Thursday, November 30, 2017

`He Is One of the Most Useful Models'

The Rev. Hugh Blair (1718-1800) was a Presbyterian minister who taught rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. He was, with David Hume and Adam Smith, a member of that city’s Poker Club, one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s informal think tanks. Boswell reports Dr. Johnson saying of him: “I love Blair’s Sermons. Though the dog is a Scotchman and a Presbyterian, and everything he should not be, I was the first to praise them. Such was my candour, (smiling.)” Blair’s best-known work is Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), in which he vigorously commends the writing style of a fellow clergyman:

“Few writers have discovered more capacity. He treats every subject which he handles, whether serious or ludicrous, in a masterly manner. He knew, almost, beyond any man, the Purity, the Extent, the Precision of the English Language; and, therefore, to such as wish to attain a pure and correct Style, he is one of the most useful models. But we must not look for much ornament and grace in his Language. His haughty and morose genius, made him despise any embellishment of this kind as beneath his dignity. He delivers his sentiments in a plain, downright, positive manner, like the one who is sure he is in the right; and is very indifferent whether you be pleased or not.”

The “haughty and morose genius” is Jonathan Swift, whose 350th birthday we celebrate today. If we could still apprentice ourselves to master craftsmen, and our trade is writing, Swift is the sanest choice of mentors. Nothing in excess, no filigree or fluff, the object is always clarity and precision. The following passage is from the Sixth Letter in The Drapier’s Letters (1724-25). The issue will seem remote. Swift is objecting to the inferior quality of the coinage being forced on the people of Ireland by England. The Irish are his audience for these pamphlets. Swift was rousing the rabble, and his agitation was successful. The proposal was withdrawn and Swift, born in Dublin, became an Irish hero. Here is a sample:

“There is a vein of industry and parsimony, that runs through the whole people of England, which, added to the easiness of their rents, makes them rich and sturdy. As to Ireland, they know little more of it than they do of Mexico: farther than that it is a country subject to the king of England, full of bogs, inhabited by wild Irish papists, who are kept in awe by mercenary troops sent from thence: and their general opinion is, that it were better for England if this whole island were sunk into the sea: for they have a tradition, that every forty years there must be a rebellion in Ireland.”

Swift is popularly regarded as the author of one book, Gulliver’s Travels, which is like remembering Shakespeare solely for “Venus and Adonis.” His output was prolific and varied. Blair’s observation that Swift “delivers his sentiments in a plain, downright, positive manner” applies to his verse as well as his prose. This is from “On Poetry: A Rhapsody” (1733):

“In bulk there are not more degrees
From elephants to mites in cheese,
Than what a curious eye may trace
In creatures of the rhyming race.
From bad to worse, and worse they fall;
But who can reach the worst of all?”

One measure of Swift’s genius is the frequency with which his name is enlisted as a synonym for satire and irony: “Swiftian,” through laziness, has become a cliché. As the eminent literary critic Mickey Sabbath puts it: “The professors are always schlepping in Swift to defend some farshtunkeneh nobody.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

`No Different Whined at Than Withstood'

“But, with the final completion of ‘Aubade’ three years later in 1977, his literary life would be effectively over.”

Forty years ago today, Philip Larkin put the finishing touches on “Aubade,” a poem he had started writing more than three years earlier. Depression, alcohol, multiple ailments, the mysterious drying up of poetry. He had never been prolific. The arc of his career, and much else, was the opposite of Geoffrey Hill’s. When he finished “Aubade,” Larkin was fifty-five and he would live another eight years, but the major work was over. The reading public first saw “Aubade” in the Times Literary Supplement on Dec. 23, 1977 – a bleakly Larkinesque Christmas present, and the greatest poem written in English during my lifetime.

Anyone who knows the drinking life will recognize the existence Larkin describes – the impossible morning, aching desolation and self-loathing, fears like a fever that wrack the body and mind, the certainty that nothing will ever change, hopelessness beyond expression. But to fear death, one need not be a drunk. “Aubade” requires no explication de texte. The reader brings with him everything he needs. The writing is remarkably dense with experience, horror pared into aphorisms that never come off as smug or cute:

“Most things may never happen: this one will,  
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without  
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave  
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.”

[The sentence at the top is from James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014).]

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

`The Assonance of Eternity with Time'

Clive James moved me to find “A Problem,” a poem by Robert Conquest he calls a “philosophical disquisition made fully poetic,” and I found it in Conquest’s New and Collected Poems (Hutchinson, 1988). It appears not to be available online, which is a shame. Its six eight-line stanzas are set in Liguria, Eugenio Montale’s native region. It opens with “Liguria tingles with peculiar light. / The sea and sky exchange their various blues,” and at first reads like a travelogue with exotic scene-setting. Sun, rocks, dry weeds, the sea. Then the aperture opens wider: “And here / Man might, as well as anywhere, / Combine his landscapes and philosophies.” The next stanza and a half return to the painterly mode, followed by this:

“Where wood and sea and sky and hill
Give static broad simplicities, its course
At once more complex and more simple
Appears to thought as an example,
Like the complex, simple movement of great verse.”

