Sunday, November 27, 2022

'One That's Sick o' th' Gout'

“One that’s sick o’ th’ gout, had rather / Groan so in perplexity than be cur’d / By th’ sure physician death.”

Gout is one of those medical conditions that often inspires not sympathy but self-righteousness. It’s the patrician disease, punishment for being wealthy and self-indulgent – too much red meat and red wine. Clean livers, those whose diets are sanctified, don’t get gout. Disease, after all, is physical punishment for morals lapses. I’ve witnessed satisfaction on the faces of those who learn a cancer sufferer has been a smoker.


Twenty-five years ago I woke to an explosion of pain in the big toe on my right foot. I’ve had burns that hurt less. I seldom eat red meat and never drink wine. I hadn’t injured my foot. I was baffled. The doctor wasn’t: gout. He prescribed some pills, the pain stopped within a day and has never returned. I respect those little crystals of uric acid.


I called my brother Saturday morning for our customary weekly chat. On Friday he had been hospitalized with gout in both feet, in so much pain he could barely walk. A friend drove him to the ER. Meds are easing the pain and reducing the swelling, and today he undergoes an IV treatment intended to “flush out,” as he put it, those little crystals. He expects to be home tonight or Monday.


Ken is in good company. Among writerly gout sufferers are Milton, Gibbon, Smollett, Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, Conrad and possibly Dr. Johnson. “Possibly,” because the word gout was used in the past to describe many conditions. In his Dictionary, Johnson defines gout as “the arthritis; a periodical disease attended with great pain.” The lines at the top are spoken by Posthumus in Act V, Scene 4 of Cymbeline.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

'Without Some Thistly Sorrow at Its Side'

On May 28, 1781, William Cowper writes to his friend the Rev. John Newton, Anglican priest, “Amazing Grace” lyricist, former slaver, former slave, abolitionist and hymnist: 

“You seldom complain of too much sunshine, and if you are prepared for a heat somewhat like that of Africa, the south walk in our long garden will exactly suit you. Reflected from the gravel and from the walls, and beating upon your head at the same time, it may possibly make you wish you could enjoy for an hour or two that immensity of shade afforded by the gigantic trees still growing in the land of your captivity.”


At age eighteen, Newton had been seized by a press gang into service with the Royal Navy. In 1745 he was left by his shipmates with a slave trader in West Africa, whose African wife made Newton her slave. Thus, “the land of your captivity.” Cowper continues:


“If you could spend a day now and then in those forests, and return with a wish to England, it would be no small addition to the number of your best pleasures. . . . The time will come, perhaps, (but death will come first,) when you will be able to visit them without either danger, trouble, or expense; and when the contemplation of those well-remembered scenes will awaken in you emotions of gratitude and praise, surpassing all you could possibly sustain at present.”


Cowper believed the souls of the dead may revisit the Earth, perhaps even returning safely to locations previously dangerous or with unhappy associations. The Irish writer Brian Lynch in his great novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), touches on this theme. Lynch begins a later poem, L’imperfection,” with two lines from the second passage quoted above:


“The time will come, perhaps,

(But death will come first)

When we may be able to visit

The dead and where they lived

When we first knew them,

And then, though they will not

Be able to see us, we shall

Look at those faces we

Loved once with better thanks

And more praise than we gave,

Or were able to give . . .”


The seven of us in the world who still read Cowper’s poems would likely agree with George Saintsbury: “Cowper would have been a great poet of the second class at any time, and in some times might have attained the first.” Barton Swaim describes Cowper as a “placeholder” who fell between two epochs in literary history, being neither Augustan nor Romantic but sharing traits with both. He was one of the “mad poets,”  having attempted suicide several times and been confined to asylums. His letters are among the best in the language and often enormously funny. He memorably wrote: “I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am / Buried above ground.” I’m reminded of these lines from Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of his masterpiece, The Task:


“In such a world; so thorny, and where none

Finds happiness unblighted; or, if found,

Without some thistly sorrow at its side;

It seems the part of wisdom, and no sin

Against the law of love, to measure lots

With less distinguish’d than ourselves; that thus

We may with patience bear our mod’rate ills,

And sympathies with others, suffering more.”


