Sunday, December 31, 2017

`Let Conjectural Sagacity Suffise'

“Amuse not thy self about the Riddles of future things. Study Prophecies when they are become Histories, & past hovering in their causes. Eye well things past and present, & let conjectural sagacity suffise [sic] for things to come.”

Wise words in this season of prognostication. which overlaps with another annual exercise in futility, the making of New Year’s resolutions. Of the latter, Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler # 27:

“There is nothing which we estimate so fallaciously as the force of our own resolutions, nor any fallacy which we so unwillingly and tardily detect. He that has resolved a thousand times, and a thousand times deserted his own purpose, yet suffers no abatement of his confidence, but still believes himself his own master; and able, by innate vigour of soul, to press forward to his end, through all the obstructions that inconveniences or delights can put in his way.”

Forecasts and resolutions magically mingle in our minds. If we resolve hard enough, wishes come true. Scratch a grownup and expose a backward child. The passage at the top is from Part III, Sec. 13, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals.  Reading Browne’s prose is pleasing in three ways: 1.) Sheer linguistic fecundity. He writes English as though he invented it. 2.) Amusing scraps of learning, sometimes inaccurate but always interesting. 3.) A profound moral sensibility. Three hundred thirty-five years after his death, he still makes more sense than your average psychologist. Browne goes on:

“. . . a Retrograde cognition of times past, & things which have already been, is more satisfactory than a suspended Knowledge of what is yet unexistent. And the Greatest part of time being already wrapt up in things behind us; it’s now somewhat late to bait after things before us; for futurity still shortens, and time present sucks in time to come.”

An especially irritating bumper sticker reads: “Yesterday history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” When it comes to reading matter, I’ve always preferred the former. On New Year’s Eve 2001, less than three years before his death, Anthony Hecht wrote in a letter to Robyn Creswell:

“We should do what we have committed ourselves to doing, and do it as best we can; and if upheaval demands that we take up arms or help the wounded, we set aside our principal task until the emergency has been dealt with. Whereupon we resume what we had elected as most important to us.”

Saturday, December 30, 2017

`I'm Freezing Without Proper Clothes'

On Friday, when I wrote of Helen Pinkerton’s death, a reader noted the “anniversary of the death of another woman who gave her life to poetry, Nadezha Mandelstam, who died within a few days of the anniversary of her poet-martyr husband.” I’m grateful for my reader’s memory and devotional sense. Nadezhda Mandelstam died Dec. 29, 1980, at age eighty-one. Her husband, Osip Mandelstam, died Dec. 27, 1938, at age forty-seven. In Critical Prose and Letters (trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, Ardis, 1979), the editors include Osip’s final letter, addressed to his brother, Alexander (Shura) Mandelstam. It is dated to late October, two months before his death, and was written, remarkably, in the transit camp near Vladivostok where he would die. Prior to this, his family had no idea where he was or even if he was alive. He writes:

“I got five years for counterrevolutionary activity by decree of the Special Tribunal. The transport left Butyrki Prison in Moscow on the 9th of September [he had been arrested May 5] and we arrived on the 12th of October. I’m in very poor health, utterly exhausted, emaciated, and almost beyond recognition. I don’t know if there’s any sense in sending clothes, food, and money, but try just the same. I’m freezing without proper clothes.”

The poet enquires after his wife: “Darling Nadenka, are you alive, my precious? Shura, write me at once about Nadya. This is a transit point. I wasn’t picked for Kolyma. I may have to spend the winter here.” He adds a P.S.: “Shurochka, one thing more. We’ve gone out to work these last few days. That has lifted my spirits. People are sent from our camp, as from a transit point, to regular camps. I was apparently `sifted out’ so I must get ready to spend the winter here. So please send me a telegram and wire me some money.”

His last known words. On Feb. 1, 1939, the package Nadezhda had sent to her husband was returned. At the post office, she was told it could not be delivered because the recipient was dead. Nadezhda received Osip’s death certificate in the summer of 1940. It said Osip Mandelstam, one of the last century’s supreme poets, had died of heart failure on Dec. 27, 1938.

Friday, December 29, 2017

`The Spirit's Breath and Seed'

“Your poems live, the spirit’s breath and seed.
Hades, who would take all, spares them his greed.”

The words Helen Pinkerton Trimpi wrote after the death of her friend Edgar Bowers can now, with sad appropriateness, be read with Helen in mind. Her daughter, Erica Light, wrote me this morning:

“It is with infinite sadness I must let you know of the passing of the poet, scholar, Civil War historian, teacher, and friend to many, my mother Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, at her home in Grass Valley, California, at the age of 90. She made her peaceful transition yesterday, Thursday, December 28, 2017, in the morning with her family close about her.”