For Conquest, the stark landscape becomes a model for verse-making – clarity, no excess or clutter, a classically elegant melding of elements. The poem builds energy and philosophical density in the fourth stanza:

“Gaze in that liquid crystal; let it run,
Some simple, fluent structure of the all,
No many-corridored dark Escorial,
But, poem or stream, a Parthenon:
The clear completeness of a gnomic rhyme;
Or, off the beat of pure despair
But purer to the subtler ear,
The assonance of eternity with time.”

The last line is gorgeous, made more so by Conquest rhyming “rhyme” and “time.” Now the final stanza:

“Till then, or till forever, those who’ve sought
Philosophies like verse, evoking verse,
Must take, as I beneath these junipers,
Empiric rules of joy and thought,
And be content to break the idiot calm;
While many poems that dare not guide
Yet bring the violent world inside
Some girl’s ephemeral happiness and charm.”

James later in his essay writes: “Complex simplicity means a phrase, a line, and sometimes a whole poem that makes a virtue out of incorporating its intellectual structure into its musical progression, and vice versa: it is always a two-way thing, a thermocouple of gold and platinum, but without the capacity of those two precious metals to give a precisely calculable effect." 

I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (University of California Press, 1988) by George T. Wright, which reaffirms my love of meter and rhyme, and not only in Shakespeare. Most of the rest of what passes for poetry seems flaccid and flabby. Here’s Wright:

“Iambic pentameter survives in twentieth-century verse in a dwindling remnant of  superb practitioners, most notably Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Berryman, Lowell, Larkin, Wilbur, Merrill, Hecht, and Hollander, for some of whom, as for the poets of the Renaissance, the regular meter once again seems a figure for normal life, departure from it a trope for individual eccentricity, manner, or mania. Rarely, however, does ‘normal life’ mean anything so grand as `the cosmic order’; and departures from it usually have the effect, at best, of elegant pathos rather than high tragedy. The world has changed, and iambic pentameter, whose deepest connections must always be to contemporaneous world-views, has had to change with it. Verse at present, which always somewhat blindly chooses its forms, has made other arrangements for mirroring the world, and iambic pentameter is no longer conspicuous on the program.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

`I Delight in the Artifice'

While reading the draft of a paper written by a graduate student in applied mathematics, I came across a passing, puzzling reference to something known as “Menger’s sponge.” Science and mathematics are spotted with proper names, usually of discoverers, attached with seeming randomness to nouns. (See Sierpiński’s carpet.) The sponge sounded like a member of the phylum Porifera, formless aquatic animals, which made no sense in context. A little online research turned up Karl Menger’s fractal curve, an elegant exercise in topology. A little more research turned up an unexpected pleasure, “The Menger Sponge” (Where the Trees Were, 1999) by the wonderful Australian poet Stephen Edgar. The second of the poem’s three stanzas is its vital heart, formally, mathematically and otherwise:

“It brings to mind the mathematician’s
Monstrous idea,
The Menger sponge, where infinite excisions
Out of a solid cube delete
Its substance while its form stays clear:
The central ninth is cut from a square;
Eight smaller squares remain; repeat
For each; and so on with this lattice of air:
A formula
For zero volume, infinite surface area.”

Edgar is a formalist reminiscent of Anthony Hecht who is unusually knowledgeable about math and science. His poems often remind me of an observation Nabokov made to an interviewer in 1962: “I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.” Edgar might be writing of his own poetic practice: “delete / Its substance while its form stays clear.” The thought is bolstered by the apt epigraph from Valéry. In his essay “In Form for Forty Years,” Edgar is commonsensical and forthright about his dedication to formal poetry:

“. . . I find that the disciplines of formal verse, far from being a constraint, are a positive stimulus to the imagination — to my imagination. Also, I see poetry as not only the transmission of meaning and experience but as the creation of an object. Art is after all artificial and I delight in the artifice. I like to create these `verbal contraptions’, as Auden called them, these elaborately structured linguistic sculptures and, as it were, hold them up to see their facets catch the light. And the musical element in poetry, which seems to have been sacrificed in much contemporary poetry, is also important to me.”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

`Too Full of Life'

“No writer, not even Chekhov in his short stories, can be Vermeer. A painter can leave you with nothing left to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say. It is in the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death, and what he is really after is to be among the last voices you will hear.”

In this sense, literature is the humblest of arts, the easiest to do and the most difficult to do memorably well. Every twit is convinced he can write, and he can if we define writing as marks on a page or screen. Clive James in his chapter devoted to Lichtenberg in Cultural Amnesia (2007) is shrewd to cite Chekhov for his example. In his lifetime Chekhov’s stories were said to be about nothing (when they were not about a critic’s hobbyhorse, generally political in nature). Some readers still find them so, and confuse Chekhov’s amusement at human foibles with fluff. Dr. Chekhov is a diagnostician with no cure to peddle.

Take “The Lottery Ticket” (trans. Constance Garnett, The Wife and Other Stories, 1918), written by Chekhov in 1887 when he was twenty-seven. Ivan Dmitritch looks for the numbers of winning lottery tickets in the newspaper. He finds the “series number,” the first four digits on his wife’s ticket, listed. But he pauses before checking the final two numbers. “`And if we have won,’ he said--`why, it will be a new life, it will be a transformation! The ticket is yours, but if it were mine I should, first of all, of course, spend twenty-five thousand on real property in the shape of an estate; ten thousand on immediate expenses, new furnishing . . . travelling . . . paying debts, and so on. . . . The other forty thousand I would put in the bank and get interest on it.’”

