Sunday, April 11, 2021

' A Very Fine Cat Indeed'

My middle son, a third-year midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, is reading Pale Fire for the first time, and doing it the right way; that is, on his own, not as a classroom assignment. Michael is twenty years old, about a year older that I was when I first read Nabokov’s novel, long before the writer was just another name on a freshman reading list. He was still an exotic, a not-quite American, though an American patriot, who came with his family to the U.S. in 1940 and became an American citizen five years later. I have read Pale Fire more often than any other Nabokov title. The saddest death in all of literature (rivalled only by Rudy Bloom’s in Ulysses) is Hazel Shade’s. Readers who accuse Nabokov of heartlessness are tone-deaf. Michael is a cat-lover and dog-hater, so I will remind him of the epigraph Nabokov affixes to Pale Fire, taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 

“This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, `But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’”


I won’t suggest to Michael the implications of the epigraph for the novel. Here is the paragraph preceding the one used by Nabokov, dated by Boswell to 1783, the year before Johnson’s death:


“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, `Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, `but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’”


Like me, Michael is more Johnsonian than Boswellian when it comes to cats and other matters. Go here to see the statue of Hodge, installed in 1997 outside the house in Gough Square he shared with Johnson. Note the empty oyster shells in front of Hodge, who is seated on a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary. The inscription reads “a very fine cat indeed.”

Saturday, April 10, 2021

'Knowledge Rusts if the Mind Can’t Love'

Proof of the Heraclitean axiom that you cannot read the same book twice: 

I have been reading The Geography of the Imagination since it was published by North Point Press forty years ago. Even from essays devoted to writers I detest – Pound, Olson, Zukofsky – I’ve learned something; in particular, the value of curiosity and attentiveness to the world. In everything he wrote, Guy Davenport was a teacher because he never stopped being a student – a philosopher, in the etymological sense.


A friend in New York City has been reading the book and on Thursday sent me a passage from “Jonathan Williams,” about the late poet, publisher, photographer, impresario and longtime Davenport friend. This is an essay I have read many times but these sentences from the final paragraph might have been inserted into my copy last week:  


“Anything worth knowing passes from one person to another. The book is still a viable way of communicating, provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read. It isn't easy. All the electronic media are a flood of noise.”


Originally, the essay appeared as the introduction to Williams’ 1969 collection of poems, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree. In context, Davenport is referring to Williams’ practice of traveling around the country giving readings, showing slides, introducing readers to poets, and poets to other poets. Nicely, Davenport calls this endless wandering Williams’ “goliardry,” and adds: “The color slide, descendent of the magic lantern, is still the most charming disseminator of culture, and Jonathan Williams is its master.”


In 2021, the passage my friend sent me reads like prophecy. We might carelessly read the first sentence as a trivial truism. But then ask, “Why do we share knowledge?” At least in part because we know it is “worth knowing,” it carries an aura of significance. Add to that the pleasure we experience when sharing knowledge, and the pleasure we hope the recipient experiences.


Already, more than half a century ago, Davenport feels the need to add “still”: “The book is still a viable way of communicating.” Perhaps the best, we might add, even after half a century of denigration and assault. The balance of the sentence – “provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read” – reads like a koan, as in that old pop-mystical warhorse: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” But there’s something to it. The Geography of the Imagination was published eight years after I dropped out of college. I had been reading Davenport’s essays, stories and reviews in various magazines and literary journals for several years. By 1981 I needed to read his collection between covers, and promptly recognized the affinity. Davenport reaffirmed many of the values I had fumblingly started forming in childhood. He articulates some of them in another Geography essay, “That Faire Field of Enna,” on the fiction of Eudora Welty:


“Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.”


When Davenport concludes the passage my friend sent me – “All the electronic media are a flood of noise” – the internet and Netflix were decades away. He most likely meant television (he didn’t own one, just as he didn’t own a car), perhaps movies and radio.  Data has usurped the place once held by knowledge. The one time I met him, at his home in Lexington, Ky., in June 1990, the conversation started before I walked in the front door (“Did you know Kafka’s eyes were blue? I just read that.”) and ended only when I left hours later.


In his book-length poem Flowers and Leaves (1966), Davenport writes, in a characteristic parenthesis: “(Knowledge rusts / If the mind can’t love.)”