Helen was among the last of Yvor Winters’ students to leave us. With their teacher, they – Helen, Bowers, Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity – along with J.V. Cunningham and Winters’ wife, Janet Lewis, represent the supreme flowering of the art of poetry in the United States.  Helen’s interests always surprised me. She published a book on Melville and another, Crimson Confederates, devoted to the students at Harvard who fought for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Last year, Wiseblood Books published A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016. Here is an excerpt from an email Helen sent me in May 2015:

“I have been devoting the last few months to reading what they call `Gulag Literature.’ I realized recently that while I was growing up in Butte, Mt., and experiencing what one thought of as `Depression’ hardship, I really had no idea that events going on in other parts of the world were beyond belief. So, I went to work on Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. But I think I've had enough of prison camps, torture, starvation, hard labor, criminal morals, human inhumanity, totalitarian politics--all taking place during my comparatively bucolic youth in the 20th century. I need now to turn to something else. So, I am reading Trollope's Barchester series. I couldn't ask for a more different world to dwell in imaginatively than Barchester in the mid-19th century, after spending so many months in Soviet Siberia, in Moscow prisons, in prison camps in Stalingrad, Germany, and Kazakhstan, and labor camps far north in Siberia at Kolyma. The authors I've been reading, you will recognize are the three great Russians: Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales. Grossman's marvelous novel is one of the finest I've ever read. The Russians really do know how to compose true novels. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is a series of extraordinary short stories, each reading with the sharpness and brevity of a poem, focused on a single character or revelatory event. Solzhenitsyn’s more famous record of his experience in Soviet camps is a complete filling out of the details of day-by-day life in an inhuman environment. I know you don’t read many novels these days, but if and when you grow old and need to expand your world, you might give those I mention a try.”

`Until Men Cease Reading Good Writing'

My friend Melissa Kean, the centennial historian at Rice University, has posted a delightful letter written by Edgar Odell Lovett (1871-1957), the first president of Rice and a man whose substantial personal library I have frequently explored. One no longer expects university presidents (or faculty members) to be well-read and broadly learned, but Lovett, a mathematician by training (he chaired the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at Princeton before coming to Rice), frequently ordered volumes of fiction, essays, criticism and poetry -- belles lettres, as such books used to be known – from dealers in London and New York City. His library – thousands of books – has been integrated into the circulating collection of the university’s Fondren Library, and I am its frequent beneficiary.

Lovett’s Christmas letter is addressed to the Rice students of 1945-46. The war had ended just months earlier and it was Lovett’s final year as president. His good humor, charm and optimism is utterly convincing. (Presidential letters at Rice now read as though written by a committee of algorithms.) Lovett is a cheerful realist. He respects the students:

“The peace in our souls at this Christmastide is at the poignant cost of vacant chairs at the table and empty seats in the church. It was to secure the survival and spread of civilization that those heroes entered the war. Despite their sacrifice, our victories, and the laying down of arms, we have still to win their high objectives in the peace.”

Lovett suggests the students read A Christmas Carol, hardly a novel idea, and a poem by Robert Bridges, “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913.” Bridges became Poet Laureate that year, not long before the start of World War I. The Latin epigraph, “Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis,” is from the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo”: “on earth peace to men of good will.” Lovett’s comment on Bridge’s poem makes for presciently unhappy reading:

“It is a lyric of Christmas in England and the Nativity, altogether lovely in thought, structure, and feeling. It will be read until men cease reading good writing.”

Thursday, December 28, 2017

`All Is Not Dead'

Someone asked if I missed Northern winters, and I do, though in my experience winter at those latitudes is not one thing. Some years it means snow and cold and little else. Other years it’s a cycle of freezes and thaws, beginning in October or November and ending for good in May with the big thaw of summer, the season that seems like an anomaly, a mere interruption of winter. The best thing about the latter is the thaw that arrives late in January or early in February, boosting the temperature into the forties or higher. It’s the thaw you can smell. The earth in patches is bare again and the mineral scent of rot – death turning into life – fills the woods. Skunk cabbage melts snow cover and sends up twisted purple buds, a false harbinger of true spring.

Few think of Philip Larkin as a nature poet, largely because he writes about human beings and because he was no nature mystic. You’ll find no soft-headed, Emersonian, Mary Oliver-style swooning in Larkin, but you will find frequent observations of the natural world. Fifty-six years ago, in January 1962, he worked on an untitled sonnet never published during his lifetime and posthumously titled “January” by editors:

“A slight relax of air where cold was
And water trickles; dark ruinous light,
Scratched like old film, above wet slates withdraws.
At garden-ends, on railway banks, sad white
Shrinkage of snow shows cleaner than the net
Stiffened like ectoplasm in front windows.

“Shielded, what sorts of life are stirring yet:
Legs lagged like drains, slippers soft as fungus,
The gas and grate, the old cold sour grey bed.
Some ajar face, corpse-stubbled, bends round
To see the sky over the aerials—
Sky, absent paleness across which the gulls
Wing to the Corporation rubbish ground.
A slight relax of air. All is not dead.”

Larkin refers to the nameless season called by Eliot “midwinter spring.” In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014), James Booth describes the poem’s setting as “an urban wasteland [in which] a decrepit figure reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett character turns towards the faintest hint of spring.” One looks for hope in Larkin (it's there, though unadvertised) as one awaits warmth and blues skies.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

`Candor of a Kind'

A family emergency takes me to Austin. Matters press. Frederic Raphael replies to his co-author, Joseph Epstein, in Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues (St. Augustine's Press, 2017): "There is a courtesy in reticence, and candor of a kind that can be taken or left."

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

`A Few Old Men May Visit from Time to Time'

“. . . the Internet is not about serious writing, but instead is mainly about information. Is there something about reading on a screen rather than on paper that causes one to all but pass over style? Has it to do with the mystery of pixels? Is solving this mystery a job for the quasi-fake science of brain studies? The Internet, in any case, needs a Marshall McLuhan, one a good bit smarter and more lucid than the original.”