Chekhov devotes the next two pages to Ivan Dmitritch’s detailed, rapid-fire reverie – a garden, “a summer soup, cold as ice,” a bathing-shed, a “big glass of vodka,” “a salted mushroom or a soused cucumber.” Then his fantasy turns to travel, the South of France, Italy, India. Masha, his wife interrupts. She, too, wishes to travel. Now Chekhov dos the miraculous. The husband resents his wife’s interest in travel. He would rather travel alone, and imagines how unpleasant a traveling companion Masha would make. She would fret about money. “And for the first time in his life his mind dwelt on the fact that his wife had grown elderly and plain, and that she was saturated through and through with the smell of cooking.” Inevitably: “She glanced at him too, and also with hatred and anger.” Naturally, they do not hold the winning ticket. Here comes the decrescendo:

“Hatred and hope both disappeared at once, and it began immediately to seem to Ivan Dmitritch and his wife that their rooms were dark and small and low-pitched, that the supper they had been eating was not doing them good, but lying heavy on their stomachs, that the evenings were long and wearisome. . . .”

Earlier in the paragraph quoted at the top, James writes: “Written works of art aren’t perfect. They create an air of being so, but they are too full of life to keep all their own implications within the perimeter.”

Saturday, November 25, 2017

`He Is No Pedant nor Bookworm'

“It is hard to discern the oak in the acorn, or a temple like St. Paul's in the first stone which is laid . . .”

Or to see in the child if he will prove father to the man. Charles Lamb is writing on this date, Nov. 25, 1819, to Dorothy Wordsworth, describing a visit by her nephew, William Jr., the poet’s son, who is nine years old. Based on Lamb’s observations, Willy, as the essayist calls him, is smart and quick-witted, and probably better company than his father. Ever a bachelor, ever without spawn, Lamb writes:

“Till yesterday I had barely seen him,--Virgilium tantum vidi; but yesterday he gave us his small company to a bullock’s heart, and I can pronounce him a lad of promise. He is no pedant nor bookworm; so far I can answer. Perhaps he has hitherto paid too little attention to other men's inventions, preferring, like Lord Foppington, the ‘natural sprouts of his own.’ But he has observation, and seems thoroughly awake.”

The Latin tag is from Ovid’s Tristia and Lamb gives its sense, if not a literal translation, in the preceding English phrase. Lord Foppington is a character in The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger, a 1696 play by John Vanbrugh. Lamb will use the same phrase as the epigraph to “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading.” Further on, Lamb refers to his sister, matricidal Mary Lamb, as a “she-Aristotle,” which made me laugh out loud. Lamb takes Willy for a visit to William Cross’ Exeter Exchange, which included an early zoo. The next section of the letter is worth quoting at length:

“William’s genius, I take it, leans a little to the figurative; for being at play at tricktrack (a kind of minor billiard-table which we keep for smaller wights, and sometimes refresh our own mature fatigues with taking a hand at), not being able to hit a ball he had iterate aimed at, he cried out, `I cannot hit that beast.’ Now, the balls are usually called men, but he felicitously hit upon a middle term,--a term of approximation and imaginative reconciliation; a something where the two ends of the brute matter (ivory) and their human and rather violent personification into men might meet, as I take it,--illustrative of that excellent remark in a certain preface about imagination, explaining `Like a sea-beast that had crawled forth to sun himself!’ Not that I accuse William Minor of hereditary plagiary, or conceive the image to have come ex traduce. Rather he seemeth to keep aloof from any source of imitation, and purposely to remain ignorant of what mighty poets have done in this kind before him; for being asked if his father had ever been on Westminster Bridge, he answered that he did not know!”

The OED tells us “tricktrack” (or “tric-trac”) is “an old variety of backgammon.” Lamb paraphrases lines from Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”: Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf / Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.” The crack about Westminster Bridge is a reference to the boy’s father’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” And so on. Lamb is a wildly associative writer, with everything reminding him of something else – a gift he has in common with most of the best essayists. In his great three-volume edition of Lamb’s letters, published in 1935, E.V. Lucas writes of this letter:

“This letter, which refers to a visit paid to the Lambs in Great Russell Street by Wordsworth’s son, William, then nine years old [the poet’s longest-lived child, Willy died in 1883], is remarkable, apart from its charm and humour, for containing some of the absolute method of certain of Lamb’s Elia passages than anything he had yet written.”

Friday, November 24, 2017

Memo to Commenters

In the almost twelve years Anecdotal Evidence has been around, I have banned three readers from the blog. That is, I have refused to post their comments, and I told them so. All were interested not in anything I had written but in the usual egocentric blather. A blogger I respect explained to me several years ago that comments are almost never about anything other than the commenter, and she has been proven correct. I know several exceptions, well-read readers with insights and interesting things to say, positive and negative. I’m not averse to criticism but I am averse to self-centered tedium.

