Tuesday, July 23, 2024

'O Deliquescence of Our Quartz-like Loves!'

A chemical engineer describing his recent research to me used a lovely word: deliquescent. It entered English in the eighteenth century and its original context was strictly scientific: deliquescence occurs when a substance absorbs moisture from the air and becomes a liquid solution. Salts, for instance, are readily deliquescent. Figuratively, it came to mean, the OED tells us, “dissolving, disappearing, or melting away . . . Frequently humorous.” The Dictionary tells us Sydney Smith used it in a letter: “Striding over the stiles to Church, with a second-rate wife—dusty and deliquescent—and four parochial children.”

We can all think of poets who would find a place for deliquescent and its related forms – Wallace Stevens, Turner Cassity, Richard Wilbur, among others. A brief search uncovered it in Eric Ormsby’s  “Six Sonnets on Sex and Death” (Daybreak at the Straits, 2004). Here are the final lines of the fifth sonnet:


“Mortality was frisky in the lines

of telephones where drowsy mourning doves

felt final conversations in their claws

transmitted in designer valentines.


“O deliquescence of our quartz-like loves!

His heartbeat hovered in two grimy paws.”


I also happened on the word in Louise Bogan’s review of Finnegans Wake in the May 6, 1939 issue of The New Yorker. Comparing the novel to Ulysses, she writes:


Finnegans Wake takes up this technical skill as it existed at the end of Ulysses and further elaborates it. Then Joyce’s mastery of structure and his musician’s feeling for form and rhythmic subtlety are here in a more advanced—as well as a more deliquescent—state of development.”


[Bogan’s review is collected in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan, ed. Mary Kinzie, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005.]

Monday, July 22, 2024

'Every Departure Destroys a Class of Sympathies'

As a boy I was spared most deaths. I've read of people who lose parents, siblings and close friends when young, and wonder how they adapt to unprecedented loss. They have nothing to compare it to. The death that hit me hardest was President Kennedy’s, a month after my eleventh birthday. He wasn’t much of a president but a touch of horror lingers, as does the sense that everything changed after Dallas. 

With age the losses accumulate and they are no longer abstract, as though I were reading history. Last month, in our neighborhood newspaper, I saw that a doctor who had treated me five years ago was dead. He had a military bearing and was strictly no-bullshit. I liked him. He was my age and died horribly of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. What is it like for a doctor to die slowly and painfully, while knowing exactly what was happening to him? Here is Charles Lamb on March 20, 1822 writing to William Wordsworth:


“Deaths overset one and put one out long after the recent grief. Two or three have died, within this last two twelvemonths, and so many parts of me have been numbed. One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other; the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won't do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies.”


A world dies with every person. September 26 will be the tenth anniversary of D.G. Myers’ death. It was no surprise but still a hard shock. We knew each other for only six years but talked like lifelong friends. Terry Teachout died on January 13, 2022. I knew him for almost twenty years, though I met him and David only once. Everyday I think of something that I wish I could tell them. Lamb continues:


“One never hears anything, but the image of the particular person occurs with whom alone almost you would care to share the intelligence,--thus one distributes oneself about; and now for so many parts of me I have lost the market. Common natures do not suffice me. Good people, as they are called, won't serve; I want individuals. . . . The going-away of friends does not make the remainder more precious. It takes so much from them, as there was a common link. A, B, and C make a party. A dies. B not only loses A, but all A's part in C. C loses A's part in B, and so the alphabet sickens by subtraction of interchangeables.”

Sunday, July 21, 2024

'He Signs His Name in Sparks'

By trade my father was an ironworker for the City of Cleveland’s Municipal Light, always called “Muny Light." At home he was a welder, specializing in wrought-iron railings. His aesthetic sense could be summarized in a single word: big. Or heavy. Everything he built was oversized. Steel and iron were always preferable to aluminum or wood. When I was collecting butterflies he built a display case for me out of galvanized sheet metal, large enough to hold perhaps forty pinned specimens. It must have weighed fifty pounds. 

In the garage he had the equipment for both oxyacetylene and arc welding. The latter drew enough electricity to melt iron and dim all the lights in the house. That’s how we knew what kind of work he was doing. His body was covered with small wounds from the sparks. They would bleed, leaving red dots on the bed sheets. His work clothes were perforated with tiny holes. I never learned to weld. Not being handy, always feeling awkward with tools, was my passive protest.


Len Krisak is better known as a translator, especially of Latin verse and Rilke, but he’s a fine  poet in his own right. I happened on “Welder,” originally published in the March 2000 issue of The English Journal:


“This spear of light ignites a blade whose flame

 Is so intense the night relents around

 It: this is what he cuts the junker’s frame

 With, slicing through the steel that marks the ground

 With one gigantic X. He signs his name

 In sparks right on the spot, a dotted line

 So hot that specks of fire spit upon

 The darkness, arcing out. Their spite designs

 The black surround, and then . . . his torch is gone.

 As for the dying-down acetylene,

 The oxygen whose bottled force goes dead,

 This welder wrenches shut the one that’s green

 And throttles down the other that was red.

 His visor up, he walks away, unseen.”