In theory, what’s written and published online ought to be indistinguishable from work produced through more traditional means – another naïve delusion. The digital realm has empowered the ungifted. To be a writer all you need are an internet connection and a gripe, coherence and wit optional. Reading most blogs is like watching a toddler rebuild a carburetor. Style is writing.

The stylist cited above is Joseph Epstein, co-author, with Frederic Raphael, of Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017), a sequel to Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013). It’s one of the two books I received as Christmas presents, the other being 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016) by Dana Gioia.

Reading the ongoing Epstein/Raphael email exchange reminds us how close to gossip literature often comes. Think Pepys, Duc de Saint-Simon, Henry James and Proust. (See Epstein’s Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, 2011), Here is the gossip-enriched paragraph from Epstein that follows the one quoted above:

“The problem for literature is that it is about all that is beyond mere information—beyond all this fiddle, to glom a title from one of the books of A. Alvarez, whom Philip Larkin used to refer to as El Al. But will we soon have a readership trained only to read for the facts, allowing thoughtfulness, penetration, style to pass unnoticed? Will they, before much longer, fail to grasp what the real thing, literature, looks like?”

Too late. Gioia writes in “The Silence of the Poets”:

“The old books, those the young have not defaced,
are still kept somewhere,
stacked in their dusty rows.

“And a few old men may visit from time to time
to run their hands across the spines
and reminisce,
but no one ever comes to read
or would know how.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

`Down From the Hell of the Line'

“Now winter, throwing aside his sleep and drowse, came out fierce and determined: first there was a heavy snow, then the blue sky of hard frost.”

For a displaced Northerner, the passage stirs nostalgia, thoughts of night walks, each step a crunch, the snow blue and still. Edmund Blunden is describing the Western Front, December 1916, after two years of slaughter, in his memoir Undertones of War (1928). He goes on: “To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe [Belgium], to celebrate Christmas.”

While a scholarship student at Queen’s College, Oxford, Blunden volunteered for the Army in 1915. He joined the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment and saw combat at Festubert, Cuinchy and Givenchy, and later at the Somme, Ancre Valley and Thiepval. He was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry in action.” Blunden and a runner survived a reconnaissance patrol under constant shelling. Late in 1916 his battalion transferred to the Ypres Salient. He remained stationed there during the Battle of Passchendaele until January 1918, when his unit returned to the Somme.  He left the Army February 1919, having served in combat longer than any of the other Great War poets. The passage in Undertones of War continues:

“The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness, though hundred were there . . . After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut, he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and `in a mug.’ He got round, but it was almost as much intrepidity could accomplish.”

One year later, in December 1917, he wrote the poem “Christmas in Sight of Ypres,” in which the closing iambs, “the men who come down from the hell of the line,” is discordantly catchy and almost singable.  

Sunday, December 24, 2017

`Can't Recall Your Patronymic'

“Chekhov’s publications in humor magazines initially came about for reasons that had nothing to do with the art of literature.”

If only more writers heeded Chekhov’s example. He famously started writing stories to pay his way through medical school and support his rather feckless father and his improvident family. The observation above comes from introductory text in Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973). Beginning in 1879 (the year he turned nineteen and started medical school in Moscow), Chekhov published sketches, parodies and broadly satirical tales, often under various pseudonyms, in the humor magazines of the day – Budil’nik (The Alarm Clock), Zritel’ (The Spectator), Strekoza (The Dragonfly). The writing is formulaic but deft. From the start, Chekhov understood the importance of brevity, pacing and capturing the vagaries of human nature. Karlinsky writes:

“. . . on December 24, 1879, he made his debut in print when Dragonfly published his short piece `Letter to a Learned Neighbor,’ a remarkably old-fashioned piece of writing that imitated the form and standard devices of Russian eighteenth-century satirical journals.”

The story is included in The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov (trans. Maria Bloshteyn, New York Review Books, 2015), with illustrations by the writer’s brother, Nikolay. It is written in the form of a letter from Vasily Semi-Bulatov in the “Village of Eaten-Pancakes” to his neighbor Maxim (“can’t recall your patronymic . . . forgive me kindly!”), a scientist with the audacity to endorse Darwin’s ideas. The letter writer recalls one of Dickens’ mad, sycophantic monologists, proudly parading his ignorance. The style is overheated and grandiose, unlike Chekhov’s customary plainspoken voice:

“For if man, the ruler of the world, the smartest of all breathing creatures, descended from the stupid and ignorant ape, then he would have a tail and a beastly voice. If we had descended from apes, then in present times the Gypsies would be taking us around to various towns and we would be paying money to be exhibited to each other, dancing at the command of the Gypsy or sitting in a cage at the zoo. Are we covered with fur all over? Are we not wearing clothing, which the apes lack?”

Chekhov would write hundreds of such sketches, all the while learning his craft. He was still nearly a decade away from his early masterpieces, “The Steppe,” “A Dreary Story,” “Gusev.” Karlinsky notes of the early stories:

“The size limitations and requirements imposed by various humor magazines were particularly important in training Chekhov to rely on careful organization rather than on the traditional eventful plot for producing the impact he wanted.”