Two of the three people I banned used pseudonyms. One of them periodically changes his (her?) on-line identity, hoping to sneak past me, and for a time he (she?)does, but eventually the stink of his (her?) ego betrays him (her?). I deleted comments from this person without posting them on Thursday and again tonight. Trust me, you’re not missing a thing. I will no longer post anonymous or pseudonymous comments. If you want to leave a comment, please use your real, verifiable name. If I don’t already know you, send me an email briefly explaining who you are, and I will keep it confidential. I don’t enjoy sounding like a scold but my legitimate readers deserve better and so do I.  

'A State Between Gaiety and Unconcern'

Holidays are tests we pass or not. Only the congenitally congenial, a strange race, don’t have to think about it. Expectations are high. The right food, perfectly timed. The proper mix of guests and their meetly calibrated alcohol intakes. Kingsley Amis wisely observed that “hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way,” which is true even for teetotalers. Be warned: a micron of misstep and you have a donnybrook or snoozefest on your hands. Sports, televised or otherwise, are forbidden in my house, so that’s no concern. Dolor, of course, threatens the afternoon: Netflix to the rescue. We hang the Christmas lights on the front of the house. The day gets easier as I shed expectations and remember it’s not about me. Sage holiday advice from Dr. Johnson on this date, Nov. 24, in 1750:

“Good-humour may be defined a habit of being pleased; a constant and perennial softness of manner, easiness of approach, and suavity of disposition; like that which every man perceives in himself, when the first transports of new felicity have subsided, and his thoughts are only kept in motion by a slow succession of soft impulses. Good-humour is a state between gaiety and unconcern; the act or emanation of a mind at leisure to regard the gratification of another.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

`A Remnant of the Age of Books'

“What a miracle that the writings and the words of great people had been preserved for thousands of years even before an age of books came into existence!”

If we need an excuse for giving thanks, John Lukacs in “Surrounded by Books” proposes one that is inarguable. Here’s a thought experiment: In a pre-literate era, you are acquainted with a storyteller, one whose tales are exciting and suspenseful but also suffused with the spirit of your time and place, its savagery and heroism. Would you listen and forget about them until the next time, the way we listen to old pop songs on the radio, or would you memorize his words with the intent of passing them along to friends and heirs? Would you become a living book, the embodiment of another’s sensibility? We could be describing the posthumous fate of Homer or Mandelstam.

We are spoiled, of course. Thanks to libraries and the internet, we can acquire any book we want, without effort and at small cost. As the Hungarian-born historian begins his essay: “Surrounded by books has been a main circumstance of my long life.” But ready availability does not translate into vigorous appetites for books. Lukacs is an intelligent man, not given to soft-headed, optimistic forecasts. Few people read and fewer still read essential books. Lukacs cites the usual culprits – television, internet, the death of public education. But the educated classes bear much of the responsibility. They have repudiated the very civilization that made them and their jobs possible. Lukacs is ninety-three and sanguine about his fate and the fate of his substantial library:

“Perhaps I have been not much more than an ephemeral owner of an outdated museum.  I am not a survivor.  I am a crumbling remnant. A remnant of the very end of the Bourgeois Age and a remnant of the Age of Books.  Ave atque vale.”

Like any good historian, Lukacs puts our unhappy situation in the larger context. Everything passes. Like medieval Irish monks, readers here and there keep civilization vital. Lukacs writes:

“In 1517, exactly 500 years ago, Erasmus wrote that the Middle Ages (a term then yet-unknown) were passing and something of a newer and golden age was about to begin.  Today, few people possess that kind of optimism or know that the `Modern’ Age, the Age of Books, is now passing.”

Of related interest are many passage in Frederic Raphael’s new book, Antiquity Matters (Yale University, 2017). Late in the volume he writes: “Jorge Luis Borges was not alone in remarking that dictators force writers to be more subtle than is necessary in a permissive society. Brave words are easy when they carry no penalty.” Like Gibbon, Raphael reserves some of his best stuff for his footnotes. Here is his annotation to the passage just quoted:

“Borges’s own dissent from the usurping putschists in his native Argentina was so nuanced as to be all but indiscernible. Boris Pasternak was similarly quiescent under Stalin, unlike his friend Osip Mandelstam, whom he failed to support when it might have saved Mandelstam’s life. Pasternak was scorned for his cowardice by Stalin himself, but survived to win the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago, which Vladimir Nabokov despised as he did all accommodation with the ideologists and fellow-travelers whose jargon had debased the great Russian language.”

For some, writing and reading remain matters of life and death.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

'We’ll See, We’ll Honor His Tomb'

“That’s all for now. Thank you so much for keeping alive the flame of conversation.”

That’s how George closed an email he sent me in 2012. I met him in Poland earlier that year when I represented North America at the wedding of my wife’s cousin. The former Greek diplomat was born in Alexandria and had lived in Iraq, the United States, Syria, Canada, Australia and, in retirement, Greece. He was my father-in-law’s cousin. George died last week near Athens, age eighty-one. My wife’s uncle, who lives in Germany, wrote on Monday: “He had been in very poor shape over the past few months, so in many ways it was a relief for him.”