Saturday, July 20, 2024

'It's on the Russian Level'

“I’m not a great reader of fiction. I read through all of Jane Austen with pleasure. I read through George Eliot at school, but I was too young to appreciate her then. But about a year ago I read Middlemarch. Most marvellous book. Best thing in nineteenth-century English fiction, I think. It’s on the Russian level. I’m a great admirer of the Russian writers.” 

The speaker is the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in a 1969 interview, “Portrait of a Man Reading,” originally published in the Washington PostBook World.’” His literary tastes are varied and interesting – Thomas Browne, Edward Gibbon, Charles Doughty – and he says in the same interview, “Books to read should have a tincture of literature and philosophy,” as opposed to “potboiler history . . . by multiple hands.”


What impressed me was Trevor-Roper saying Eliot worked “on the Russian level.” Some of us fell for Russian literature and “the Russian soul” early and never entirely recovered. Not that the “Russian level” is a monolith. Trevor-Roper says, “I would put Turgenev at the top of all novelists,” which seems rather unlikely given the existence of Tolstoy. It’s the pairing of Eliot (whose Daniel Deronda I would couple with Trevor-Roper’s choice of Middlemarch) with the Russians that reminded me of Gary Saul Morson’s similar understanding of what he calls “the prosaic novels.” By that he means novels that regard “a good life is one lived well moment to moment,” with plots that “typically concern the hero’s or the heroine’s growing ability to appreciate the world immediately around them.” He writes:


“Beginning with Jane Austen, prosaic authors include Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and some lesser twentieth-century writers, such as Barbara Pym.”


A seemingly odd grouping but Morson has identified a strain of “realism” – that troublesome term – that was never dominant but also never merely latent. The approach is not crudely naturalistic. I think Joyce could be included, for Dubliners and Ulysses, along with much of Proust. Such writers create worlds recognized by readers, who often return to such books many times across a lifetime. Morson adds:


“Some prosaic authors leave their prosaic philosophy implicit, but the three greatest—Eliot, Tolstoy, and Chekhov—propound it explicitly and profoundly. The epilogue to Middlemarch, for instance, observes that the heroine, Dorothea, did not accomplish any famous deeds. That is no cause for regret, however, because the best people, on whom we all depend. Are those we usually overlook.”


 Morson then quotes the well-known closing lines of Middlemarch:


“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. . . . But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


[Trevor-Roper’s interview is collected in Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Historian (I.B. Tauris, 2016). Morson’s observations can be found in Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (Belknap Press, 2023).]

Friday, July 19, 2024

'Thus Massive Was the Vessel, Built in Vain'

Gee-whiz technology soon grows obsolete and quaint. On this date in 1934, the USS Macon, a U.S. Navy airship – blimp, dirigible, Zeppelin – successfully tracked the heavy cruiser USS Houston as it carried President Franklin Roosevelt on a secret voyage from Annapolis, Md., to Portland, Ore., by way of Hawaii. The Macon, designed as a scout aircraft, carried five biplanes, one of which delivered mail and newspapers to the president. Seven months later, the Macon encountered a storm off Big Sur and crashed. Two men died, sixty-four were rescued. In response, Yvor Winters wrote “An Elegy” -- “For the U.S.N. Dirigible, Macon.” Here are two of the poem’s seven stanzas: 

“Who will believe this thing in time to come?

I was a witness. I beheld the age

That seized upon a planet’s heritage

Of steel and oil, the mind’s viaticum:


“Crowded the world with strong ingenious things,

Used the provision it could not replace,

To leave but Cretan myths, a sandy trace

Through the last stone age, for the pastoral kings.”


Without preaching, Winters suggests the airship was an act of hubris, what we might think of as a squandering of natural resources, “a planet’s heritage / Of steel and oil.” What a concept: Yvor Winters, environmentalist.


A year earlier, on April 4. 1933, the Macon’s sister airship, the USS Akron, crashed  off the coast of New Jersey. Seventy-three of its seventy-six crewmen were killed. Winters’ wife, Janet Lewis, also wrote a poem, The Hangar at Sunnyvale: 1937,” about airships and their risks:


“Level the marshes, far and low the hills.

The useless structure, firm on the ample sills,

Rises incredible to state again:

Thus massive was the vessel, built in vain. “


I foresee a doctoral thesis: “Airships and the Stanford School.” Winters’ former student, Turner Cassity, revived the theme. The entire July 1970 issue of Poetry was devoted to “The Airship Boys in Africa,” a narrative poem in twelve sections about a 1917 German airship expedition to South West Africa. Included in his first collection, Watchboy, What of the Night? (1966), is Cassity’s “The Afterlives of Count Zeppelin,” which begins:


“Inflated, yet elliptical, of epic size,

What great Teutonic riddle hangs there in the skies?”

Thursday, July 18, 2024

'A Kind of Masochism Afoot in Modern Aesthetics'

“Is there a kind of masochism afoot in modern aesthetics whereby the leaden and the dull acquire significance simply because the beaten spirit would seem to claim more seriousness than a more robust struggle with the exigencies of things?” 

