Wednesday, December 02, 2020

'But Be Severe, Severe—at the End'

Katie Louchheim (1903-1991) was a New Deal-style Democrat, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of State under Kennedy and Johnson. As a poet she published at least three collections, including With or Without Roses (1966). I can’t judge the quality of her work as I’ve read none of it and I know of her only because of a letter Louise Bogan wrote in 1948, collected in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, 2005). 

Louchheim had apparently asked Bogan for advice getting book reviews published. Bogan suggested she write some sample reviews for practice, telling her: “Make them crisp! Start with a short sentence, and keep your EAR on your nouns and verbs.” Good practical advice, but Bogan is just getting started:


“This ‘writing with the ear’ (as it were) is really the best technical practice you can give yourself. Remember that the reader’s attention span is usually v. short. I cut and cut my sentences, right up to the last version; always keeping the adjectives down to a minimum and the adverbs practically down to zero. The verb can do so much!”


There’s nothing novel here. Most seasoned writers have learned these lessons, but it’s nice to be reminded that such advice is applicable to any writer’s style. Write a sentence. Count the number of inert words that contribute nothing to its meaning and music. Cut them, to use Bogan’s verb. There's no good reason for anyone to write badly in public. What you do at home is your business. She goes on:


“I don’t mean to make you write completely without color or sound; but try writing as barely as possible, at first. Then put in your connectives, etc. (Although I think that writing ‘at full spurt,’ and then paring down , is the best all-around way. Don’t censor yourself in the beginning! Keep the feeling fresh, and be sure some tension is working at all times. But be severe, severe—at the end.)”

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

'It Was Considered a Most Amusing Spectacle'

George Orwell recalls an interesting anecdote in the “As I Please” column published on this date, December 1, in 1944:

 “Say what you like, things do change. A few years ago I was walking across Hungerford Bridge with a lady aged about sixty or perhaps less. The tide was out, and as we looked down at the beds of filthy, almost liquid mud, she remarked: ‘When I was a little girl we used to throw pennies to the mudlarks down there.’”


Readers of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) will be familiar with mudlarks: “The[y] collect whatever they happen to find, such as coals, bits of old-iron, rope, bones, and copper nails . . .” Orwell continues:


“I was intrigued and asked what mudlarks were. She explained that in those days professional beggars, known as mudlarks, used to sit under the bridge waiting for people to throw them pennies. The pennies would bury themselves deep in the mud, and the mudlarks would plunge in head first and recover them. It was considered a most amusing spectacle.”


I remembered the scene in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) when Joe Burdett (Claude Akins) throws a coin into a barroom spittoon and waits for Dude (Dean Martin) to fish it out. In the nineteenth century, tourists visited insane asylums to laugh at the inmates. There persists a human impulse to revel in the humiliation of others. Think of it as an exercise in applied Schadenfreude. Visit a playground or locker room and you’ll see it in action. Orwell sounds rather naïve in his conclusion:


“Is there anyone who would degrade himself in that way nowadays? And how many people are there who would get a kick out of watching it?”


Say what you like, things do change superficially, not essentially.

Monday, November 30, 2020

'You Know What I Mean'

I should have known but that most commonplace of words, good-bye, is likely a compressed form of “God be with you” and “God be with ye.” The former is confirmed by the OED as a parting valediction from at least the late fifteenth century, and the latter from a century later. The definition suggests that a cliché can be suffused with good manners invisible from frequent usage: “used to express good wishes when parting or at the end of a conversation.” The Dictionary in its entry cites Shakespeare four times, including Costard the rube speaking to Biron in Act III, Scene 1 of Love’s Labour’s Lost: “I thank your worship: God be wi’ you!” – a line that is at most serviceable, hardly Shakespearean. I looked into good-bye when reading the saddest use of that simple word I know:


“I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”


Those are the final sentences in the final letter John Keats ever wrote, on November 30, 1820, three months before his death at age twenty-five. The poet is writing from Rome. His recipient is Charles Brown (1787-1842) who, in the words of Hyder Edward Rollins, editor of Keats’ letters, “now has a sort of immortality of his own.” Keats was fortunate in his friends. He was lovable. They loved him. With Keats in Rome was Joseph Severn, the patron saint of friendship. Keats and Brown, the poet’s senior by eight years, had met in 1817. The following summer they made their walking tour of northern England and Scotland. After the death of Tom Keats from tuberculosis, the disease that would kill the poet in another two years, John lived with Brown at Wentworth Place in Hampstead, now the Keats House. “Brown’s kindness and attention," Rollins says, "were unremitting.” Keats writes in his letter:


“I must have been at Bedhampton nearly at the time you were writing to me from Chichester - how unfortunate - and to pass on the river too! There was my star predominant! I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.”


