Wednesday, July 17, 2019

'Cranks Live by Theory, Not by Pure Desire'

We may look back on this era as the Age of the Crank. We’re forever congratulating ourselves for having such a swell system of education, but crackpot theories proliferate.
We honor experts so long as they confirm our pet theories. On every imaginable subject, people are earnest and eager to share their earnestness. Irony? There’s plenty of that, too, but not when it comes to someone’s obsession du jour. Interestingly the OED speculates that, though the origin of crank is uncertain, it may derive from the adjective cranky, “of capricious or wayward temper, difficult to please; cross-tempered, awkward; ‘cross.’” Cranks tend to embody those qualities and few are burdened with a sense of humor.

The Dictionary’s definition of crank is carefully euphemistic: “a person with a mental twist; one who is apt to take up eccentric notions or impracticable projects; esp. one who is enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an eccentric, a monomaniac.” Those final two synonyms, at least by connotation, are distinctly different. True eccentrics are England’s gift to the world. I associate tolerance for eccentricity, benign individual difference, with democratic societies. Eccentrics, I think, are not popular with pure-bred cranks. Monomaniacs, as the word suggests, are more strictly pathological. They are angry, joyless and potentially dangerous. You can’t have a conversation with a monomaniac. Among Hitler’s less malign qualities was monomania.      

In A Casual Commentary (1925) Rose Macaulay devotes a brief essay to the subject of cranks. She shrewdly observes that “unsatisfied desire appears to be the essence of crankism.” I’m reminded of the Progressive Labor Party. At anti-Vietnam War rallies, its members dressed like door-to-door missionaries, in short-sleeve white shirts and narrow black ties. They were quiet and never smiled, and the rowdier elements left them alone. They were Maoists, the most dangerous of cranks.  “Cranks live by theory, not by pure desire,” Macaulay writes, suggesting a handy way to diagnose them. They possess a “lack of proportion, the obsession with one desire or one principle to the minimising or exclusion of others; exaggeration, in fact.” Given life circumstances and one’s waning tolerance for the ridiculous, all of us are potential recruits to crankism.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

'A Looking-Glass, Distorting but Powerful'

“What turns me off in reading is writing that doesn’t respect the need for appealing sound, writing that’s too plain, that doesn’t surprise me.”

But the solution isn’t to tart up the language. “Appealing sound” – call it musicality, with an emphasis on rhythm, bolstered by concision and precision – isn’t cosmetic. William Gass had an alliteration tic, the simplest of poetic effects to manufacture. No one seems to have noticed how easily his prose can be mistaken for Thomas Wolfe’s. You can tell when a writer comes up with a particularly choice purple patch and is self-huggingly proud of himself. The passage quoted at the top is from an interview with Maryann Corbett, a poet, though she doesn’t specify prose or verse.

I have nothing against plain language, which I would distinguish from language that is flat, clunky, vague or generally tin-eared. I’m reminded of a contemporary critic who champions Gass and similar writers, and whose prose reads like cold oatmeal. Daniel Defoe mastered the plain style in prose and Yvor Winters in verse. Over the weekend I read From a View to a Death (1933), in which Anthony Powell uses the plain style with comic intent. Here is the novel’s opening:

“They drove uncertainly along the avenue that led to the house, through the bars of light that fell between the tree-trunks and made the shadows of the lime-trees strike obliquely across the gravel. The navy-blue car was built high off the ground and the name on its bonnet recalled a bankrupt, forgotten firm of motor-makers. Inside, the car was done up in a material like grey corduroy, with folding seats in unexpected places, constructed liberally to accommodate some Edwardian Swiss Family Robinson. This was a period piece. An exhibit. The brakes had ceased to work long since. On the wall in front, immediately behind the chauffeur’s neck, which was goose-flesh in spite of the heat, there was a German silver vase for flowers, and below it a looking-glass, distorting but powerful.”

I like soft-spoken, seemingly matter-of-fact prose that smuggles in implications, never cracks a knowing smile and lays off the lilting alliteratives.

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Sin City Takes Its Ease'

I first saw Texas in May 2004, and as we made our descent, even before the plane landed, I had to jettison an illusion, or call it a stereotype. Houston is not a John Ford desert, as I expected, but one of the greenest American cities, dense with oaks and pines. Texas suffers under two sets of preconceived notions: it is both Southern and Western, with emphasis on the former. It was one of the eleven Confederate states. Transplanted Northerners have a lot of prejudices to flush from their system. In any other country Texas would be five or six countries, a veritable Yugoslavia.

