Thursday, April 19, 2018

`Still, Still We Long for Light's Communion'

Aubade -- the word, I mean – in my lexicon will always be Philip Larkin’s. Plenty of poets have used that title, from William Empson to Bill Coyle, but Larkin copyrights it. His “Aubade” is one of the defining poems of the last century. It has a rival, however, from early in the twenty-first, a poem that reads as though it were written by a representative of a species sharing almost no genetic material with Larkin’s. Dick Davis’ “Aubade” was published in the Summer 2001 issue of The Threepenny Review. I cite the time and place because the poem helps define for me the pre-9/11 world, which became a world only after 9/11.

I flew to Philadelphia for a three-day conference that June. I had never visited the city but had little time to tramp its streets. With me I brought along The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and that issue of The Threepenny Review. The days were long and that’s how I wound down in the evening in my hotel room. Davis’ poem shares with Larkin’s a seemingly straightforward absence of faith: “These are the dawn thoughts of an atheist / Vaguely embarrassed by what looks like grace.” In a stringently philosophical world, Matisse’s colors are “a fake.” However, “Still we consent, and actively connive / In their unreal adjustments to our being.” Positivism, in the final stanza, never quite triumphs:

“Still, still we long for Light’s communion
To pierce and flood our solitary gloom:
Still I am grateful as the rising sun
Picks out the solid colors of my room.”

The upper-case “Light” is left undefined. It might be the deity, as “communion” suggests, despite the speaker’s self-definition in the first line as an atheist. No sane person would choose to inhabit a world in which “neither Fauve nor Esfahan survive.” I remember Davis’ poem, on first reading, kindling a sense of buoyancy. Humans are more than passive sensory receptors.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

`Each One Has Been a Friend'

Eleven years ago I happened on a poem by a poet previously unknown to me that was so good I had to write about it. Maureen Jeffs’ “To My Daughter, My Books” distilled a lot of wisdom and generosity into a small package and it sounded earned, not an empty gesture made public to elicit admiration. Jeffs wrote to thank me and I was touched by her gratitude and the assumption that we belonged to the same tribe – parents and readers.

On Tuesday I picked up the anthology in which I found Jeffs’ poem, It’s Her Voice That Haunts Me Now (1996), and read it again. Then I looked online to see if she had continued writing and discovered that Maureen Jeffs had died in 2015. The internet, among its other gifts, makes it possible to feel guilty and sad over the death of someone on another continent whom we never met. Think about that for a moment. I experienced a pang of guilt for not staying in touch with someone who seemed remarkably thoughtful and interesting. And now we’ll never have that permanently deferred conversation.      

Her website, perhaps created by the daughter addressed in the poem, is a fine tribute and preserves some of her poems and stories. As Jeffs writes in the closing lines of “To My Daughter, My Books”:

“Take them and use
Them well, each one has been a friend,
And may the truths you find console.
In these, and in the books I’ve penned,
You’ll find the substance of my soul.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

`Just As My Bad Demons Do'

Even cranks, on occasion, should be listened to. Chief among American literary cranks worthy of attention is Edward Dahlberg, a writer I prize in spite of himself. He was pretentious and tediously bitter and angry, turning sooner or later on everyone who befriended him. You would never trust him around your sister. But a reader has written to thank me for having recommended Because I Was Flesh (1964), Dahlberg’s masterpiece, an “autobiography” devoted to his hapless mother, Lizzie, a Kansas City “lady barber.” Born illegitimate, Dahlberg is good on the American underclass without towing the Marxist line, though he briefly joined the Communist Party in the nineteen-thirties. His first book, Bottom Dogs (1930), is a novelistic treatment of the same material as Because I Was Flesh, but written in a crudely “proletarian” manner. Because I Was Flesh works because Dahlberg largely forgets himself and concentrates on Lizzie:

“My mother was born unfortunate, and she was pursued until her end by that evil genius, ill luck.  The Psalmist says, `No one can keep his own soul alive’—nor anybody else’s either. We despair because we are no better and are not consoled that we can be no worse. A life is a single folly, but two lives would be countless ones, for nobody profits by his mistakes.”