That Keatsian phrase – “There was my star predominant!” – is an allusion to The Winter’s Tale. In Act I, Scene 2, Leontes says:


“It is a bawdy planet, that will strike

Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,

From east, west, north and south: be it concluded,

No barricado for a belly; know’t;

It will let in and out the enemy

With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s

Have the disease, and feel't not. How now, boy!”


Keats’ tour de force of good-byes comes in the long letter he wrote to George and Georgiana Keats between September 17 and 27, 1819:


“You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go—good bye and so on—well—good bless you—You know what I mean.”

Sunday, November 29, 2020

'To Hell with the Crowd'

“What we suffer, what we endure, what we muff, what we kill, what we miss, what we are guilty of, is done by us, as individuals, in private.” 

The anti-collective, non-aligned impulse runs deep. Demographics mean nothing. We recognize one data set, one focus group, one party: Homo sapiens. The rest is lazy pigeonholing. The wonderful poet Louise Bogan is writing in a December 23, 1936 letter to the poet-translator and longtime friend Rolfe Humphries. He had joined the League of American Writers, a Communist Front group organized the previous year. Bogan calls him “one of the Comrades” when Humphries bloviates about the Spanish Civil War. She continues:


“I still hate your way of doing things. To hell with the crowd. To hell with the meetings, and the public speeches. Life and death occur, as they must, but they are all bound up with love and hatred, in the individual bosom, and it is a sin and a shame to try to organize or dictate them.”


To her credit, Bogan remained loyal to Humphries as a friend despite his ridiculous politics, until his death in 1969. More recently, we’ve seen politics grow increasingly corrosive of relationships among family members and friends. That human bonds should be severed by something as trivial and childish as politics hardly flatters our species. In a July 8, 1938, letter to Humphries, Bogan writes:


“You can easily see that I’m terribly mad, at the moment, about the C.P. [Communist Party], and all its works. The girls at the subway entrance saying, in soft tones, ‘Stop the mad dogs of Fascism; help our boys dodging Franco’s bombs,’ frankly make me sick. If the C.P. doesn’t stop all this ‘mad dogs’ ‘depraved’ stuff it will lose—well, I was going to say the respect of all intelligent people. But I take that back. There aren’t, as far as I can see, any intelligent people left.” 


[All quoted passages are from A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan, ed. Mary Kinzie, 2005.]

Saturday, November 28, 2020

'Other Absurdities of This Nature So Very Gross'

We are probably better buffered than most Americans against advertising. We have no cable-television connection. Our spam filter does its job, and any online site that throws up an advertising obstacle course we generally skip. We subscribe to few magazines and no newspapers, and I listen to CDs in the car, almost never the radio. When people start recounting the commercial they found so amusing last night, I’m gone. It’s reassuring to know there’s nothing new about such sentiments. Consider Joseph Addison’s essay in The Tatler on September 14, 1710:


“I cannot excuse my fellow-labourers for admitting into their papers several uncleanly advertisements, not at all proper to appear in the works of polite writers. Among these I must reckon the Carminitive Wind-expelling pills. If the doctor had called them his carminitive pills, he had done as cleanly as any one could have wished; but the second word entirely destroys the decency of the first. There are other absurdities of this nature so very gross, that I dare not mention them.”