I met hundreds of wedding guests from three continents but George and I hit it off and remained companions for the rest of the week. All I had to do was ask him about Alexandria while we walked to a restaurant in Kraków, and he recited Cavafy from memory in Greek. George impressed me as not merely civilized but as a representative of civilization. He spoke softly and thoughtfully. His humor was dry and he never betrayed it by laughing at his own jokes. He was one of life’s natural aristocrats, a role he was too aristocratic to announce. If I mentioned a writer unfamiliar to him, he wrote the name in a pocket notebook. He seemed free of glibness and reminded me of something Zbigniew Herbert said in an interview: “I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago.” In the sense intended by the Pole, all civilized people are Greek. Here is Cavafy’s “Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias” (Collected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1992):

“In the Beirut library, just to the right as you go in,
we buried wise Lysias, the grammarian.
The spot is beautifully chosen.
We put him near those things of his
that he remembers maybe even there:
comments, texts, grammars, variants,
voluminous studies of Greek idioms.
Also, this way, as we go to the books,
we’ll see, we’ll honor his tomb.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

'The Rule that There Are No Rules'

“There are owls who want prose to be wholly prosaic. Some kinds of it, yes. Like Locke’s. But, whereas poetry is better without any prose in it, prose can often embody a great deal of poetry. Prose in poetry is a blemish like ink on a swan; but prose without poetry becomes too often as drab and lifeless as a Sunday in London.”

The problem here is defining “poetry” in the context of writing good prose. It’s not poeticisms or purple patches. It’s not Look Homeward, Angel or The Tunnel or the abomination of “prose poems.” One of the reasons I read a lot of poetry is that I hope to write better prose. Good poems are precise, concise and organized. They are not rhapsodic or arbitrary. The passage above is from the chapter titled “Simile and Metaphor” in Style (3rd ed., Cassell & Co. Ltd., April 1956) by F.L. Lucas. Style manuals, by nature, possess little worth. Strunk and White, when not being self-evident are prim and tight-assed caricatures of schoolmarms. Lucas’ entertaining book is the sole exception I know, in part because its medium is its message. That is, he writes well. Lucas continues:

“By ‘poetry’ in this sense I do not mean ‘fine writing,’ such as De Quincey or Ruskin were sometimes tempted to overdo; I mean a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life. It is thanks to this that some can find more essential poetry in Sir Thomas Browne than in Dryden; in Landor than in Byron; in some paragraphs of Yeats’s prose than in twenty shelves of minor verse.”

This is an extraordinary observation delivered in the plainest of prose and the most neutral of tones. It echoes the old notion that style is the man. Style is an expression of sensibility rather than verbal veneer; architecture, not interior decorating. Here is the balance of Lucas’ paragraph:

“And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

In “Heavy Sentences,” Joseph Epstein reviews yet another unreadable book by Stanley Fish, and for relief refers at some length to Lucas’s Style. He describes it as “the best book on the art of writing that I know,” and praises Lucas for understanding “the element of magic entailed in great writing.” It’s not a science. Perhaps in approval of Lucas’ statement that good writers possess “a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life,” Epstein writes:

“Lucas didn’t hold that good character will make an ungifted person write better, rather that without good character superior writing is impossible. And, in fact, most of the best prose writers in English have been men and women of exceedingly good character: Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather. Even those excellent writers with less than good character—compose your own list here—seem to have been able to have faked good character, at least while at their desks.”

Epstein, like Lucas, understands that writing well has little in common with assembling a bookcase from Ikea: “In art, anyone writing a book on how to write ought to remember there are no rules except the rule that there are no rules.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

'I Only Knew His Poetry Moved Me'

“Ever since childhood, I’ve always been instinctively contrary, reacting against groups and prevalent opinion.”

My kind of contrarian, a species threatened with imminent extinction, and one I thought already extinct among poets. The speaker is Matthew Stewart, an English-born poet and vintner who for twenty-four years has lived in the Extremadura region of Spain. I discovered him on Sunday thanks to a tweet by A.M. Juster, who linked to Stewart’s interview with Paul Stephenson. It’s rare to find contrarianism mingled with maturity and good taste:

“When I started out in the mid-90s, I felt hugely alone in my poetic tastes, as anthologies and magazines at that time were full of poetry that was anathema to me. Larkin was my point of reference and departure. I didn’t care about his political and social opinions. I wasn’t bothered that most of the poetry world had turned their back on him. I only knew his poetry moved me. It was accessible yet layered with complexity, and I aspired to that achievement. Over the last few years, the attitude towards Larkin has shifted slightly in the U.K. scene. There’s now a new generation of poets who studied him at school and who embrace his work without fear that they might be tarnished in some way by his views on other issues. I’ve even noticed his influence on poets from the U.S., especially the likes of Joshua Mehigan.”

Let’s remember that outrage is easy. Any backward toddler can throw a tantrum. How many can muster the experience, empathy and equanimity to read Larkin with the attentiveness and understanding he deserves? In his review of Larkin’s Selected Letters (1992), Joseph Epstein acknowledges some of the dubious (and often very funny) things the poet included in letters to friends, and writes: “I wish Larkin had never said such things because they can only be used against him by people who along with being impressed with their own virtue cannot stand too much complication in human character.”