In my experience, the next illusion to be discarded was my misunderstanding of what Turner Cassity describes in his poem “Across the River and into the Sleaze” (The Destructive Element, 1998). There’s sleaze aplenty here. On that first ride from the airport I saw, on the frontage roads along the interstates, numerous dealers in what is still called “adult entertainment.” I expected Texas to be a Baptist republic. Parts of it are but not Houston. Rawness and squalor coexist here with gentility, rectitude and even middle-American blandness. Houston, an inexhaustibly interesting place, has no zoning laws. A funeral parlor adjoins a gas station which adjoins a storefront church and an ice house, with a taqueria-on-wheels parked out front. Cassity, a native of Mississippi and longtime resident of Georgia, opens his poem with these lines:

“Across the river, or the county line,
Or just outside the city limits, or—
Juarez and Matamoros—out of reach
In Mexico, Sin City takes its ease:
A mockery of planned communities,
the city beautiful, greenbelts, Our Town,
Park cities, biosphere, the Habitat.
It is the triumph of the frontage road,
An ozone hole its bright Tiepolo.
Before we damn it as unnatural
We might do well to bear in mind asphalt
Is just as natural as grass. They both
Come up out of the ground.”

Cassity writes in full contrarian mode. He never met a pious P.C. truism he didn’t detest and wish to violate. He continues:

“And as for vice . . .
It was a garden where the Fall took place.
The double serpent of the Interstate
Hangs high his lighted fruits on either side;
Their promise without season of a flesh
Always renewed. If ripeness is not all
It’s more of it than greenness, and so too
Is rot. The porn-shop fronts are shining scales;
The two hides glitter at the outer edge. . .”

Sunday, July 14, 2019

'I Will Complain, Yet Praise'

We all know, and try to avoid, that growing population that speaks exclusively in one of two modes: order-giving or complaining. They are toddlers costumed as grownups. Like young children, they can be at once charming and tediously annoying. Even their praise is complaint in disguise. Their world is an unsatisfactory place. Just ask them. “Complaint quickly tires, however elegant or however just,” Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #73. Just as my hangnail is more important than your cancer, so does my complaint outweigh yours on the cosmic scales of unfairness.

Not that complaint ought to be banished. You might even suggest that I am complaining about complaint. It is, however, merely one violin in the orchestra. We and the world are more complicated than that. Like the world, we are heterogenous. In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014), John Drury contrasts Herbert’s “Bitter-sweet” with Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “Its lower key matches the maturity of its acceptance: its ‘yes’ to life. Herbert settles for life’s ambivalence . . .”:    

“Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since Thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
“I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.”

The world is more than binary, and so are we.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

'On Fitting Language to His Thought'

J.V. Cunningham died on March 30, 1985 at age seventy-three. A few years earlier, Guy Davenport had written that Cunningham’s poems were “as well made as wristwatches,” though unsympathetic critics, always interested in sounding fashionably up-to-date, characterized them as anachronistic. C.H. Sisson once wrote in an autobiographical essay that “for about a year (circa 1932) I must have been contemporary.” Something comparable might be said about Cunningham, though the date in question might has been 1620 or 1820. As a poet, Cunningham was contemporaneous with Ben Jonson and Walter Savage Landor, and absolutely modern.

In its Autumn 1985 issue, the Chicago Review published “A Tribute to J.V. Cunningham,” with contributions from six poets. All are worth reading, which means having access to Jstor or a university library. Here are excerpts from each.

Robert Pinsky, “The Poetry of J.V. Cunningham”: “Because they are funny, immediately accessible, and patently masterful in execution, the epigrams that fall into this category -- incisive, witty, judicatory -- seem effective ways to introduce people who are not yet Cunningham-addicts to his work. I have often quoted them to friends for that purpose; but having done that, one worries that the new reader, whether through wavering attention or prejudice, may think that Cunningham is merely a funny man, the author of a kind of light verse [hardly the severest criticism imaginable].”

W.S. Di Piero, “Four Notions”: “It’s difficult to sound generous when describing Cunningham’s poetic gifts. A plain style. A puritan discipline for worrying the consequences of pleasure. A Roman Catholic terror of (and attraction for) the Absolute. Brevity. An austere speech whose power lies in impassioned denials. Definition by exclusion. Brevity. A belief that practice proceeds from definition, so that no definition, no outline of figure, gets redrawn or revised in the process of composition.”

Thom Gunn, “J.V.C.”:
“He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such a fashion,
He concentrated into passion.”

Raymond Oliver, “Epigrams on Mortality” (“in homage to J. V. Cunningham”):

“1. From Youth to Age”

“We stay the same,
Yet not - as an arc,
Cast from a main
Of water, starts
Compact and small,
Then peaks, then down
Scattering falls
Unshaped to the ground.”