Cowper was born on this date, November 26, in 1731, and died in 1800 at age sixty-eight.

Friday, November 25, 2022

'There’s Good Writing to Be Done Even Now'

In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson gives us seventeen definitions of a seemingly simple monosyllable: grace. The first is “favour; kindness,” a usage I sense is lapsing. Next, “favourable influence of God on the human mind” – current but fading, perhaps. Then, “virtue; effect of God’s influence” – the same. Virtue is having a rough time of it, as is its origin. On to the eleventh definition: “embellishment; recommendation; beauty.” Here is Johnson’s citation to illustrate that usage: 

“Set all things in their own peculiar place,

And know that Order is the greatest Grace.”


This is John Dryden translating lines from Horace’s Ars Poetica in his translation of De arte Graphica (1668) by the French writer and painter Charles du Fresnoy. The wisdom is pleasing as applied to literature and it reminded me of Swift’s observation in his “Letter to a Young Clergyman” (1720): “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” In other words, orderliness and grace. He adds:


“[P]rofessors in most arts and sciences are generally the worst qualified to explain their meanings to those who are not of their tribe: a common farmer shall make you understand in three words, that his foot is out of joint, or his collar-bone broken, wherein a surgeon, after a hundred terms of art, if you are not a scholar, shall leave you to seek. It is frequently the same case in law, physic, and even many of the meaner arts.”


“Order is the greatest Grace” likewise applies to social life, which increasingly disdains those virtues. My admiration for Dryden is growing. After Shakespeare and Milton, he is the writer most often cited by Johnson in his Dictionary. I’m reading him again after discovering a poem by the Australian writer John McAuley, “A Letter To John Dryden,” which closes:


“It’s true, dear John, I envy other days

When poets had a public, and the bays

Were fresh and green on many a famous brow:

But there’s good writing to be done even now.

For praise, the cordial word of some few score

Contents me, for I dare not hope for more.

And if, as other times and moods come on,

My verse must fall into oblivion,

I don't suppose I'll care when I am gone.”

Thursday, November 24, 2022

'Give Thanks for Gradual Ceaseless Rot'

Gratitude need not be mawkish. We all recognize phony, obsequious, histrionic expressions of thanks, usually delivered when an audience is present. Rather, make it self-deferential, even amusing. When someone gushingly flatters me, I’m suspicious. It reminds me of a dog who reflexively rolls on his back. Gratitude is most convincing when expressed implicitly, with a gesture or a nod of the head. Actions trump words. George Herbert writes in “Gratefulness”: 

“Thou that hast given so much to me,     

Give one thing more,—a grateful heart.”


I’m no different from millions of other Americans. Thanksgiving Day means time off from work, a paid holiday, a long weekend. Turkey and stuffing I can take or leave. I have no interest in sports so football is no big attraction. Only one of our three sons is here for the holiday, so we’ll talk to the others by telephone. Everything I have is more and better than I deserve. I like expressions of gratitude for things that have never occurred to me. Take John Updike’s thankfulness for decomposition in "Ode to Rot":


“All process is reprocessing;

give thanks for gradual ceaseless rot

gnawing gross Creation fine while we sleep,

the lightning-forged organic conspiracy’s

merciful counterplot.”


One seldom associates Tom Disch with spiritual matters. He could be offensive when the subject turned to religion. But here are some lines from “Abecedary”:


“S is the Sight of a Thanksgiving feast,

And T is the Turkey, which must weigh at least

Thirty pounds. U is Utopia. V . . .

V simply Vanishes – where, we can’t see –

While W Waves from its Westernmost isle

And X lies exhausted, attempting to smile.

There are no letters left now but Y and then Z.

