodehouse’s art is its universality, unique in this century. Except for political claptrap few forms of writing are as ephemeral as comedy. Three full generations [now five or six] have delighted in Mr Wodehouse.”

“What is the secret of his immortality? One essential, of course, is his technical excellence achieved by sheer hard work. He is the antithesis, for example, of Ronald Firbank, whose haphazard, hit-or-miss innuendoes sparkle and flutter in and out of critical attention. Mr Wodehouse is an heroically diligent planner and reviser.”

“Most of us who rejoice in his work do so primarily for the exquisite felicity of the language. That, it seems, is a minor consideration to the author. Either it comes to him unsought, an inexplicable gift like Nijinsky’s famous levitations, or it is a matter on which he is so confident in his own judgment that he does not trouble to mention any hesitations he may experience. From his letters he seems to write, as the Norwegians read, for plot.”

“For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no `aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled . . . He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

`Not an Excess of Words But a Dearth of Ideas'

Somewhere, a harmless drudge, cloistered and anonymous, has perfected the most difficult and least appreciated of literary forms: the fortune in the fortune cookie. How I would love to meet him and talk craft. While his co-fortunists crank out platitudes, he fashions diamond-hard crystals of wisdom and light. He makes another Asian form, the haiku, seem verbose. He is an epigrammist, a lineal descendant of Martial, and here is the message he sent me along with my General Tso’s chicken: “Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.”

For the sake of brevity I might quibble with the Oxford comma but my man is a classicist, ever respectful of tradition. I’ve tacked his work to the cork board on the wall beside my desk, next to photos of my sons and Louis Armstrong, a small American flag and a pin decorated with Dr. Johnson’s visage. When I took down the fortune to look at the other side, I found this:

Lucky Numbers 56, 20, 41, 9, 29, 37”

Persiflage for the credulous. The real news is on the other side. If I detect an influence on my benefactor’s work, I might first suggest the great Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila. Had he sought employment, Don Colacho would have made a splendid fortune writer. This, for example, might stand as his credo: “Many people believe that a laconic statement is dogmatic and judge the generosity of an intelligence by the verbosity of its prose.” And here, at the risk of posing the paradox of writing at length about concision, are other pertinent Don Colacho aphorisms:

“No writer has ever been born who did not write too much.”

“To accuse the aphorism of expressing only part of the truth is tantamount to supposing that a verbose discourse can express all of it.”

“Prolixity is not an excess of words but a dearth of ideas.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

`An Impoverishment of One's Life'

Commonplace books kept by industrious readers are literary Wunderkammern, cabinets of bookish wonders that sometimes stand as a reader’s truest autobiography. In his final years, D.J. Enright (1920-2002) published three of them:  Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), Play Resumed: A Journal (1999), and Injury Time: A Memoir (2003). I read them all about five years ago but part of the attraction is their almost immediate rereadability. No reader can remember everything, and entering passages from a commonplace book into one’s own commonplace book is a little too postmodern for my taste. It’s sufficient to linger in the company of a writer as well-read and charming as Enright.

The introduction to Injury Time, published posthumously, was written by John Gross, who died in 2011, deepening one’s return to the book and lending it a retroactively elegiac cast. Gross says of Enright: “His gift is best summed up by the little word `wit’ – a word, like `sex,’ that often seems too small for the burdens it has to carry. At its best, without losing its power to amuse, it means understanding, insight, a sense of irony, an ability to make connections” – qualities abundant in Gross’ own work. Among the passages I didn’t remember is Enright’s reading of “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977) by Anthony Hecht who died in 2004. He quotes Hecht saying, in his book-length interview with Philip Hoy, “our capacity to think well of ourselves is versatile to the point of monstrosity.” Enright adds: “Pride can disguise itself as humility; we can quietly pride ourselves on our quietness on this score, on what we choose to see as our modest and unassuming character.” Enright then takes on one of Pascal’s Pensées cited by Hecht: Le moi est haïssable. He warns:

“In the absence of God, the self – detestable but unmistakably there – is all we have. (Go carefully if it invades your writing, as it will).”

