Tuesday, October 03, 2023

'He Actually Read the Dictionary'

In one of the news weeklies long ago I read that Dr. Oliver Sacks enjoyed reading the Oxford English Dictionary. Was this mere bravado, another instance of Sacks polishing his image as a lovable, learned eccentric? Or, like his friend W.H. Auden, was he gleaning the dictionary for exotics to include in his writing? We’ll never know but later, in The Mind’s Eye (2010), I found this passage, describing a prize Sacks won at Oxford and what he did with the money: 

“This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop, next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – for me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.”


I know from first-hand experience that reading a good dictionary can be time-wastingly addictive, especially in its digital form -- and great fun. Talk about plot. Take a single English word, a common one, and track the flow of its etymology backwards, not neglecting all the tributaries. Learn history by tracing the evolution of its meanings, illustrated by a long selection of citations. Have fun while edifying yourself. As Wittgenstein puts it in his Tractatus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”


Another dictionary reader was the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. The composer and conductor Mabel Daniels begins “A Musical Memoir,” published in 1963 in the Colby Quarterly, like this:


“Edwin Arlington Robinson sat with Webster's Unabridged open across his knees. His long, slender frame in the inevitable gray suit was bent almost double as he peered down nearsightedly through his spectacles. He was supposedly searching for the derivation of passacaglia, but from the length of time it took him to do so, I surmised he had forgotten that detail and was browsing happily through the contiguous pages. Suddenly he looked up and said, ‘If I could have only one book, do you know what I’d choose?’ I hesitated; then, ‘The Bible,’ I replied, ‘or Shakespeare?’ -- knowing that he often began his working day by reading one of the plays. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the dictionary! You’ve no idea how interesting it is to read just as one reads a book. It would last for years.’”


I don’t think the poet is just showing off. The vocabulary in his poetry, on most occasions, is notably sturdy and plain. He’s no Hart Crane, armed with a fancy vocabulary. Robinson’s biographer Scott Donaldson tells us he “loved the English language – he often read in the dictionary as a warm-up for writing,” and describes his morning ritual:


“Situated faithfully at his studio by nine o'clock each morning, he did not usually set pen to paper until eleven or later. During that time he often read from one of the three books that always lay on his work table: a Bible, the collected Shakespeare, and the dictionary. The Bible provided him with much of the material he fashioned into poems. He used Antony and Cleopatra to prepare for each day’s work on Tristram. He actually read the dictionary rather than consulting it as a reference tool . . .”


The sole exotic word in Robinson’s verse that comes to mind is alange in “The Clerks” from his first collection, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896).


[See Donaldson’s Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007).]

Monday, October 02, 2023

'Never Has a Man Deserved a Reputation Less'

My middle son, a Marine Corps officer at Quantico, asked last week if I would be interested in “working through Wittgenstein” with him. Of course, so we met online on Sunday for ninety minutes and read propositions 1 and 2 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I first read the book as a university freshman. I was taking an introductory course in philosophy – St. Anselm, Descartes, Kant – and in a private conference my professor suggested I should read Ludwig Wittgenstein, a name unknown to me. I was smitten.

My plan at the time was to major in philosophy but English finally seduced me. To this day I tend to read philosophy as a species of literature. I’m not an analytical thinker. The Tractatus is a philosophical text free of argument. Guy Davenport points out the obvious but still surprising fact: “Wittgenstein did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems.” He writes like an aphorist, mystic or Heraclitus. I read his propositions as poetry. Michael is more deeply schooled in mathematics and logic than I, and that helps offset some of my literary bias. Despite the subtlety of Wittgenstein's thought, he is a rare philosopher who can be profitably read by non-specialists. Can you think of another book in which the first and final sentences have been memorized by generations of students, even people who have never read the book? In the third-to-last paragraph of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes:


“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”


Michael and I are still climbing the ladder. In Davenport’s essay “Wittgenstein” (The Geography of the Imagination,1981), he writes, "What the philosopher says about the world is not too different from the proverb, the old saw, the infinitely repeatable line of poetry," and adds:


“He came to believe that a normal, honest human being could not be a professor. It is the academy that gave him his reputation of impenetrable abstruseness; never has a man deserved a reputation less. Disciples who came to him expecting to find a man of incredibly deep learning, found a man who saw mankind held together by suffering alone, and he invariably advised them to be as kind as possible to others. He read, like all inquisitive men, to multiply his experience. He read Tolstoy (always getting bogged down) and the Gospels and bales of detective stories. He shook his head over Freud. When he died he was reading Black Beauty. His last words were: ‘Tell them I had a wonderful life.’”