Y is for You, dear, and Z is for me.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

'Culture Is Shared Analogies'

Guy Davenport’s custom when dating a letter was to add the names of notables born on that date. This was pre-Wikipedia, and Davenport was a walking encyclopedia of such minutiae, without being tediously pedantic about it, as readers of his essays and stories already know. In his October 3, 1990 letter to James Laughlin, for instance, he notes Henri Alain-Fournier (author of the wonderful novel Le Grand Meaulnes) and Thomas Wolfe. To the latter’s name he appends a scholarly footnote: 

“(Wolfe’s brother was manager of Dixon’s Blue Bird Ice Cream in Anderson SC when I was a child, and his sister lived on the corner of Franklin and Main, two blocks from our house, at a nice place called Seven Oaks, now replaced by Bubba Shiflett’s Used Car lot)”


On April 15, 1989 (and 1993) he gives us Leonardo da Vinci, Henry James Jr. (that is, the novelist, not Henry James Sr., the noted crackpot) and Robert Walser. December 1, 1994: Rex Stout. February 2, 1997: “Ulysses anno 75.” Not every reader will be charmed by his bountiful knack for trivia.


I’ve been reading Davenport for almost fifty years. We corresponded for several years, I visited him at his home in Lexington, Ky., and I own and have read most of his books. I owe much of whatever sensibility I possess to him. He remains a teacher in the truest, non-academic sense. In the Winter 2002 issue of The Georgia Review, Davenport published an essay, “The Illuminations of Bernard Faucon and Anthony Goicolea,” which to my knowledge has never been republished. It is among the last long pieces he wrote – eighteen pages of text, eight of photographs. In it he writes, in a casual aside:


“The arts are cultural voices. It was Santayana who said that it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they all know the same books -- that is, share a pervasive culture. If you don’t know who Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, and Don Quixote are, you are from Mars and have your own paragons of na├»ve credulity, ingenuity, and anachronistic chivalry.”


And this, a marvelous explanation of how artists and their cultures work:


“The watchworks of any art is a grammar of analogies. At its most abstract, an analogy belongs to geometry and therefore to mathematics: the inch on the map corresponds to a mile. In poetry, remembrances of things past can be summoned as witnesses to testify at a session of a law court. Culture is shared analogies. Cultures have long ago forgotten the origin of their analogies: fish have no notion what water might be. They are aware, however, of the surface of air above them, as they have to negotiate it swimming upstream, for insects. The artist works at the surface of cultures, finding nutrients, moving against the current.”


Such clarity is rare. Davenport was born on this date, November 23, in 1927, to which he might have added the names of co-birthday boys Pope Clement IV, Franklin Pierce, Boris Karloff, Harpo Marx, Nirad Chaudhuri, Run Run Shaw and Paul Celan. He was that anomalous sort of writer in whom scholarship, stylishly precise prose, curiosity, wide-ranging interests and a gift for entertaining his readers all came together. He writes in his introductory note to his third essay collection, The Hunter Gracchus (1996): “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”


[Davenport’s dates and names can be found in Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (W.W. Norton, 2007).]

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

'It Came to Nothing'

“The talent was great; it came to nothing.” 

The persistence of some literary reputations is baffling. In 1969, fourteen years after Agee’s death, Turner Cassity reviewed The Collected Poems of James Agee for Poetry.  The poems are minor stuff, buoyed by Agee’s former fame. Cassity’s review is a model of criticism written with refreshing savagery and good humor. He even compliments Agee’s work at several points in his review. Cassity’s sentence quoted above serves as a fitting epitaph. He came to bury Agee, not to praise him.


When young I was quite taken with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which started for Agee and Walker Evans (whose photos are excellent) as an assignment for Fortune magazine, and soon grew obese and nearly unreadable. A story about Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression is a natural. It ought to be riveting. Agee’s failure can be attributed not to sentimental politics, the usual sabotage for such work, but self-indulgence. Agee’s inner-editor was comatose. Nearly every sentence is overwritten.