Stephenson asks Stewart what wines and poems have in common. This might have been an invitation to utter pretentious blather (wine snobs are even more impossible than poetry snobs), but Stewart replies:

“There are wines I admire technically but cannot bring myself to like. The same goes for certain poems. There are wines that aren’t objectively great, but they just fit a moment perfectly. The same goes for certain poems. Moreover, I expose myself to constant judgement and rejection every day of my life thanks to poetry and wine. In both cases, I send off samples: to wine importers and poetry magazines. In both cases, rejection is far more prevalent than acceptance. I’ve had to harden myself to this fact, to learn that a dozen rejections don’t matter if a single excellent wine importer or poetry journal accepts what I’ve offered.”

Since 2009, Stewart has maintained a blog, Rogue Strands, and he has common-sensical things to say about blogging: “For me, good blogs avoid self-obsession and axe-grinding, while also pulling off the awkward balancing act of remaining a personal project. Blog posts live longer than social media but should remain brief, encouraging readers to make discoveries for themselves.”

Finally, Stewart has something to say about his own plain-spoken poems: “My poems begin with the truth. They then reach out for an authenticity that lies far beyond the truth, aiming to generate a jolt of recognition in their readers.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

'The Murmurs of Peevishness'

Like most of us, the people in Joseph Epstein’s stories learn life’s woeful lessons not from books or Youtube but the hard way, by living them. They get cheated, lied to, stolen from and left alone. Their lives tend to be buffered and safely middle-class, not noirish, and they seldom get raped, shot or strung out on dope. Those are melodramatic fates borrowed from movies, pulp novels and newspapers, and most of us won’t experience them, though we hardly remain immune to lesser injuries. “Schlifkin on My Books,” in the first of Epstein’s four story collections, The Goldin Boys (1991), begins with suicide and mistaken identity, and concludes like this:

“Last week our accountant came in to close out our books at the end of our fiscal year. Among other details, I learned that the $178 Schlifkin owed was a write-off in the category of a bad debt. Schlifkin was finally off my books. For the first time I spoke to the accountant about retirement and what would be involved in turning the business over to my nephew. I must be feeling my age. I’m thinking seriously about getting out. I think maybe I’ve had enough.”  

Conclusively inconclusive, like life. Rooted in the mundane business of life. Weariness, regret, a late lesson learned. I was happy on Saturday to find a first edition of The Goldin Boys (“slightly foxed”) for sale at Kaboom Books in Houston. The original cover price: $19.95. I paid: $10. (The bookshop owner has a nice first edition of Thomas Berger’s first novel, Crazy in Berlin: $185. I salivated discreetly.) Now I have all of Epstein’s stories. For me, it’s rare to read contemporary short fiction. Most of it seems trivial, little more than plotless first-person gestures, even when written in the third-person. Epstein’s stories are mutedly comic and seem touched by what William Maxwell called the “breath of life.” On this date, Nov. 19, in 1751, Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #175:

“It is, indeed, impossible not to hear from those who have lived longer, of wrongs and falsehoods, of violence and circumvention; but such narratives are commonly regarded by the young, the heady, and the confident, as nothing more than the murmurs of peevishness, or the dreams of dotage; and, notwithstanding all the documents of hoary wisdom, we commonly plunge into the world fearless and credulous, without any foresight of danger, or apprehension of deceit.”

[On the back cover, The Goldin Boys boasts the most unlikely pairing of blurbists I have ever seen: George V. Higgins and Helen Frankenthaler.]

Saturday, November 18, 2017

'Here Were No Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters'

It’s no surprise that the list of books I first read as a boy and have continued to read periodically ever sense, despite fortunate changes in taste and understanding, is brief and respectable. Nothing to be ashamed of. No Zane Gray (whom I’ve never read) or Jules Verne (whom I haven’t read since I started shaving). There’s the Bible, Kim and Robinson Crusoe, all of which give me even more pleasure now than when I first read them as a kid. But when a reader wrote this week asking which “classic” (his word, not mine) I would recommend for his twelve-year-old daughter (“She’s already a strong reader”), the answer was simple: Gulliver’s Travels. The book can be read without strain as pure adventure and/or savage satire. The “and/or” is the secret to Swift’s genius. I can’t remember my initial reaction to the Houyhnhnms. Today, their portion of the book, Part IV, is my favorite. Gulliver, at last, knows a measure of happiness. What the Houyhnhnms lack is precisely what England has in excess, as spelled out in Chap X:

“I enjoyed perfect Health of Body and Tranquillity of Mind; I did not find the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering or pimping, to procure the Favour of any great Man or of his Minion. I wanted no Fence against Fraud or Oppression; Here was neither Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Fortune; No Informer to watch my Words, and Actions, or forge Accusations against me for Hire: Here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, splenetick tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuoso's, no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; no Encouragers to Vice, by Seducement or Examples: No Dungeon, Axes, Gibbets, Whipping-posts, or Pillories: No cheating Shop-keepers or Mechanicks: No Pride, Vanity or Affectation: No Fops, Bullies, Drunkards, strolling Whores, or Poxes: No ranting, lewd, expensive Wives: No stupid, proud Pedants: No importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing Companions: No Scoundrels, raised from the Dust for the sake of their Vices, or Nobility thrown into it on account of their Virtues: No Lords, Fidlers, Judges or Dancing-Masters.”