Saturday, December 23, 2017

`Good Cheer, Winter Nights'

Jigsaw puzzles are a Christmas custom that has evolved naturally since the boys were toddlers. Every year I order a new one of 1,000 pieces and we assemble it on the kitchen table. At fourteen and seventeen, they haven’t yet grown too cool to beg out. It seems like a natural pastime for the bottom of the year, though the temperature in Houston has been topping eighty degrees. We favor detailed still-lifes over landscapes and abstractions, and the competition over who places the final piece is fierce and usually involves cheating (“How’d it get in my pocket?”). Here is Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Second Partition, Section II, Member IV, “Exercise rectified of Body and Mind”:

“The ordinary recreations which we have in winter, and in most solitary times busy our minds with, are cards, tables and dice, shovelboard, chess-play, the philosopher’s game, small trunks, shuttlecock, billiards, music, masks, singing, dancing, Yule-games, frolics, jests, riddles, catches, purposes, questions and commands . . .”

At this point, Burton inserts a footnote: “Brumales laete ut possint producere noctes,” which means something like this: “That they are able to produce the good cheer, winter nights.” Some of the winter pastimes in our family overlap with Burton’s list: chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk. After four centuries it’s comforting to see what else we share with our forebears. Burton continues:

 “. . . merry tales of errant knights, queens, lovers, lords, ladies, giants, dwarfs, thieves, cheaters, witches, fairies, goblins, friars, &c., such as the old woman told Psyche in Apuleius, Boccace novels, and the rest . . .”

Friday, December 22, 2017

`Such a Gentlemanlike Porker Too!'

“His parents sent a basket from Wem [a town in Shropshire] containing pigs’ cheeks (a delicacy), two fowl, some pickled pork, and a tongue. He took it along and, when it was empty, they set about a bottle of port and some fine Virginia tobacco. It was a Christmas to remember.”

Some people will eat anything. My father relished pigs’ knuckles and blood sausage. He would have concurred with Joyce’s Jewish Everyman: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

My own food preferences evolved in reverse. I ate almost anything as a kid, even liver and onions. Only when working in a restaurant and having to cook liver did I lose my taste for it. Now I am borderline-finicky, almost a vegetarian. Not a single item on Mr. Bloom’s menu would I voluntarily eat today. The recipient of the basket mentioned at the top is William Hazlitt, as described in Duncan Wu’s William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man (2008). It was Christmas 1806, and Hazlitt was spending the holiday with Charles and Mary Lamb. Lamb’s two-act farce, “Mr. H--,” had premiered and promptly bombed at Drury Lane on Dec. 10. Hazlitt had attended, and reported that Lamb himself sat in the pit, enthusiastically hissing his own play. One can see why.  As Wu explains: “The play’s premise was as silly as anything in Monty Python – that Mr H--, who did all he could to conceal his name, was actually called Hogsflesh.” As soon as that was revealed, the steam went out of the drama and the audience lost interest. In fact, they positively detested it.” Hazlitt, however, wrote rather kindly of the play in “On Great and Little Things.”

You will have noted the porcine theme, one that Lamb (a meaty surname) often revisited, most famously in “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.” His colleague at India House, John Bates Dibdin, had drawn a picture of a pig after Lamb had published his essay in London Magazine in September 1822. Lamb included the picture in Essays of Elia when the book was published in 1823. On Oct. 28 of that year, Lamb writes to Dibdin:

“Your Pig was a picture of a pig, and your Picture a pig of a picture. The former was delicious but evanescent, like a hearty fit of mirth, or the cracking of thorns under a pot; but the latter is an idea, and abideth. I never before saw swine upon sattin. And then that pretty strawy canopy about him! He seems to purr (rather than grunt) his satisfaction. Such a gentlemanlike porker too! . . . I have ordered a little gilt shrine for it, and mean to wear it for a locket; a shirt pig.”

I can’t think of any writer before Lamb who so specializes in the silly and ridiculous. His taste for the gratuitously absurd seems pleasingly modern.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

`And Let Us All Be Merry'

As Christmas celebrations go, it’s modest – sixteen poems on thirty-four pages, published by the Oxford University Press, New York City, in 1945. The war was over. Exhilaration vied with austerity, especially in England. Even the cover’s color scheme, blue and black, is severe for a chapbook titled Christmas Verse. Included are poems selected from previous Oxford Books of Verse, dating from the twelfth to the twentieth century, with each set in a typographic style appropriate to its period. I’m pleased to report that nearly all of the poems are new to me. Here is a passage from “A Christmas Carroll” by George Wither (1588-1667):

“Though some Churles at our mirth repine,
     Round your foreheads Garlands twine,
     Drown sorrow in a Cup of Wine,
  And let us all be merry.”

Christmas Verse reprints only four stanzas of Wither's poem. Online I find as many as twelve. I chose these four lines because they thumb their nose at the world’s bah-humbug characters and because I like the word churl. We hear churlish more often today, in the sense of sour, rude, surly. Churl is complicated. It started in Middle English meaning a man, a male human being. Later, a low-class man, then a serf or bondman, and still a peasant or rustic. The OED’s fifth meaning is pertinent to Withers’ poem: “a term of disparagement or contempt; base fellow, villein. In modern times usually: rude low-bred fellow.” Regardless, Wither urges us to ignore them. Too many people I know turn Christmas into an emotional endurance test, yet another excuse for wanting to get angry.

