Wednesday, February 24, 2021

'The Maddest, Gladdest, Damndest Existence'

From The Front Page to All the President’s Men, I never bought the Hollywood version of journalistic glamor. Good thing, too, because I would have been destined for almost a quarter-century of disappointment. I and most of my colleagues were not wise-cracking, rakish men about town, nor were we moral crusaders. We were poorly paid clerks. The first thing I wrote for my first newspaper, a rural weekly, was the obituary of a man named Miller. We had beats, which in my case involved covering the endless public meetings of such bodies as the Ditch Maintenance Board of a small city in Ohio. 

I’m not complaining. That’s how I learned to write and to be skeptical of anything done by government at any level. Journalism was a slow process of maturation. As a kid in my twenties, I recognized the privilege I was granted by the job. I could walk into the police chief’s office and ask impertinent questions. I learned something about the psychology of power and how to approach it. I learned how to deal with the enforced tedium and vulgarity of much free speech. I could listen to the stories people told me about their lives which, in some cases, they had never shared with another person. I had a lot of fun.


H.L. Mencken titled the first chapter of Newspaper Days (1941), one of the most exuberant books in our literature, “Allegro Con Brio” -- at a fast tempo, and with spirit. On this date, February 24, in 1899, Mencken had his first two newspaper stories published, in the Baltimore Morning Herald. What’s noteworthy about both is how familiar they seem to me and how mundane their subject matter is: “Team Stolen” and “Exhibited War Scenes.”  The first is drawn from the cop beat, the other is what we used to call “chicken-dinner news.” I won’t pretend that the briefs forecast the stylist to come, but Mencken was eighteen years old and already had the gift of feeding off experience and enjoying himself. In Newspaper Days he writers:


“In the present book my only purpose is to try to recreate for myself, and for any one who may care to follow me, the gaudy life that young newspaper reporters led in the major American cities at the turn of the century. I believed then, and still believe today, that it was the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth. . . . Life was arduous, but it was gay and carefree. The days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails.”


Joseph Epstein once wrote that he relies on three writers to “lift one out of gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes” – Montaigne, Justice Holmes (in his letters) and Mencken. Enlivening company, all, and Mencken is the most reliable and fastest-acting.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

'For Health, Wealth and Beauty, Wit, Learning and Sense'

“In making this selection we have had two main objects before us—the first, to provide poems which boys might reasonably be expected to like, and the second (which is not unconnected with the first) to awaken or encourage their metrical sense.” 

That is the first sentence of the preface to An Eton Poetry Book (Macmillan and Co., 1925), edited by Cyril Alington and George Lyttleton, both of Eton College. Some readers will know The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, published in six volumes between 1978 and 1984. Lyttleton (1883-1962) was a longtime housemaster and English teacher at Eton. Rupert Hart-Davis (1907-1999) was a publisher and editor, probably best remembered for editing the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962). Hart-Davis had been Lyttleton’s student at Eton in 1925-26. The men met again at a dinner party in 1955, and started a regular correspondence that continued until Lyttleton’s death in 1962. The letters are sheer pleasure for readers. Alington was headmaster at Eton from 1917 to 1933.


People in the past, including parents and teachers, often had a higher opinion of children than is common today. They respected them enough to expect them not only to read poetry but to memorize it, scan it and, God forbid, enjoy it and incorporate it into their lives. In the next paragraph of the preface, the editors write: “There is, as we hope this volume will show, a great deal of poetry which is likely to win instantaneous acceptance from any reasonably intelligent boy.”


The book is organized according to meter and form. Chapters are devoted to the heroic couplet, the octosyllabic couplet, the sonnet, trochaic meter, and so forth. The poet represented with the most poems is Keats, with six, followed by Browning and Wordsworth, with five each. Several of the poets included are unknown to me, including Thomas Jordan (1612-1685), whom the editors describe as “an unblushing plagiarist, or thief of other men’s writings. His contribution is Coronemus nos Rosisantequam marcescant (“Let us drink and be merry”). Here is the final stanza:


“Then why should we turmoil in cares and in fears,     

Turn all our tranquill’ty to sighs and to tears?  

Let’s eat, drink, and play till the worms do corrupt us,

      ’Tis certain, Post mortem

      Nulla voluptas.  

For health, wealth and beauty, wit, learning and sense,          

Must all come to nothing a hundred years hence.”


The Latin tag: “After death / No pleasure remains.” The “corrupt us” / “voluptas” rhyme is priceless. The editors are right: a thirteen-year-old boy would love this.


I’ve always enjoyed and relied on good anthologies, beginning with the collections edited by Oscar Williams when I was kid. With a few edits and perhaps some updating of the contents after almost a century, I can see incorporating A Eton Poetry Book into every school curriculum.