Friday, April 09, 2021

'He Belonged to No School, Had No Master'

Some artists seem almost indecently gifted. The painter Fairfield Porter wrote first-rate art criticism, posthumously collected in Art in Its Own Terms (1979). Donald Justice, one of our finest recent poets, was an accomplished watercolorist and composer. For fifty-six years a painter much admired by Justice, Charles Burchfield, kept one of the great American journals. In 1993, the State University of New York Press published a 737-page selection from it edited by J. Benjamin Townsend, Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place. With it, Guy Davenport wrote, Burchfield “takes his place among American writers.” 

Written in pencil, ink and crayon, Burchfield’s journals amount to some 10,000 manuscript pages and more than two million words, now housed at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Excerpts are also published online by the art center at Charles E. Burchfield in His Own Words. An Ohio native, Burchfield lived for most of his life in West Seneca, a suburb of Buffalo. His journals chronicle the life of an obsessive, hardworking artist who lived an otherwise conventional American life. He was a husband and father of five who loved going to the movies, reading and listening to classical music and big-band jazz. He loved Sibelius and Ellington. By profession he worked as a designer of wallpaper, in Cleveland and Buffalo. His life was decidedly not bohemian. He was too busy painting to play dress-up and outrage the neighbors.


Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916, much influenced by one of his teachers, Henry Keller. But he followed a singular path, seemingly immune to the dominant trends of twentieth-century art. The vibrant and visionary coexist in his paintings with the ominous and spooky. As Hilton Kramer wrote in 2005, reviewing a Burchfield exhibition:


“It’s been suggested that he was influenced by the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, and while that influence may account for the feeling of isolation and abandonment in Burchfield’s work, it doesn’t really shed much light on his penchant for depicting both nature and the manmade world in such stark and threatening terms. It’s certain, anyway, that he had a deeply introspective turn of mind.”


Burchfield’s best-known watercolors are rhapsodic renderings of nature, though I’m partial to his urban and industrial scenes. In Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), Guy Davenport writes:


“Quite early in the century Burchfield began to paint landscapes in an original Expressionist manner, apparently without influence. He belonged to no school, had no master, did not derive from any other painter. We can point to Van Gogh’s whorls of light around stars and to his writhing trees. We can remember Samuel Palmer and William Blake. But none of these influences can be traced. In many paintings Burchfield uses cartoon-strip squiggles (agitrons, cartoonists call them) to indicate movement or vibrancy. From the cartoonist's vocabulary he took also squeans and blurgits to indicate shafts of light and the sounds of crickets.”


Burchfield was born on this date, April 9, in 1893 and died on January 10, 1967. Here he is, writing in his journal on his sixtieth birthday:


“ . . . a huge column of black smoke to the S.W. caught my eye, and I rushed in to ask Bertha [his wife] if she wanted to go & see what it was. She was all for it & we were soon on our way.


“It proved to be an oil-dump along the railroad . . . south of the Indian Church Rd. Bridge. We parked off the road near the top and had a fine spot to view it from. An awe-inspiring fascinating sight; the sullen red of burning oil forcing its way up into the black smoke mass. It was interesting to see a telegraph pile just outlined in bluish white smoke, then suddenly burst into flame. All the towns six companies were out, and they fought it with chemicals – when it was evident that they were bringing at under control, we left.”

Thursday, April 08, 2021

'The Very Model of a Grand Old Man'

“He was the very model of a grand old man: punctilious, unbellicose, evenhanded, coasting with evident enjoyment down the waning rim of his life and into—well, posterity?” 

Who is the subject of this enviably generous summing-up? When I read it again this week nearly fifty years after it was written, I was struck by how the virtues singled out by the author may no longer be judged virtues by many readers and writers. Punctilious? How bourgeois. How anal-retentive. How boring. Unbellicose? With patriarchies to smash? Running dogs to euthanize? Life is war. Evenhanded? Fairness is unfair. Enjoying life into old age? A privilege of the privileged.


In his foreword to a new edition of F.L. Lucas’ Style, originally published in 1955, Joseph Epstein writes:


“For Lucas, style `is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech.’ He adds: `If you wish your writing to seem good, your character must seem at least partly so. And since in the long run deception is likely to be found out, your character had better not only seem good, but be it.’ He notes that before Napoleon appointed anyone to an important post he first asked whether he had written anything, and if so he wanted to read it so that he could see its style.”


[Guesses as to the identity of the writer described at the top and the author of the description are welcome.]

[ADDENDUMIn the passage at the top, L.E. Sissman is writing about W.H. Auden in “Auden” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975).]