The final selection in Christmas Verse is very different in technique and tone: Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” written in 1927, the year he was baptized into the Anglican faith. The chapbook excerpts twenty-nine of the poem’s forty-three lines, including the beautiful conclusion:

“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

So much weariness, so many illusions shed. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

`Time and Sweat'

After telling us good writing has little or nothing to do with “brainpower,” and probably cannot be taught, one notably excellent writer says this:

“. . . there is no reason to believe that Mozart was a genius in the ordinary sense of being brainy. He was a musical genius. I think there is writing genius as well—which constitutes primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained;  to think what they must be thinking; to feel what  they must be feeling.”

When it comes to writing advice, that’s not bad, probably better than most and doesn’t presume to impose a list of how-to rules. Forget the “genius” part. Knowing your audience and your intent is essential, even among workaday tyros. Often I work with engineering faculty and students who are stymied when writing for non-engineers. They take for granted the transparency of equations and technical jargon. Some are hobbled when denied the crutches that come naturally when they write for peers. I suggest they picture their non-specialist reader sitting across the room from them. Tell a story. Don’t frame an argument. The advice given above is nicely adaptable. A chemical engineer could learn from it, and so could an eighth-grader writing a book report.

The author is the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in “Writing Well,” collected in Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017). The book of speeches is edited by his son, Christopher J. Scalia, and former law clerk, Edward Whelan. Scalia was the public servant who, during my lifetime, I have most admired and respected. Granted, the pickings have been slim, but Scalia’s “brainpower,” to use his word, and love of the Constitution were memorable. His voice was so distinct, I looked forward to reading his dissents. It helped that he liked citing Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Scalia delivered “Writing Well” when accepting a lifetime achievement award in 2008 from Scribes, a national organization of legal writers. He dismisses the notion that legal writing is a discrete discipline apart from “that large, undifferentiated, unglamorous category of writing known as nonfiction prose.” A good legal writer, he says, “but for the need to master a different substantive subject,” could become a good writer of history or economics. Scalia taught legal writing at the University of Virginia Law School, where he formulated two “prerequisites for self-improvement in writing” 1. “There is an immense difference between writing and good writing.” 2. “It takes time and sweat to convert the former into the latter.” Scalia concludes his speech winningly with a pithy statement of truth: “It is my experience that a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind.”

Speaking of truth, I recently read a poem by Gavin Ewart, “The Premature Coronation” (Penultimate Poems, 1989), about Edward Gibbon. Ewart describes the great historian as “most fit to be loved for his long-term attachment to truth, and the style that’s so clear and Olympian. / “Rien n’est beau que le vrai. Rhetoricians avaunt! (he implied).” The French is Boileau’s old saw: “Nothing is beautiful but truth.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

`His Peculiar Sensitivity'

For a handful of writers I keep active a bookish all-points bulletin. When their names show up in something I’m reading, I slow down, ponder and sometimes enter the passages in the commonplace book, or at least record the source for future use. Shakespeare usually doesn’t qualify because he’s everywhere and most references are trivial, but Swift does and so do Zbigniew Herbert, J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin. Mostly I’m on the lookout for Dr. Johnson. Often the writer will cite one of Johnson’s overused and frequently out-of-context and misunderstood greatest hits, especially the one about patriotism, and those I ignore.

He showed up twice over the weekend, first in Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!: and Other Things That Matter (W.W. Norton, 2016). The title is pertinent because Athill will celebrate her 100th birthday on Thursday. In a chapter titled “Beloved Books” she writes:

“The two great writers I think about most often I love for their personalities rather than their artistry—and I do so in spite of the fact that I am glad that I never had to meet them: James Boswell, and Byron. Boswell I love for his journals, not for his portrait of Dr Johnson, marvellous though that is, and Byron for his letters, more even than for Don Juan.”

Johnson is almost ancillary to Anthill’s enthusiasm, but her understanding of the whoring, pox-ridden, drunken Boswell is deep and sympathetic: “What is irresistible about Boswell is his always wanting with passionate intensity to be a good man and making stern resolutions to that end, almost never failing to break those resolutions, and then recording this process with fascinated honesty, as though he were a naturalist recording the behavior of some strange creature.” Recounting Boswell’s strategic hunt for a wife, concluded when he married his “sensible and far from rich” cousin Margaret, Athill writes:

“She, knowing him well, would not have loved him, and neither would Dr Johnson, who did not suffer fools gladly, if Boswell had not had charm and (for all his absurdities) intelligence beyond the ordinary.”

In Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery, 2017), Anthony Esolen says Johnson was among the “most powerful influences upon my thought when I was young.” He devotes almost three pages to Johnson’s well-known dismissal of cant and other foolishness in Boswell’s Life:
“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don't mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don’t think foolishly.”

Clearly, Esolen feels a profound affinity with Johnson: “If Samuel Johnson had been born in our time, he would have had the genius drugged out of him by the various pharmaceutical enemies of boyhood: he might be finger-painting with Einstein and Mozart in a group home or a reformatory. But in the eighteenth century his peculiar sensitivity and his many obsessions made him more human, not less; more apt to perceive the motives and feelings of others, because he had been so accustomed to confronting the darkest and worst of his own self. Johnson was like the lone gladiator in the arena, said Boswell, standing up against the beasts when they came lunging from their cages.”