“2. To JVC”

“You saw me last ‘too long ago,’ you wrote;
‘Perhaps we'll meet again.’ We didn’t. Now
You are a text to read, its final note
Resonant in my mind. Death won--but how?
You’d caught him in your lines. But he, inane,
Deaf to your words--the beautiful, the true
Will not confront the mind, only the brain.
Death was no worthy adversary for you.”

Alan Shapiro, “The Early Seventies and J.V. Cunningham”: “After an interminable silence in which I contemplated some alternative career, Cunningham held my poem up and said in that low, almost whispering voice of his, ‘This is nothing more than spilled ink,’ and proceeded to the next poem.”

Kenneth Fields, “Barbed Wire: A Tribute to J.V. Cunningham”: “A modern, a man of his own time and experience who insists on the novelty of his own statements, Cunningham himself has best characterized his independent classicism: ‘The only new poetic style since 1930 has been, for good or ill, my own.”

I still hope the Library of America gets serious and finally publishes a volume devoted to the Stanford School of Poets – Yvor Winters, Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Janet Lewis, Helen Pinkerton and the others.

Friday, July 12, 2019

'Individual Rather Than Societal Reform'

On this date in 1784, Dr. Johnson writes in a letter to the Rev. Thomas Bagshaw of Bromley: “Perhaps you may remember, that in the year 1753, you committed to the ground my dear wife. I now entreat your permission to lay a stone upon her; and have sent the inscription, that, if you find it proper, you may signify your allowance.”

Elizabeth Porter Johnson, always “Tetty” to her husband, married him in 1735 when Johnson was twenty-five-year-old Oxford dropout and she was a forty-six-year-old widow. When they had first met three years earlier, Tetty told her daughter Lucy: “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” No one but the couple approved of the marriage and many snickered. When Tetty died at age sixty-three, Johnson was disconsolate and mourned for the remainder of his life. John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson writes in a diary:

“Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.”

In his letter to Bagshaw, included by Boswell in his Life, Johnson writes: “You will do me a great favour by showing the place where she lies, that the stone may protect her remains.” Here is the epitaph he composed for Tetty’s stone: “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae ([dedicated to, or for] the beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful).”

Johnson is the most sympathetically fallible of men. His life and work are inseparable, and his concerns are practical, not theoretical. Barton Swaim writes in his review of Peter Martin’s anthology of Johnson’s work:

“Johnson was more concerned with morality than with politics; he cared about individual rather than societal reform, and so could never be the father, or even the uncle, of any variety of political conservatism. . . .  Johnson’s is a moral and intellectual, not a political, conservatism, but it is no less relevant for that. If there is any truth to Michael Oakeshott’s claim that conservatism is a disposition rather than a creed, that disposition was given its fullest and most memorable expression in the works of Samuel Johnson.”

[See Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti for clarification way beyond my capacity.]

Thursday, July 11, 2019

'Stunning the Viewer with Impossible Youth'

A reader in New York City responded to my July 4 post about Willa Cather and the death of her cousin during World War I by reminding me that the world is a remarkably small place and that a century is not all that long:

“I’m always interested in Cather, and then when I saw the paragraph about her cousin who died in World War I, I stopped at the name ‘Cantigny.’ My mother’s first cousin, James Palache, was killed at Cantigny on May 18, 1918. We have a first-hand account of his death. His friend who wrote it felt it was in a sense suicidal – he had given up and no longer wanted to live.”

My paternal grandfather and my mother’s stepfather both fought in World War I. I never knew the former but knew the latter well. His name was James Aloysius Kelly and he told a few war-related memories. In France, he and other doughboys, to relieve the monotony, tore up a farmer’s field and had a beet fight. He pronounced Ypres YIP-pers. And while still stationed at an Army camp in the U.S., he remembered a sign on a restaurant in the nearby town: “No dogs or Irish.” My reader has not read Cather’s One of Ours (1922), her novel in which the main character is based in part on her cousin, Lt. Grosvenor “G.P.” Cather. She writes:

“I found [Cather’s] phrase ‘that glorious title “killed in action”’ upsetting. However, the Wikipedia account shows that in her cousin’s particular case it may not have been misplaced.”

The youth and naïveté of the doughboys is appalling. In his poem “Doughboys: Photograph c. 1917” (“--found among my grandfather’s papers”), R.L. Barth writes:

“Around a folded blanket seven doughboys
Intently watch the dice turn six the hard way.
Like pre-noir tough guys, three or four clutch sawbucks
Half curled, ready to shell out or increase
A conscript private's base pay. One, raffish,
Tilts his campaign hat like an old salt.
All seven would shame Bogart with the angle
Of dangling cigarettes and arched eyebrows.
But they're not tough guys, just heartbreakers all,
Stunning the viewer with impossible youth.”