Monday, February 22, 2021

'The Workings of Another Sensibility'

A friend has read Guy Davenport’s “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996) and asks for my thoughts on what the essayist calls “reading for style.” Though as exacting a prose stylist as I know (you would recognize his words read to you anonymously and without context), Davenport was not a dogmatic aesthete. For him, style is never a veneer of pretty words or sensitive insights. It’s an expression of sensibility. A mature, painstaking, dedicated writer can hardly help writing the way he does, down to the level of punctuation and the choice of prepositions. Like DNA, true style identifies the individual. In “On Reading,” Davenport outlines the history of his experience with books, beginning with childhood. He describes himself as “retarded” as a boy and slow to learn to read, in part because of his teachers:


“[We have] a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read. The idea persists that reading is an activity of thoughtful, idealistic, moral people called authors and that they are committed to protecting certain values vital to a well-ordered society. Books mold character, enforce patriotism, and provide a healthy way to pass the leisurely hour.”


His description of popular book sentiment is even truer today, when many readers long for propaganda that substantiates the prejudices they already hold. Davenport counters: “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.” Clearly, this notion is foreign to many readers and, in Davenport’s words, leaves little room for “the apprehension and appreciation of style.”


Davenport formulates no strict definition of literary style and admits his discovery of style came from his encounters with “various humble books,” including Hendrik Van Loon’s “whimsical” The Story of Mankind (1921). “It was this book," he writes, "that began to make something of an aesthete of me, for I progressed to Van Loon’s biography of Rembrandt (conflating the rich experience of [Antonina Vallentin’s] Leonardo biography with the pleasure of reading for style), a book I kept reading for the pleasure of the prose, despite my ignorance of his historical setting.”


Reading for style is the opposite of reading strictly for utilitarian purposes, whether the text at hand is a bestselling potboiler or the operator’s manual for your washing machine. There is an extra dimension to texts embodying style, not perceptible to all, that makes reading them one of the glories of being human.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

'A Moment Rarely Captured in Paint'

The twentieth-century’s essential poets form an exclusive club with strictly limited membership – Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Auden, Cavafy, Montale, perhaps Geoffrey Hill, certainly Zbigniew Herbert. Sorry, no Americans, though Eliot comes close. There are plenty of good and even great poets, of course, but the essential ones are more than artful arrangers of words. They are preservers and enhancers of culture. Through them flows civilization. They carry on the work of their predecessors and perpetuate the tradition. In Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Life of Józef Czapski (New York Review Books, 2018), Eric Karpeles quotes a passage about prehistoric cave paintings from “Lascaux,” an essay in Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985): 

“Though I had stared into the ‘abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but almost the whole of infinity.”


The words of a deeply civilized man. In 1958, with the aid of a Ministry of Culture grant from the Polish People’s Republic, Herbert visited England, France and Italy. The resulting essays were published in Barbarian, in Polish, in 1962. While in Paris, Herbert, then twenty-six, befriended Czapski, who painted his portrait in oils. Karpeles writes of it:


“He is shown seated, and we see the upper half of his body only, the fingers of both hands actively attached to a miniature volume laid out on the desk before him, a pen lying just within reach. Flipping distractedly through the book’s pages, perhaps thinking before reaching for the pen, he might be poised to write something, or he may simply be reading. These two activities are only tenuously separated for writers. . . . The poet’s complex gaze . . . is here averted, turned down and away from the viewer but intensely concentrated as he grapples with whatever image is forming in his mind. His brow is slightly furrowed. Czapski’s portrait suggests distraction and focus, the mental activity of a writer preparing  to write, a moment rarely captured in paint.”


Karpeles quotes lines from “In the Studio” (trans. Alissa Valles), a poem from his third collection, Study of the Object (1961):


“When God built the world

he wrinkled his forehead

calculated and calculated

hence the world is perfect

and impossible to live in


“on the other hand

a painter’s world

is good

and full of error”


As I wrote of Herbert’s poem in 2009: “A world of divine perfection is inhuman, uninhabitable. We were not made to dwell in utopia – whether Eden or a Worker’s Paradise. In contrast, ‘a painter’s world / is good / and full of error.’”

Saturday, February 20, 2021

'A Matter of Poems Rather Than Poets'

One of many lessons learned from Yvor Winters is the importance of thinking in terms not of poets but of poems. Granted, casual, off-the-cuff language is slippery and no grown-up holds it to the highest of literal standards. If you tell me, “I love Keats,” it would be priggish of me to reply, “God, he wrote some awful stuff.” What you probably mean is that “To Autumn” is an excellent poem, one of the finest in the language, which has no bearing on how terrible “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain . . .,” one of his earliest extant poems, undeniably is. 