Johnson would applaud Esolen’s clear-sightedness. In an age when meaning is routinely squeezed from words like water from a sponge, we need truth-tellers immune to fashion and bullying. Esolen writes, in a very Johnsonian manner:

“I believe now that the `higher cant’ is too dangerous even for small talk, because we will inevitably end up thinking in its terms. Words like democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, marginalization, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, progressivism, autonomy, and many others my readers might name are simply terms of political force and have no real meaning anymore. Some of them never had any meaning to begin with. Do not wash your food in chlorine. Do not sprinkle your thoughts with poison.”

Johnson lives.

Monday, December 18, 2017

`How It Must End'

It’s not about self-expression. The idea that everyone carries around a latent book awaiting optimal circumstances before entering the world accounts for much of the lousy writing that clogs the market. We know we will never compose a symphony or cast a life-size statue in bronze – too much equipment and specialized training and knowledge required. But any semi-literate twit can open a Word document and gush. Teachers abet this delusion, as do critics and publishers. Non-writers (in the professional sense) on rare occasions produce worthy books – think of Pepys, Dickinson, Yevgenia Ginzburg and J.A. Baker. But they are gloriously serendipitous freaks of nature, testimonies to human aspiration. The sentiment Bruce Bennett relates in “On Not Reading” (Just Another Day in Just Another Town: Poems New and Selected 2000-2016, 2017) both affirms the romantic notion of “Everyone’s a Writer!” and subverts it:   

“I used to read a lot:
that Russian crew;
Kafka, Cortazar, Borges;
Nabokov too.

“Now all I do is write.
I feel left out.
I miss not knowing what
life is about

“As brought to us in books
those masters penned.
But I’ve grown too aware
How it must end

Not to try on my own
to make it stay
through words that get it down
in my own way.”

The argument (the speaker’s, if not Bennett’s) recalls “A Study of Reading Habits” and its well-known, out-of-context closing line: “Books are a load of crap.” Few, of course, can write without first having read. Every sentence acknowledges a forbear, even if the writer remains blithely unaware of his debt. There is no novelty and if there were, we would probably close the book on it. I’ve always thought the most respectable reason for writing is the desire to make something we want to read but can’t find in the library. If I were to stop reading, I too would “feel left out,” as Bennett tells us. Books are life. In another poem, “Of Making Books, Yet Again,” he writes:

“Why else would we beat head and heart
and fists against a wall?
In vain we vainly love our art,
and Vanity is all.”

Sunday, December 17, 2017

`A Congenital Preoccupation with Good Writing'

“In the middle of the dog-days I had been up at five and dug till seven when I had my coffee; I had irrigated till nine . . . And after that I had written till one—which is too long—had lunched off a tomato salad, taken my siesta, set out some romaine plants—and a hell of a lot of watering they would need if they were to come to anything. . . And I will confess that very few of them have. Still, they will give us a salad or two . . . Then, having no cooking either to think of or suggest, I wrote from five to seven—which is too long . . .”

An idyllic existence, at least from this distance in time and space. Ford Madox Ford seems never to have stopped working. The result was more than eighty books published, three or four of which are surely among the finest written in the twentieth century. The passage above is from one of them, Provence, from Minstrels to the Machine (1935), and is quoted in the second installment of Tim Longville’s “The Small Producer: Gardens in the Life of Ford Madox Ford,” in the winter issue of Hortus: A Gardening Journal. I wrote about the first part, in the autumn issue, here. (Thank you, and Merry Christmas, David Jones.)

Read the Ford excerpt above with attention to rhythm. Read it aloud. Ford seems naturally to work in units of five to seven words, perhaps keyed to breathing. The ellipses are his and represent pauses, not complete stops, in the forward motion of his prose. I’m reminded of water lapping gently against a pier. With Ford, the under-oath authenticity of what he is writing is dubious. And six hours of writing is unlikely to be “too much.” The way he weaves gardening, resting, eating and writing suggests an ideal balance, something he was never able to attain. Ford wrote as a gourmet but lived as a gourmand. Longville cites a letter to Janice Biala, Ford’s paramour du jour, written by Louise Bogan after visiting them in France:

“I remember the goat cheese and the casserole full of Ford’s magnificent cooking and the Gaulois Bleus and the ducks you almost bought in the market and the Marc and your Niçois hat and the Rossetti drawing on the wall and the big magnolia flower and your painting of the [Allen] Tates and Ford’s voice and your singing in the evening, and the garden terraces, mixed with salad leaves and herbs, and Debussy and Bach on the gramophone …”

Ford was born on this date, Dec. 17, in 1873, and died June 26, 1939. Longville describes Ford’s sad decline. He was hospitalized in Deauville and buried in its cemetery. C.H. Sisson in “Ford Madox Ford: Saltavit et Placuit” (The Avoidance of Literature, 1978) writes that Ford “had what you might call a congenital preoccupation with good writing, and a preoccupation of that depth is not to be confused with a fad or a social custom. It has the psychological depth of a moral virtue, like courage. It is deeper than courage, indeed—more like truthfulness.”  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

`His Sentences Are Like Little Excursions'

Thanks to Barton Swaim for reminding us today is the centenary of Murray Kempton’s birth. Swaim captures the essence of Kempton’s charm, especially for those of us with little or no interest in politics:

“His word choice is never quite what you would have predicted; his sentences are like little excursions, sometimes resolving in the ordinary way, sometimes fading into grammatical uncertainty or trailing off into a marathon dependent clause. It doesn’t always work, but it’s evidence of a mind steadfastly refusing to think or express anything in the usual tired old way.”