Such people seldom get serious attention from writers uninterested in propaganda. Exceptions are Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, who numbered, briefly, among Dahlberg’s friends. His purpose is darker than mere belles-lettres. In the paragraph that follows the one cited above, Dahlberg writes like a faithless Isaiah:

“I do not go to her grave because it would do her no good. Though everything in the earth has feeling—the granite mourns, the turf sleeps and has fitful nights, and the syenite chants as melodiously as Orpheus and Musaeus—it would be idle to say Lizzie Dahlberg, whose bones still have sentience, is what she was. She is and she is not, and that is the difference between the trance we call being and the other immense experience we name death.”

At the risk of sounding sententious, Dahlberg echoes the language and rhythms of the King James Bible in the final paragraph of Because I Was Flesh:

“When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see again her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric light in the Star Lady Barbershop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

`Nothing Else of the Sort'

“I have been reading Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and miscellaneous criticisms of late, and am tremendously impressed by the value of his criticism. He attends especially to the style of the writers criticized, criticizes them in minute detail, and with infallible judgment. There is nothing else of the sort quite as valuable in English. You had better read him.”

The writer is Yvor Winters in 1929, in a letter to one of his students, Henry Ramsey, a poet who went on to be a career diplomat. Lives is a book I frequently browse, at absent moments or between other books. It would be the only work of criticism or biography I would include among my Desert Island Books. Mine is the compact, two-volume Oxford University Press edition (1929), literally a pocket book. The first of the Lives I read was Dryden’s, in a freshman survey class, and the almost gossipy way Johnson mingles criticism, biographical detail and aphoristic observation still thrills me:  

“Perhaps no nation ever produced a writer that enriched his language with such variety of models. To him we owe the improvement, perhaps the completion of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we were taught 'sapere et fari,' to think naturally and express forcibly. Though Davies has reasoned in rhyme before him, it may be perhaps maintained that he was the first who joined argument with poetry. He shewed us the true bounds of a translator’s liberty.”

When I read Dryden, I read Johnson on Dryden, because that was my introduction to the great poet. The same is true of Pope“Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.”

Pope, among the greatest poets in the language, suffered from a form of tuberculosis that left his body stunted and malformed. According to his biographer Maynard Mack, Pope was no taller than four feet, six inches. Johnson’s account is vivid and compassionate: “By natural deformity, or accidental distortion, his vital functions were so much disordered, that his life was a long disease. His most frequent assailant was the headach [sic], which he used to relieve by inhaling the steam of coffee, which he very frequently required.”

[The Winters passage is taken from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000.]

Sunday, April 15, 2018

`To Walk is Natural; to Dance is an Art'

“His concern was to be not only with words but with the things that words were formed to express.”

Call it the Writer’s Lament. Among words, we are benign tyrants. We call the dance. We do the bullying. Insubordination will not be tolerated. How tempting to remain among our faithful subjects. But when we rejoin humanity, our word hardly counts. We mingle with other pawns. It’s all give and take; sometimes, mostly give. In the sentence quoted above, John Wain in Samuel Johnson (1974) describes the great man’s nine years of labor on his Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson couldn’t afford to work fulltime on his masterwork. No blockhead, he was a pen-for-hire, a professional writer before the age of grants, fellowships and tenure. Wain goes on:

“Somehow, round the edges of the huge commitment, he kept his mind, and his pen, so active that a record of his activities during these years would read like a normal working schedule for most writers.”

Consider Johnson’s entries for writer: 1.) “One who practices the art of writing.” 2.) “An author.” Plain-spoken, unadorned, concise, commonsensical. Definition as near-tautology. Writing, you’ll note, is an art, which Johnson defines in his Dictionary as “The power of doing something not taught by nature and instinct; as, to walk is natural; to dance is an art.”.