No Dancing-Masters, praise be. Swift delivers a lesson in stone-cold irony, a catalog of accelerating hilarity and some of the cleanest prose in the language. Precisely what a twelve-year-old needs.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

'The Race of Sonnet Writers and Complainers'

“I assure you I find this world a very pretty place.”

Strong words. All of us see only ugliness and waste sometimes, but there’s a voluble class of people unwilling to see anything else. Think of them as critics without portfolio. I once worked for an editor who returned from his first visit to Montreal and complained about the scratchiness of the hotel towels. The more balanced soul quoted above is Charles Lamb. On this date, Nov. 17, in 1798, Lamb is writing to his friend Robert Lloyd, who in a previous letter had complained that “this world to you seems drain’d of all its sweets.” Keep in mind that three years earlier, Lamb had spent six weeks locked up in an asylum. As he wrote to Coleridge in May 1796:

“I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol. My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told.”

On Sept. 22, 1796, his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. For the rest of his life, Lamb, who never married, remained her legal guardian. Lamb replies to Lloyd in his 1798 letter:

“At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! but I am afraid you meant more. O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and honey comb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings.”

Some readers find Lamb’s prose indigestible. He’s just too silly, unlike his friend and reflection in a funhouse mirror, William Hazlitt. Fortunately, they are not mutually exclusive tastes, and we can always be grateful that Lamb never published a three-volume biography of Napoleon and Hazlitt never wrote Lamb’s awful poetry. Lamb had every excuse in the world to be anguished and suicidal. Instead, he became one of the wittiest writers in the language, a master of tone and rhythm, even in letters. Who else among his contemporaries makes us laugh? Wordsworth?      

“Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. So good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you—you possess all these things, and more innumerable: and these are all sweet things. You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall. The bees are wiser in their generation than the race of sonnet writers and complainers.”

Lamb’s wish to comfort and reassure his friend is touching. To do so while being eloquent and funny is miraculous.         

Thursday, November 16, 2017

`Ninny-Hammers, Goosecaps, Joltheads'

I paused when I came to “jolter-head” in William Hazlitt’s “Merry England” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819). The meaning was clear from context: “They judge of the English character in the lump as one great jolter-head, containing all the stupidity of the country . . .” But where did it come from? The OED cites Hazlitt’s usage and refers the reader to another entry, jolt head: “a heavy-headed or thick-headed person; a blockhead.” The etymology, of course, is “obscure,” but one of the other citations is a gem and comes from Vol. 4, Chap. 4, LXXXIV of Tristram Shandy:

“And here without staying for my reply, shall I be called as many blockheads, numsculs, doddypoles, dunderheads, ninny-hammers, goosecaps, joltheads, nincompoops, and sh..t-a-beds--and other unsavoury appellations, as ever the cake-bakers of Lerne cast in the teeth of King Garangantan’s shepherds.”

Sterne’s hommage to one of his masters, Rabelais, is also a catalog of essential words. After all, we can never have enough synonyms for moron and buffoon. Yiddish is a virtual encyclopedia of such words (shmendrik, putz, shmegege, et. al.), but English has grown depleted. Use of ninny-hammer, though it shows up in Tolkien, seems to have peaked early in the eighteenth century. There’s no record of W.C. Fields using jolter-head or jolt head, but in The Bank Dick (1940), in the role of Egbert Sousé
(“Sousé – accent grave over the ‘e’!”), but he offered this advice to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (“Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub”):

“Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl! You’re not those, are you?”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

`He Read and Wrote and Read'

Heavy tasks undertaken with little likelihood of commensurate reward move me to admiration; the work of careerists – never. One such hero is Ford Madox Ford. He published more than eighty books, yes, and never had enough money, but in his final project he exceeded previous accomplishments. When Ford started work on The March of Literature in 1937, he was sixty-three, overweight and still feeling the effects of having been gassed twenty years earlier, during World I. He had rheumatism and, since 1929, had suffered several heart attacks. Ford spent eight months as writer in residence (then a novel concept) at Olivet College in Michigan, giving him time to read, research and write.

I read Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells when it was published in 1982. He chronicles the time at the turn of the twentieth century when those six writers were neighbors, friends and sometimes collaborators in East Sussex and Kent. In “An Old Man Mad About Writing” (Anywhere Out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, Death, 2005), Delbanco returns to Ford. He tells us his earlier book “was in large part powered by a desire to celebrate” the author of Parade’s End, whom he portrays as a one-man literary catalyst.

The March of Literature is no dry textbook. It’s inimitably Ford’s work, as personal as DNA. Delbanco says, “There’s an intimate wrangling discursiveness here, as though the host of a party has buttonholed guests, and it’s of no real consequence if they are distant or dead.” It ought to be academic but reads like inspired conversation. Delbanco seems to be repaying a debt. He writes:

“On the forced march to completion, Ford started work at five in the morning and finished at seven at night. Years before, he had transcribed spoken utterance from Conrad, and Henry James made of dictation a routine procedure, yet it still beggars the imagination—beggars mine, at any rate—to think of anyone producing so much scholarship so fast.”