That’s close to the lesson I learned incrementally from Kempton. To imitate his prose would be fatal, but the notion of systematically thinking through each sentence, assaying word choice, keeping the rhythm in mind, avoiding the lazy and predictable word or phrase without resorting to cheap tricks – those are the lessons absorbed. Kempton was never afraid to be articulate, despite warning that newspaper subscribers read at the fifth-grade level. His goal was precision, a quality that in itself is elegant. I once worked for a newspaper editor who described Kempton as “flowery” and “too literary.” He preferred Jimmy Breslin. We have grown so accustomed to journalists who are unable to write and do so at great length that Kempton reads like Gibbon.

Starting in the eighties I clipped and saved Kempton’s three-times-a-week column in Newsday and his occasional pieces in the New York Review of Books. I still have thick stacks of them in a file cabinet. Here is a favorite piece from 1990 on Chekhov, Conrad and the fall of the Soviet Union:

“Chekhov had been dead for eighty-five years when first I took notice of his credentials as an analyst of Soviet society. I had glimpsed his authority earliest when I read `My Life,’ the long story whose protagonist learns that he has been abandoned by his wife in a letter in which she tells him that she has prepared herself to begin again by buying a ring like the one that King David had engraved `All things pass.’

“If I wanted a ring myself,” Chekhov’s hero reflects, “the inscription I should choose would be ‘Nothing passes away.’”

In conclusion Kempton writes:

“The cruelty and indifference of misgovernment explain the bandits of Conrad’s Costaguana, and perhaps the same things explain the FMLN in El Salvador’s hills today. We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand. His is the matter of fact. Social science and intelligence reports are the mere poor stuff of an unadorned imagination.”

Here is Kempton on the pointless question of whether Duke Ellington was “the twentieth century’s greatest composer”:

“There are representative lives and they are generally deplorable. There are also exemplary lives like this one. They are lived without lament or self-pity. They neither meditate alone nor unite with support groups in search of self-esteem. They just build it on the road in the community of work. It is a waste of breath to argue whether Duke Ellington was more or less than Bach or Beethoven or Haydn. All that counts is that he was like them in knowing what matters, and that, when all are dead who heard those horns live, there will be children to discover and hear them again.”

In a column written in the waning days of the 1960 presidential campaign and collected in America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (1963), Kempton musters sympathy for a dispirited Richard Nixon:

“He is not a man I cherish, but there is in the sight of him the painful recognition that something human somewhere is being cruelly violated and humiliated. The gestures are the gestures of someone trapped five fathoms deep; when he stands on a platform and makes a fist, it is a piece of mush; the forearm no longer jabs for emphasis; it merely flounders. There are the movements of a drowning man.”

Kempton knew Alger Hiss was a liar and Whittaker Chambers was an unfashionable, unphotogenic truth-teller, and wrote movingly of both men in the first chapter of Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955). Fifteen years later, in his review of Chambers’ letters to his friend William F. Buckley Jr., Kempton not only sympathizes with Chambers but finds amusement in his enigmatic personality:

“Perhaps it was Chambers’s loneliness, the experience of having to begin life again so often as a stranger in new surroundings, which explains his need always to carry the aura of an ambassador from some Other Shore: the Hisses, he says, were drawn to him because they thought him a Russian, which, to the extent that the will could conquer an origin in Lynbrook, L.I., he certainly was and remained.”    

Friday, December 15, 2017

`Evanescent Brilliancy and Tremulous Imbecility'

In Lectures on the English Poets, William Hazlitt begins his evisceration of Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and his poem “The Pleasures of Memory” (1792) rather delicately. He calls him “a very lady-like poet.” Given the female poets of the day and Hazlitt’s chronic idiocy when it came to women, that’s mild. He’s just warming up:

“He is an elegant, but feeble writer. He wraps up obvious thoughts in a glittering cover of fine words; is full of enigmas with no meaning to them; is studiously inverted, and scrupulously far-fetched; and his verses are poetry, chiefly because no particular line, or syllable of them reads like prose.”  

Whenever I read a memorably savage takedown by a critic, I automatically think of the contemporary writers to whom it applies. The two sentences quoted serve as a rubber-stamp review for thousands of recent volumes. As described by Hazlitt, Rogers is the template for today’s poets. But Hazlitt isn’t finished. Poetry like Rogers’ is “a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgety translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminie-pimminie of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction.”

Let’s pause for a moment to savor “mimminie-pimminie.” As a noun, two citations show up in the Oxford English Dictionary, both by Hazlitt, including the one just quoted. Clearly, Hazlitt had happened upon a useful word. The OED defines it as “finicky or affected writing; verbosity, prolixity,” and calls it an “alteration” of the adjective “niminy-piminy,” and suggests it might derive from “mim”: “reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way; affectedly modest, demure.” It also calls the word “imitative of affected speech,” and I find myself wanting to sound the word sniffily through my nose when I say it aloud. Hazlitt has more on his mind:

“You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression. The fastidious and languid reader is never shocked by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world, with a single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure for the finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is refined, and frittered away into an appearance of the most evanescent brilliancy and tremulous imbecility.”