Sunday, October 01, 2023

'And Hears of Life's Intent'

“. . . I’ve had it. No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be square. Etc.” 

Louise Bogan is writing to her friend Ruth Limmer on October 1, 1969, announcing her retirement as poetry reviewer from The New Yorker after thirty-eight years. This was the late autumn of Bogan’s career as a poet and critic – later than she realized. She would die on February 4, 1970 at age seventy-two.


Bogan’s poems are personal, often devoted to love and romance, and her fragile mental health, though seldom baldly confessional. The reader never feels embarrassed by Bogan’s admissions, unlike the poems of Anne Sexton. Take the first stanza of “A Letter” from her first collection, Body of This Death (1923):


“I came here, being stricken, stumbling out

At last from streets; the sun, decreasing, took me

For days, the time being the last of autumn,

The thickets not yet stark, but quivering

With tiny colors, like some brush strokes in

The manner of the pointillists; small yellows

Dart shaped, little reds in different pattern,

Clicks and notches of color on threaded bushes,

A cracked and fluent heaven, and a brown earth.

I had these, and my food and sleep—enough.”


She judged the poem too personal, too revealing, and never included it in later volumes. At the time Elizabeth Frank tells us in her biography of Bogan, the poet was undergoing Freudian-style psychoanalysis. The fifth stanza begins, “I must get well” – an atypical Bogan admission in verse. One of her finest poems, a sonnet, is “Simple Autumnal,” first published in The New Republic in 1926:


“The measured blood beats out the year’s delay.

The tearless eyes and heart, forbidden grief,

Watch the burned, restless, but abiding leaf,

The brighter branches arming the bright day.


“The cone, the curving fruit should fall away,

The vine stem crumble, ripe grain know its sheaf.

Bonded to time, fires should have done, be brief,

But, serfs to sleep, they glitter and they stay.


“Because not last nor first, grief in its prime

Wakes in the day, and hears of life’s intent.

Sorrow would break the seal stamped over time

And set the baskets where the bough is bent.


“Full season’s come, yet filled trees keep the sky

And never scent the ground where they must lie.”


There’s plenty of competition for title of finest poem on autumn, starting with Keats. This one is in the running. It seems like a natural subject for Bogan: “grief in its prime / Wakes in the day, and hears of life’s intent.” This is from her 1934 journal:


“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remarks (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry or the cahier.”


[See A Poet's Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005).]

Saturday, September 30, 2023

'What Is Called an Amateur'

I recently encountered a choice example of academic snobbery, the lording of a tenured professor over lecturers, adjuncts and even “mere assistant professors.” Normally the perpetrator tries to disguise his snottiness or treat it as a joke but in this case the prima donna was unashamedly serious. She dismissed some of these inferior species as “amateurs.” 

I like amateurs, in the etymological sense. Amateurs work out of love, the purest of motives. I’m an amateur, and proud of it. In 1846, when Robert Browning and his new wife moved to Italy, Robert took up the hands-on study of sculpture. He made busts of clay and destroyed them almost as soon as they were finished in order to start molding another. Browning went on to write good poems about painters and painting – “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto” and “Pictor Ignotus.”


“This is Browning’s interest in art,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his 1903 monograph on the poet, “the interest in a living thing, the interest in a growing thing, the insatiable interest in how things are done.” Chesterton then goes on to define Browning’s efforts:


“He was, in other words, what is called an amateur. The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for a moment expected to succeed.”


Chesterton praises Browning’s “fruitless vivacity.” Life becomes more rewarding when we engage in “unprofessional” activities, pursued strictly for the enjoyment and fulfillment they give us.