A good core sample of Enright’s method, if it can be called anything so formal and systematic, is his epigraph page, which offers quotations from Dr. Johnson, Walter Savage Landor, Robert Burton, Ben Jonson and, rather discordantly in such company, Susan Sontag. Here is the Landor line, from “Archdeacon Hare and Walter Landor” (The Last Fruit of an Old Tree, 1853): “Next in criminality to him who violates the laws of his country, is he who violates the language.” The casual debasement of language is one of Enright’s pet themes – “peeves” would be misleading because it implies curmudgeonly grievance, a stance foreign to his nature. Bad writing disappoints him and he pokes fun at it, frequently toying with clichés but without sermonizing:

“The ageing scribbler feels glum. He tells himself: Your raison d'être has disappeared. But then, it occurs to him, his d'être is about to disappear. This cheers him up, briefly.”

Three times in Injury Time Enright alludes to poems by C.H. Sisson, who died in 2003. On Page 1, Enright writes: “C.H. Sisson has a poem, `Looking at Old Note-Books,’ which begins: `It would seem that I thought, / At that time, more than I ought.’ No danger of that here; this is a new notebook. Later in the poem: `There was the London Library / Doing its best to confuse me.’ That doesn’t apply either, except that the Library lifts confuse me and the stairs forbid. An impoverishment of one’s life.”

Monday, July 13, 2015

`Fair Words Enough a Man Shall Find'

In an email on Saturday, the poet, editor and publisher R.L. Barth noted the recent publication by Pleiades Press of Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master. Until now, Davis (1924-2002) as a poet has hardly existed. Cynthia Haven tells some of her story here. Davis studied with Allen Tate, J.V. Cunningham and Yvor Winters – a peerless pedigree. I’ve read only some of her early poems, written squarely in the sway of the Stanford School, and they are excellent:  “After a Time.” Barth has a larger point to make: 

“I saw the comments some woman `poet’ made about the recent Catherine Davis book. She dismissed (clearly didn't understand) the plain style poems. Granted, she was ignorant, had to look up the word `acedia’ and thought it meant `apathy.’ Such is the state of poetry. What would she make of [George] Turberville [c. 1540-c. 1610], (or the great plain stylists)?: 

“I thee advise
If thou be wise
To keep thy wit
Though it be small; 

“’Tis rare to get
And far to fet,
’Twas ever yit
Dear’st ware of all.” 

“She probably wouldn't understand this either. Probably have to look up `wit’ in the dictionary and decide it meant comic or something similar. But since the poets themselves have brought poetry to this state of affairs, I admit to a perverse delight in watching its pathetic, slow death by auto-asphyxiation.” 

See the shamelessly stupid comments Bob refers to here. He doesn’t mention it, but the Turberville verse, “To the Reader,” serves as one of the two epigraphs to Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969), edited by Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields. This was a valedictory effort by Winters, who died in 1968. The other epigraph is by Thomas Wyatt:

“Throughout the world, if it were sought,
Fair words enough a man shall find;
They be good cheap, they cost right nought,
Their substance is but only wind.
But well to say, and so to mean,
That sweet accord is seldom seen.”

As Fields writes in the introduction to Quest for Reality: “Such triumphs of language are always rare and necessarily emerge from a great deal of unsuccessful writing. And if the exceptional poem is a rare occasion, so too is its appreciation.” Not coincidentally, Helen Pinkerton, who helped edit an earlier, unpublished edition of Davis’ poem, also wrote to me over the weekend about the new Davis volume:

“As part of the `Unsung Masters’ series I hope that it gets some attention. On the whole I think it is a worthwhile production, mainly because it does include her best (the early) work. However, I dislike the emphasis of the biographical memoirs on her sexual life . . . Those epigrams (`Insights’), and nearly all the earlier poems are as choice as the best work of any 20th-century poet, and better and more worthy of lasting than most of the poetry published in her day.” 

How sad that a poet must be marketed demographically, not on the merits of her finest work. Winters and Fields included Davis’ “Insights” in Quest for Reality. In their introduction they write: 

“The kind of poetry which we are trying to exemplify does not consist in a specific subject matter or style, but rather in a high degree of concentration which aims at understanding and revealing the particular subject as fully as possible….in selecting our anthology we have tried to find writers whose attitude toward their art resembles Ben Jonson’s, as we see it in one of his best love poems:

“`And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune gives the grace,
Or the feature, or the youth;
But the language and the truth…’”