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to watch a writer having so good a time.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

`His Attitude Suited Me Very Well'

Chief among the teachers in my continuing education is Boris Dralyuk, editor, poet and translator. This week Boris posted his translation of “The Tram” by Yuri Kazarnovsky, a Russian poet whose name I had encountered (see below) but whose work I had never read. Written in 1932, “The Tram” reads like a celebration of all that is speedy, efficient and, above all, modern. Boris calls the poem “sprightly,” and adds:

“It reverberates with wit and the joy of invention. The poem’s lightness and brightness seem so incongruous with the cruel facts of Kazarnovsky’s life, but might in fact explain how he managed to withstand those facts.”

Successive catalogs whimsically tally the contents of the tram: “eleven meetings, / a lady’s purse, / a separation’s grief, / seven briefcases, / eight belated greetings, / and a beetle / on a jacket’s sleeve.” Remember, this is Stalin’s Russia Kazarnovsky is describing, the unhappiest place on Earth in 1932. Here is the ecstatic bustle of urban life, the reveling in technological marvels. Think of John Dos Passos’ city scenes in The 42nd Parallel (1930), the first novel in his U.S.A. trilogy:

“The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking, eyes greedy for warm curves of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench, blood tingles with wants, mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging . . . People have packed into subways, climbed into streetcars and buses, in the stations they’ve scampered for suburban trains; they’ve filtered into lodgings and tenements, gone up in elevators into apartment-houses.”

But that is the U.S.A. As Boris tells us, by 1932 Kazarnovsky had already spent four years in the Solovki prison camp, and would be arrested again in 1937, and later spend four years in Kolyma. In 1938, he was among the last people to see Osip Mandelstam alive, in a transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok. That’s how I knew Kazarnovsky’s name. He shows up in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), translated by Max Hayward. In the first volume, in the chapter titled “The Date of Death,” Kazarnovsky tells the widow her husband “`did well to die: otherwise he would have gone to Kolyma.’” In 1944, when Kazarnovsky was released from the Gulag, he met her in Tashkent:

“He lived there without a permit or ration cards, hiding from the police, terrified of everybody and drinking very heavily. He had no proper shoes, and I gave him some tiny galoshes that had belonged to my mother. They fitted him very well because he had no toes on his feet—they had become frozen in the camp and he had chopped them off with an ax to prevent gangrene. Whenever they were all taken to the baths, their clothes froze in the damp air of the changing room and rattled like sheets of tin.”

Mandelstam describes Kazarnovsky as “the first more or less authentic emissary I had met from the `other world.'’’ She learns that he and her husband had occupied beds in the same barracks. Nadezhda is desperate for information about Osip’s final days, but skeptical, as always: “[Kazarnovsky’s] memory was like a huge, rancid pancake in which fact and fancy from his prison days had been mixed up together and baked into an inseparable mass.”

In Hope Abandoned, Mandelstam refers to Kazarnovsky as a “minor Moscow poet”:

“From him I got the first reliable information about M.’s death—which was not easy to extract because of his endless prattle about the good old days in Moscow . . . and about poetry—French, Russian, and Muscovite. But in speaking of M. he was much less inclined to romanticize, if only because he saw nothing very glamorous about such a fate. In this respect his attitude suited me very well.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

`The Lustre of Their Lives'

“The death of great men is not always proportioned to the lustre of their lives. Hannibal, says Juvenal, did not perish by a javelin or a sword; the slaughters of Cannae were revenged by a ring [containing poison]. The death of Pope was imputed by some of his friends to a silver saucepan, in which it was his delight to heat potted lampreys.”

Readers who judge Dr. Johnson a humorless scold are advised to consider the possibility of Alexander Pope’s death by eel, raised in Johnson’s “Life of Pope.” The reference to Hannibal is taken from Juvenal’s tenth satire, the one adapted by Johnson as “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in which he turns the Carthaginian general into Charles XII of Sweden. In Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Johnson likewise recounts the grotesque and possibly apocryphal death of a more obscure poet, Thomas Otway (1651-1685):

“He went out, as is reported, almost naked, in the rage of hunger, and, finding a gentleman in a neighbouring coffee-house, asked him for a shilling. The gentleman gave him a guinea; and Otway, going away, bought a roll, and was choked with the first mouthful.”    

Sadder is the fate of John Hughes (1677-1720), whose life and death Johnson treats as an allegory on human wishes. Hughes’ work for the stage had never been popular. In February 1720, his final tragedy, The Siege of Damascus, was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and opening night was a smash. Hughes, sick in bed with consumption, was given the happy news, and died. Johnson writes: “He lived to hear that it was well received; but paid no regard to the intelligence, being then wholly employed in the meditations of a departing Christian.”

Readers will associate Johnson’s lifelong death preoccupation with Philip Larkin’s, in particular “Aubade.” The difference is critical. For Larkin, death is nullity, oblivion: “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Johnson, a “departing Christian,” thought otherwise. Boswell recounts a conversation Johnson had at age seventy-five, shortly before his death on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784:  

“JOHNSON. `As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.’ (Looking dismally.) DR. ADAMS. `What do you mean by damned?’ JOHNSON (passionately and loudly). `Sent to hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.’”

Johnson’s death mingled grotesquery with nobility. In his final months, he suffered from general circulatory disease, made evident six months earlier by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by growing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. His friend and biographer Sir John Hawkins reports Johnson’s final coherent words were Iam moriturus (“I who am about to die”), an echo of the gladiators’ salute to Caesar: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.” In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes the scene shortly before his death:

“Bloated with dropsy [edema], Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”