Friday, September 29, 2023

'Art Must Be Giving Pleasure'

On May 14, 1947, after giving seven months of lectures on the sonnets and all but two of Shakespeare’s plays at the New School of Social Research in New York City, W.H. Auden delivered a concluding lecture. In it he roots Shakespeare’s vision in the notion of original sin and what he calls “man’s inveterate tendency to foster illusions, one of the worst of which is the illusion of being free of illusion.” Think of Timon, Iago and Lear. 

Auden notes Shakespeare’s evolving use of prose which “reacts back upon the verse.” He points out things I had never noticed: “In Hamlet, Hamlet speaks prose to others, verse to himself. . . . In King Lear, prose is used for madness.” Auden praises Shakespeare’s growing mastery of metaphor (another good reason for reading the plays serially), and cites the “extraordinary, kaleidoscopic sliding from one metaphor to another” in this passage from Act I, Scene 7 of Macbeth:


“[I]f the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice

To our own lips.”


Auden describes such “metaphorical license” as “a very dangerous practice for most writers,” but not for Shakespeare. This is how he closes his concluding lecture:


“To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. When art takes itself too seriously, it tries to do more than it can. For secular art to exist, it’s highly advantageous to artists, whatever their belief, to support religion. When supernatural religion disappears, art becomes either magic that is run by authorities through force of fraud, or falsehood that becomes persecuted by science.


“But in order to continue to exist in any form, art must be giving pleasure.”


A week earlier, in his lecture on The Tempest, perhaps Shakespeare’s final play, Auden says:


“I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It is not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young; they’d finished  their work.”


Auden died half a century ago, on September 29, 1973, age sixty-six, and surely had not finished his work.


[See Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare (ed. Arthur Kirsch, Princeton University Press, 2000).]

Thursday, September 28, 2023

'It Is the Past That Cast the Stars'

I and the first issue of Mad magazine arrived in October 1952. A decade or so later I was a devoted reader. That same month, Poetry, a journal I would start reading a few years after Mad, published its fortieth anniversary issue. Included is the work of more than fifty poets, virtually every major American poet alive and writing at the time, and a few from England. When I was a teenager, this lineup constituted much of my library of contemporary poets – W.H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, James Merrill, Marianne Moore, Karl Shapiro, Richard Wilbur. Here is J.V. Cunningham’s “Horoscope”: 

“Out of my birth

The magi chart my worth;

They mark the influence

 Of hour and day; they weigh what thence


“Must come to me.

I in their cold sky see

            No Venus and no Mars:

 It is the past that cast the stars


“That guide me now.

 In winter, when the bough

 Has lost its leaves, the storm

That piled them deep will keep them warm.”


It’s still fashionable to malign the nineteen-fifties as a cultural desert, a sterile decade in American literature. In 1952, Ralph Ellison, Whitaker Chambers and Flannery O’Connor published Invisible Man, Witness and Wise Blood, respectively, and Nabokov would soon complete Lolita.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

'A Joker; One Who Breaks a Jest'

When I encountered the word witcracker in Much Ado About Nothing, I marked it for further use and found myself silently singing it to the tune of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof: “Witcracker, witcracker, / Make me a wit . . .” In Shakespeare’s Act V, Scene 4, Benedick, much in love with Beatrice, says to Don Pedro: 

“I’ll tell thee what, prince; a college of

wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost

thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No:

if a man will be beaten with brains, a’ shall wear

nothing handsome about him.”


The OED defines witcracker as “one who makes witty or sarcastic remarks” and Dr. Johnson gives us “a joker; one who breaks a jest.” Shakespeare’s usage is the only one cited by both. It never caught on, which is a shame, though the OED also recognizes “wit-crack,”  defined as “the ‘cracking’ of a joke . . . a brisk witticism.” But why crack? It’s one of those words with dozens of meanings, the closest being “loud talk, boast, brag; hence, sometimes, exaggeration, lie.” Thus, we “crack” jokes and make “wisecracks,” a twentieth-century word.


Getting back to Shakespeare, I wondered about epigram, a favorite form. Dr. Johnson offers a memorable definition: “A short poem terminating in a point” – like a knife. The modern master is J.V. Cunningham, a deft witcracker:


“Hang up your weaponed wit

Who were destroyed by it.

If silence fails, then grace

Your speech with commonplace,

And studiously amaze

Your audience with his phrase.

He will commend your wit

When you abandon it.”