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

'A Kind of Collection of Flies in Amber'

Some people collect stamps, first editions or grievances. I collect words, phrases and sentences, and have since I was a kid. While in high school I read that Hart Crane, a fellow Ohioan, kept lists of words that attracted him as a magpie is attracted to shiny things. Some words, absent meaning, mesmerized him by their sound: words as music. He resolved to find a home for them in future poems – and did, sometimes to the detriment of the poems. I remember findrinny, a word he eventually rejected, though Yeats and Joyce had used it. A fine word if pinned in a specimen case, but not for use in more prosaic settings, especially if you are not Irish. 

Virtually every time I read a book, especially one from the pre-Hemingway era, I find at least one or two words new to me, or familiar words used in a novel sense, or words so striking in sound or sense that they ought to be preserved. So I write them down. Some are recycled into whatever I happen to be writing. English is so rich in vocabulary, to the point of glorious redundancy, that a writer would be ungrateful not to mine it. In her foreword to A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), Moore writes:


“Verse: ‘Why the many quotation marks?’ I am asked. Pardon my saying more than once, When a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better, why paraphrase it? Hence my writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils, a kind of collection of flies in amber.”


Some readers will decide Moore’s collecting instinct – and mine – is yet another form of showing off: “Look what I’ve read and you haven’t!” Rather, it’s proper etiquette and sometimes even a humble, generous gesture: “Look what I’ve read! Isn’t it wonderful? So wonderful, I wanted to share it with you.”  

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

'Having Been Taught How to Find Things'

“Nobody anymore under the age of fifty has any education whatsoever.” 

A rhetorical exaggeration, but still sobering. It’s tempting to assume ignorance metastasizes untreatably across generations, that the young are willfully blind to their inheritance. Many are, and have been taught by parents and teachers to scorn learning. But the opposite of ignorance is not a college degree but unconditional curiosity.  My essential education occurred not in classrooms but in libraries and wherever I happened to be reading a good book or listening to someone more knowledgeable than I.


The writer quoted above is Guy Davenport in a letter to James Laughlin on this date, April 6, in 1994. Davenport speaks from experience. Less than four years earlier he had retired from the University of Kentucky after teaching there for almost thirty years. He goes on in the letter:

“I get so tired of all this idealism in the universities about multiculturalism. As if they thought it up all of a sudden. Back in 1970 I gave a course in Herakleitos and the Dogon, for sophomores and juniors. Nobody on the faculty noticed, of course, and imagine we’ve never had multicultural studies until now. . . . (I don’t think I taught anybody anything.)”


I know one exception to that final lament. Thanks to several years of correspondence with Davenport, my sole meeting with him at his home in Lexington, Ky., and most importantly my reading of his books, I can consider myself a reasonably well-educated man. Ultimately, all educated people are autodidacts. In the richest of his essays, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, North Point Press, 1981), Davenport writes:


“ . . . I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures).”


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

Monday, April 05, 2021

Ezra Pound Between Two Jews


'You Become His Advocate'

I worked all day on Easter writing the obituary of an 86-year-old professor of electrical engineering who taught at Rice University for fifty-six years. Writing an obituary is a duty and a privilege. Your words may be the only way some people ever learn of the deceased and his contributions. In the old days, readers would clip and save obituaries, sometimes in the family Bible. Now they’ll save the link or perhaps print out your story – an obituary is a story – and file it away. I once saw an obituary I had written posted on a refrigerator with a magnet. The first thing I ever wrote as a newspaper reporter was an obituary. The subject of the one I wrote on Sunday I had known for fifteen years. He was a friend, though not an intimate one. 

One of A.J. Liebling’s best-known essays, published in The New Yorker on March 28, 1953, begins like this: “Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments.” Liebling goes on to describe how news of Stalin’s illness and death leaked only incrementally out of the Soviet Union, and how newspaper editors and obituary writers sweated the death watch.


In an earlier piece dated “Obits: 1945,” Liebling contrasts the ways newspapers treated the deaths of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. (DoD: 12-21-45) and Theodore Dreiser (DoD: 12-28-45). He covered the war in North Africa and was no admirer of Patton, whom he concludes was valorized by the newspapers. Liebling's idea of a general was Omar Bradley. He concludes that Dreiser was treated shabbily – and, more importantly, inaccurately -- by the obituary writers.


Liebling pauses for a moment and draws a happier conclusion: “When you write a man’s obituary, you become his advocate.”