In a May 6, 1950 letter to Donald Davie, Winters  lambasts some of his usual targets – “Romantic nature lovers” generally, Emerson specifically. Emerson, he writes, “did not realize the ghastly implications of his doctrine. . . . Whitman was quite as wholehearted, but of course wrote so badly that one has to be a true scholar to find out what he was talking about.” Nothing offends Winters’ critical sense so powerfully as earnestly soft-headed nonsense.


On May 27, Winters responds to Davie’s reply to his earlier letter, writing that he is “bored with romantic lovers of nature who have never looked at nature.” Specifically he dismisses Wordsworth, whose “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a “tissue of cliches.” But he goes on to describe the “Ode to Duty” as “one of the few great poems of the 19th century, in spite of a few bad lines.” And who would expect Winters to have anything good to say about Tennyson? He continues:


“[T]ell your student that Tennyson does not look so damn sick if you take his best poems. ‘Tiresias’ is pretty impressive in spite of the Tennnysonian close; the vision of Athena, the naked truth, and her striking Tiresias blind is great poetry. ‘Demeter’ is quite a poem also, and, in a smaller way, 'Tithonus.' Nineteenth century poetry is a matter of poems rather than poets. Browning’s ‘Serenade at the Villa’ is a great poem, for example; and so is Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Pause of Thought.’ I could name a few others.”


Readers can rely on Winters’ tastes and judgments. He is never so dogmatic as his reputation suggests.


[The quoted passages are from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), edited by R.L. Barth and published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press.]

Friday, February 19, 2021

'Slow Reading and Long-Drawn Familiarity'

In The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930), Holbrook Jackson introduced me to a writer whose name I had never encountered: Mark Rutherford, one of several pseudonyms adopted by the English journalist and translator of Spinoza's Ethics, William Hale White (1831-1913). Here’s the passage that held my attention: 

“None among great readers has enjoyed more deliberately the linked sweetness long drawn out of our more spacious writers, those long, leisurely books which rove and meander, saunter, and lounge through their lives  in an eternity of their own, than Mark Rutherford.”


Jackson is describing a form of literary pleasure taken for granted by earlier generations. Our forebears made a best-seller of Tristram Shandy and a celebrity of its author. Everyone read Dickens (or saw his movies), even into my lifetime. The attention span of the Twitter generation isn’t equipped for such indulgence, though old-fashioned readers will recall the luxury of three-deckers, deep, long narratives, autonomous universes that could be inhabited for days or weeks.


Quoting Letters to Three Friends, published posthumously in 1924, Jackson tells us Rutherford “loved the slow pages of the Spectators of Addison and Steele,” and “the slow walking pace of Clarissa.” He goes on:


“He read through the Bible once in every two or three years, an hour daily before breakfast [italics indicate quotes from Rutherford’s text], and found it profitable beyond almost any other book [that almost seems significant].”


Rutherford read more than once such substantial volumes as Carlyle’s Frederick the Great (“the great modern epic”), John Wesley’s Journal, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Doughty’s Arabia Deserta and The Dawn in Britain. Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Tour in the Hebrides, Jackson tells us, “made him wonder  why he should ever read a new book; such works have the peculiar power of being inexhaustible.” Obviously, Rutherford dates from the heroic age of reading. One feels inadequate. Jackson finishes his paean to Rutherford with this:


“[T]o conclude this matter Mark Rutherford, letting us into his secret of slow reading and long-drawn familiarity, confesses that he goes over the old books, Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, and those others, again and again, because he is gotten into their ways, become tuned to them, responding to them as to the known, tried, approved; the new is foreign; it has no roots and may be forgotten to-morrow: in the reading of it, therefore, there is no profit.”

Thursday, February 18, 2021

'Five Hundred Pages of Mental Masochism'

We lost power around 2 a.m. Wednesday and it returned, defying all expectations, fifteen hours later. We still have no water service and I’m sorely in need of a shower. We spent the day in bed with multiple blankets and comforters, a dog and two cats. Have you ever tried reading a book while wearing winter gloves? On my bedside table were two collections of Kipling stories – Debits and Credits (1926), Limits and Renewals (1932) --  and a collection of humor pieces, Of All Things (1921), by Robert Benchley. Both are writers I loved as a kid, though my taste for Benchley has faded. Still, I found a few laughs. In “The Scientific Scenario,” he complains that movies have become too lowbrow. He suggests they be based on “sterner stuff”:

“I would suggest as a book, from which a pretty little scenario might be made, The Education of Henry Adams. This volume has had a remarkable success during the past year among the highly educated classes. Public library records show that more people have lied about having read it than any other book in a decade. It contains five hundred pages of mental masochism, in which the author tortures himself for not getting anywhere in his brain processes.”

Not a bad critique of the miserable old anti-Semite.