He later worked for Time magazine, where Whittaker Chambers, who reviewed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and called it “the most distinguished failure of the season,” was among his colleagues. In the same review, Chambers noted “Agee’s bad manners, exhibitionism and verbosity.” Agee wrote film criticism and screenplays. Among the latter, The Night of the Hunter is quite good. Some favor his sole novel, A Death in the Family (published posthumously in 1957). Cassity will have none of it. His opening salvo:


“A pity that, in Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal savages Parker Tyler instead of James Agee. Mr. Agee is really much worse. In this review,  however, we shall omit ‘film’ and confine ourselves to the poetry. We are also trying to repress Mr. Agee’s eight-page dedication, which is bad enough to be the text of a cantata.”


Cassity quotes a quatrain from one of Agee’s poems, likens it to Richard Crashaw’s verse and adds, “Who like this sort of thing call it gift for language. Who do not, think of "Savonarola Brown.” This verdict could be rubber-stamped on much of the poetry written today and probably in 1969:


“The poems are full of love, death, nature, and all that, but what actually, are they about? The theology of the early work is rudimentary as is the sociology of the later. One remembers, maliciously, that when Mr. Agee was young Edna Millay was a very famous poet, and Appalachia was going through one of its periodic cycles of chic.”


Note the small, fatal phrase: “and all that.” Cassity’s final post-mortem: “The volume is discreetly edited, handsomely produced, and there is a very poetic photograph of Mr. Agee on the dust jacket.”

Monday, November 21, 2022

'Come, Gentle Tripe, the Hungry Carter’s Joy'

No form of writing is so evanescent as journalism, unless it’s blogging. True to its etymology, most of it evaporates within a day. We can think of rare exceptions – Mencken, Liebling, Kempton. As a newspaper reporter I wrote millions of words, thousands of stories, columns and reviews, now reduced to moldering clips, stray electrons and unreliable memories. I recall none of this in sadness. I knew precisely what I was getting into. 

In Innocent Merriment: An Anthology of Light Verse (1942), Franklin P. Adams includes a poem by J.B. Morton, “Tripe”:


“Come, gentle tripe, the hungry carter’s joy,

Drayman’s delight, conductor’s second course,

Passion and dream of every errand boy,

Vision of every rogue that holds a horse,

Bane of all titled ladies, bishops’ dread, 

Doom of the softly nurtured, peers’ despair,

Was it for this the tall Achilles bled,

For this that Agamemnon tore his hair?

Was this the food that launched a thousand ships

And tore the heart of Dido, as she stood

Above the feast, wiping her royal lips,

And called her love again—was this the food?


“(The answer is, in a sense, no.)”


In a restaurant long ago, I worked with a Puerto Rican/Italian cook from Chicago. This guy was the Toscanini of the griddle, maintaining masterful control in the kitchen on the most frenzied of nights. He never raised his voice, never broke a sweat. We became friends and he was forever threatening to prepare for me a pot of menudo – pancita, as it’s known in Houston. It became a joke between us. I’m not a finicky eater but just the thought of certain foods triggers my gag reflex. My father relished unthinkable things – pigs’ knuckles, souse, head cheese – straight out of the Upton Sinclair cookbook. The toughest paragraph for me to digest in all of Ulysses is this:


“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.”


So when I saw “Tripe,” I had to read it. I knew nothing about J.B. Morton. His poem is about tripe, yes, but more about class-based food snobbery. The working people of England relish eating stomach of cow. The upper classes disdain it. My father was an ironworker. I inherited his contempt for “foodies” – ridiculous word – but could never eat most of his favorite foods. I don’t remember him eating tripe, but perhaps memory is being merciful.


Now, about J.B. Morton (1893-1979): He spent a year at Oxford and hoped to make a living as a poet. He fought at the Somme during the Great War. Like many of us when young and without direction, he became a journalist. From 1924 to 1975, he wrote the “By the Way” column in the Daily Express under the pen name "Beachcomber." Until 1965, he produced six columns a week. The most I ever had to write was two per week, on top of features, news stories and the occasional review, and there were weeks when that seemed impossible. I admire good writers who are industrious, so long as no one mentions Joyce Carol Oates, and journalism certainly remains the best boot camp for learning how to write.


Is anyone familiar with Morton’s work? He seems to have written some twenty books but I haven’t located any in the libraries where I have lending privileges. He sounds like a writer worth remembering.