This elegantly crafted question, at once aesthetic and moral, is posed by Guy Davenport. I often trip over previously unread, uncollected work by him, some of it more than half a century old. In the Spring 1970 issue of The Hudson Review, Davenport published C’est Magnifique Mais Ce N’est Pas Daguerre,” a review of eight works of fiction ranging stylistically from Joyce Carol Oates to Robert Coover. The title is a witty play on French Gen. Pierre Bosquet’s comment on the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war”).


The passage at the top comes from the section of the review devoted to the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, which Davenport calls “as dreary, dragging, and dull a novel as the human mind is capable of writing.” I can second that judgment. If one is to read Gombrowicz, stick to the Diaries. Davenport is adept at summary dismissals. He describes The Bamboo Bed by William Eastlake as “tushery end to end.”


In the context of Richard Brautigan (whose work in my recollection was read by the same people who took Kahlil Gibran seriously), Davenport writes: “Most of what’s printed in our time is either spiel or bilge.” Yet he’s rather gentle with Brautigan and his once-popular brand of Hippie Lit., and devotes more space to him than to the other writers under review.


Davenport is sympathetic to Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants, a story collection much trumpeted by the young English faculty members I knew as an undergraduate. Davenport outlines the postmodern fiction of that time:


“The movement in which Mr. Coover can be located would seem to include John Barth (Lost in the Funhouse), Louis Zukofsky (Ferdinand), Donald Barthelme (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts), Kenneth Gangemi (Olt), and Richard Brautigan. What these share is a sense that fiction is not so much reality’s mirror as its fluoroscope, and that mimesis can tolerate an almost infinite amount of hyperbole.”


How well I remember that tiresome dead-end school of fictional bric-a-brac. Briefly, I read them all enthusiastically, until I started growing up and developed a more honest critical sense. A nice irony: I interviewed Robert Coover in 1992 when he was in town to give a reading and hand out awards. He’s a gentleman and I enjoyed our conversation, but when I mentioned that I had visited Guy Davenport and corresponded with him, Coover said, “You mean the essay guy?” He didn’t think much of Davenport’s work.


I’ve  saved the best for last. Davenport reviews Oates’ fourth novel, Them (I won't leave the “t” pretentiously lower-case), an early entry in her campaign of inflicting sub-Dreiserian pulp on the reading public. Oates focuses “doggedly on the miserable greyness of life” (not to mention the miserable grayness of her prose). Davenport writes:

“The artist achieves his sincerity by embracing his art rather than his subject. We live in an age capable of accommodating the most strenuous sincerity [that great unacknowledged enemy of art]: the novelist can, like Andy Warhol, record reality and transcribe it unedited. Faced with such efficiency in the naturalistic arts, our mind keeps going back to the fact that Defoe did not even interview Alexander Selkirk in order to write Robinson Crusoe.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

'An Enormous Yes'

“The voice was unmistakable. It made misery beautiful.” 

My ideal setting for listening to music is my eleven-year-old Nissan. When I play a CD, I listen and never treat it as background. I hate the idea of music as ambient filler, a second atmosphere. My youngest son plays music while writing and studying. I could never do that. Whether because it’s very good or very bad, the music would be a distraction. I can no longer listen to the radio in the car – blather and more distraction. My playlist of late has been mostly old favorites, comfort sounds like comfort food -- Mavis Staples, Bill Evans, Chopin, Louis Armstrong.


Recently I was listening to a compilation album of Armstrong tracks that includes “Dallas Blues,” recorded with his orchestra two weeks before the Wall Street crash in 1929. I remembered it was Philip Larkin’s first selection on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” broadcast on July 17, 1976. The transcript of Larkin’s conversation on the air is collected in Further Requirements (Faber and Faber, 2001):


“I suppose any jazz lover has to decide which Louis Armstrong record he is taking, because there are so many and Louis is such a combined Chaucer and Shakespeare of jazz. I’ve chosen ‘Dallas Blues’ from 1929 because I’ve been playing it for about forty years and never got tired of it. It is a blues, and Armstrong plays it in a beautiful warm and relaxed way that he doesn’t always achieve on his later more showmanship sides.”


The passage at the top is from Clive James’ review of Larkin’s Collected Poems, published in the July 17, 1989 issue of The New Yorker. James might be describing the blues: “It made misery beautiful.” Each of the three jazz numbers on Larkin's playlist – the others are by Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday -- is a blues. I think of Larkin on “Desert Island Discs” as playing the role of an applied critic. As a jazz critic, Larkin could be a sternly blinkered judge. He’s famously dismissive of  bop and subsequent forms of the music, but a good critic can be essential even when he’s wrong. James in his review goes on to observe:


“One of Larkin’s few even halfway carefree poems is ‘For Sidney Bechet,” from The Whitsun Weddings. Yet the impact that Larkin said Bechet made on him was exactly the impact that Larkin made of on readers coming to him for the first time:


“’On me your voice falls as they say love should,

Like an enormous yes.’”


Listen to Bechet’s gorgeous 1944 recording of "Blue Horizon." The song was performed at Larkin’s memorial service in 1985 at Westminster Abbey.


[James’ assorted reviews of Larkin’s work are collected in Somewhere Becoming Rain (Picador, 2019).]