Johnson published his Dictionary on this date, April 15, 1755.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

`Under Gravestones of the Long Ago'

The Dictionary of National Biography compacts the life of Thomas Westwood (1814–1888) into a six-word epithet: “minor poet and bibliographer of angling.” We remember him, if at all, as a minor character in the life and letters of Charles Lamb (1774-1834), who retired with his sister Mary to Enfield in 1827 after leaving the East India Company. A more prominent role in the letters is given to an Enfield neighbor, Westwood’s father, also named Thomas and called “Gaffer” by Lamb.

Thomas Jr. was twelve when he first met Lamb, and the essayist permitted the boy to use his library. He read Lamb’s copy of Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, a glory of fishing lore and seventeenth-century prose. Westwood called the volume “my chief treasure, pearl of price.” He published his first volume of poems in 1840, carried on a correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and was praised by Walter Savage Landor. In 1861, Westwood published his magnum opus, A new bibliotheca piscatoria, or, General catalogue of angling and fishing literature, with bibliographical notes and data. In sum, a commendable, productive life, and Westwood acknowledged the debt he owed Lamb and, in 1866 published a remembrance of Lamb in the journal Notes and Queries. Lamb, he writes, “turned me loose in his library, and initiated me into a school of literature.” That is, Lamb’s school: “Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Farquhar, Defoe, Fielding—these were the pastures in which I delighted to graze, in those early years.”

In 1884, Westwood published a second tribute, “Lamb’s Old Books,” in which he writes: “Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, old Burton’s Anatomy, Drayton’s Polyolbion, Heywood’s Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, the Duchess of Newcastle’s Sociable Letters, and a host of others, all wore the costume of their time and looked happy and at home in it. The general effect was harmonious, quaint, Elizabethan, and suited to the individuality of the owner. A dear old library, that, in which I passed most of my boyish leisure.”

In the 1866 recollection, Westwood makes it clear he understood Lamb better than most of his readers and critics. Lamb was no poseur or other-worldly nostalgist. He had superb taste in writing and no fear of being judged old-fashioned. Westwood writes:

“Charles Lamb was a living anachronism—a seventeenth century man, mislaid and brought to light two hundred years too late. Never did author less belong to what was, nominally, his own time; he could neither sympathize with it, nor comprehend it. His quaintness of style and antiquarianism of taste were no affectation. He belonged to the school of his contemporaries, but they were contemporaries that never met him in the streets, but were mostly to be found in Poet’s Corner, or under gravestones of the long ago.”

[Westwood’s memoirs are collected in Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by His Contemporaries, edited by Edmund Blunden, The Hogarth Press, 1934.]

Friday, April 13, 2018

`And to Be Alone with Our Rage'

In the Winter 2013 issue of Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics at Boston University, the late Brett Foster published three poems, all of them good, one of them good enough to be memorable. Here is “Inscription on the Ruined Temple”:

“What did this age produce?
Diverting fancies that were useless,
new interfaces that abused
our hours (which Dr. Johnson mused
were priceless) and soured us.
Explanations were the most confusing.

“What did the age encourage?
Brightly accented sadness, wages
not of single but multiple hemorrhaging.
It made us build a Faraday cage,
mainly, to keep out the sewage.
And to be alone with our rage.”

Grim, but not because Foster had the cancer that would kill him on Nov. 9, 2015. That diagnosis came later, in 2014. No, “diverting fancies” rule the lives of so many, including ourselves on occasion. Video games come first to mind, perhaps suggested by “interfaces,” a word I hate outside its original digital context. People are not hardware. The Johnson allusion isn’t specified, but it recalls one of his consistent themes, as in the concluding lines of “Winter; an Ode”:

“Catch then, O! catch the transient hour,
Improve each moment as it flies;
Life’s a short Summer — man a flower,
He dies — alas! how soon he dies!”

Foster’s second stanza recounts the sadness, futility and rage of our enlightened moment.  The choice of “Faraday cage” – a shield to block electromagnetic fields -- is inspired. Though we fancy we are protected, we’re merely alone and angry. The title of Foster’s poem suggests a message from our present left for those in the future who are still able to read.

[Go here and here to read more poems by Foster, and here for an interview.]