Ford had spent a lifetime internalizing literature. It was never merely a job. He published his 900-page March of Literature in 1938 and died the following year, the task of a lifetime completed. In conclusion, Delbanco writes of Ford: “He read and wrote and read. He wrote and read and wrote.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

'My Never-Failing Friends They Are'

The title sounds like New Age malarkey: The Quiet Spirit. The subtitle clarifies things: An Anthology of Poems Old and New (1946). The editor is Frank Eyre (1910-1988), an English-born editor at Oxford University Press who lived the latter half of his life in Australia. Eyre divides his collection into five sections: “Verse: and the Quiet Mind,” “The Green Shade,” “Ideal Love,” “Night and Sleep” and “The Final Quiet.” We’re still in New Age territory, it seems, but Eyre has a novel premise for his anthology. His selections are printed without title or author. There’s an index at the back that provides that information. In his foreword he says the 175 poems and excerpts are meant to be read consecutively as if the collection were not an anthology but a single autonomous work in which “a continuous thread of poetic thought is sustained throughout.” Playing Eyre’s game and reading the poems cold reminds me of the Blindfold Test in Down Beat magazine (see the late Walter Becker’s). Here’s one I recognized:

“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

“Care is heavy, therefore sleep you;
You are care, and care must keep you.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.”

That’s Thomas Dekker’s “Cradle Song” from his 1603 comedy Patient Grissel, later reworked by The Beatles. As poem or song, it’s a lovely piece of work. Eyre’s tastes are evident. He favors gentle verse and nature poetry, whether Shelley or Edward Thomas. He seems to have had no taste for satire or light verse, shies away from humor in general, and includes no Dryden, Pope, Swift or Dr. Johnson. A good poem I didn’t recognize, though I placed it in the right century, is by a poet much admired by Yvor Winters:

“If thou sit here to view this pleasant garden place,      
Think thus—At last will come a frost and all these flowers deface:    
But if thou sit at ease to rest thy weary bones,   
Remember death brings final rest to all our grievous groans;
So whether for delight, or here thou sit for ease,
Think still upon the latter day: so shalt thou God best please.”

That’s George Gascoigne’s “Lines Written on a Garden Seat.” Finally, another poem that stumped me. Here is the first stanza. Only slowly did I realize the poem is a sort of riddle:

“My days among the Dead are past;         
  Around me I behold,        
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,        
  The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.”

The title gives it away: “His Books,” by Robert Southey.

Monday, November 13, 2017

`Among Other Minds'

Reading Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday, 2017), Anne Applebaum’s study of the Holodomor (from the Ukrainian for hunger and extermination), one encounters scene after scene like the following. Anastasia is a child living in Kharkiv, now the second-largest city in Ukraine. She manages to buy a loaf of bread and is stopped by a peasant woman carrying a baby. The woman begs for a scrap of bread. Anastasia tells what happened:

“No sooner had I walked away than the unfortunate woman keeled over and died. Fear gripped my heart, for it seemed that her wide open eyes were accusing me of denying her bread. They came and took her baby away, which in death she continued to hold in a tight grip. The vision of this dead woman haunted me for a long time afterwards. I was unable to sleep at night, because I kept seeing her before me.”

Some perspective: At least 5 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934. Of them, more than 3.9 million were Ukrainians. The cause was not climate change or foreign meddling. Decisions made by Stalin and approved by the Politburo – including the demonization and eventual extermination of kulaks, wealthier peasants – resulted in intentional famine. At the same time, the Soviets launched an assault on the Ukrainian “intellectual and political elites.” In Applebaum’s words, these actions brought about the “Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity.”

What interests me is less the politics behind the scene with Anastasia than its human and moral content. There were millions like Anastasia, people of typical good-heartedness, burdened with a conscience. Reduced by hunger to thinking first of self and secondly of family, she refused to share her bread. Under pre-famine conditions, she might have torn her loaf in half and given it to the starving woman. Now, the instinct for survival displaces all other concerns – most obviously, compassion and generosity. Put yourself first in the starving woman’s place and then in Anastasia’s, without forgetting the ideologues and thugs who created the scene. Such imaginative projection is the essence of human decency.       

On the day I was reading Applebaum’s new book, I came upon a brief life of Guy Davenport written by Eric Allen Bean and recently published in the Harvard Magazine. Longtime readers of Davenport’s work will find little new information in Bean’s critical biography, but it’s useful to remind new and younger readers of his accomplishments. Without identifying the source, Bean writes, “. . . Davenport often declared that the purpose of imaginative reading was `precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility.’” The quoted fragment of sentence is drawn from one of Davenport’s finest essays, “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art (Counterpoint, 1996). Davenport has just described his dealing with an illiterate man in Kentucky and the “horror of his predicament.” He expresses gratitude for “being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.” Davenport adds, in a one-sentence paragraph:

“For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch [and the peasant woman and her baby, Anastasia and Anne Applebaum].”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

`The Exceptional Man'

My essay "'The Exceptional Man': Rereading Richard Wilbur" appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.