Imagine what Addison would make of advertisements for pills, liquids and creams that treat hemorrhoids, erectile dysfunction, diarrhea and constipation, not to mention condoms and feminine hygiene products. Of course, Addison was a pragmatic editor and publisher. He understood that periodicals relied on advertising for their ongoing existence. He specifically cites “collections of advertisements that appear at the end of all our public prints.” This brings to mind an interesting, seemingly contradictory phenomenon: the sense of nostalgia induced by the advertising of the past. Only when no longer current is advertising of interest. Years ago a friend gave me the issues of Life magazine that bracket the date of my birth in 1952. On the back of the November 3 issue is an ad for Camel cigarettes: “Why did you change to Camels, Farley Granger?” And Farley answers: “I tried Camels as my steady smoke for 30 days—they beat any other cigarette I’ve smoked!”


Back to “Carminitive Wind-expelling pills.” From the context, you’ve probably figured out the meaning of the first adjective: “Of medicines, etc.: Having the quality of expelling flatulence.” One wonders what the OED is refering to with that all-inclusive “etc.”

Friday, November 27, 2020

'Only a Mantelshelf for Books'

In keeping with our era’s apocalyptic flavor, I sense the Robinson Crusoe Fantasy is growing in popularity. You’ll recall in Chap. VI when Crusoe builds a raft and salvages what he judges most useful from the shipwreck: “bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh (which we lived much upon), and a little remainder of European corn,” etc. Today, a similar process is underway, for instance, among survivalists – evaluating what is essential, optional and irrelevant in the way of fuel, medical supplies and guns. More benignly, I see readers deciding what books to bring when the grid goes down and civilization collapses. The latest to do so is Douglas Dalrymple at Idlings: 

“I imagine a sequestered life – in a mountain cabin or a bolthole near the sea – where I’m planted for the rest of my days with nothing to do but tend to my own comfort, walk in the afternoons, and read by the fire. It’s a small, snug place, with only a mantelshelf for books – a minimal library. But which books to stock it with? This is my version of the old desert island game.”


His list of literary staples overlaps heavily with my own. The only title on Douglas’ list I haven’t read – or even heard of -- is Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. I can do without the Cervantes and Dickens, and might substitute Tristram Shandy and Pale Fire. I would replace Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America with Henry Adams’ nine-volume  History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The most surprising item on Douglas’ list is Paradise Lost – surprising because I know he is Roman Catholic, though recently he wrote appreciatively of Milton’s epic. His most inspired choice is The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross. At some point, the smallest of forms, the aphorism, converges with the most expansive, the epic. What they share is density of meaning.


Douglas’s criteria are honest and commonsensical: “books that make good company, reward re-reading, and give pleasure.” In addition, and perhaps already implicit in those standards, I would require lasting substance, books that cannot be exhausted. There’s nothing wrong with escapist fare, “beach books,” pure distraction, but not for the long haul. Only three titles on Douglas’ list date from the twentieth century. The rest were written earlier. His list is idiosyncratic, as any serious reader’s would be, but not freakishly so. Generations of readers have already agreed with him.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

'A Totally Different Human Being'

“[T]here has been an evolution of circumstances, and now it becomes necessary to talk about what, by one of those bits of mental prestidigitation with which we protect our sanity, we had succeeded in not even thinking about. We pushed it into some closet in a back room of the mind, and shut the door.”

Even the most fortunate among us – good, careful, inoffensive people – may be tempted to lock away the unthinkable and seal the door with bricks and mortar. Our species is capable of extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness, and of motiveless depravity. We flatter ourselves, but no one is immune. Solzhenitsyn puts it like this in Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps,” in The Gulag Archipelago:


“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”


Boris Dralyuk and I were exchanging thoughts about West Coast jazz, specifically about Shorty Rogers, who played trumpet and flugelhorn, and the trombonist Frank Rosolino, one of the masters of his still under-appreciated instrument. Only later did I realize that today, November 26, is the forty-second anniversary of his death. The passage quoted at the top is from an essay the late Gene Lees published in Jazzletter in 1983. He later collected “Why?” in his Meet Me at Jim & Andy's: Jazz Musicians and Their World (Oxford University Press, 1988). Here is Lees on Rosolino the man and musician:


“Frank Rosolino was among the best-loved men in jazz. One of the finest trombone players in the history of the instrument, he had a superb tone, total facility, a deep Italianate lyricism, and rich invention. Frank was, very simply, a sensational player. . . . He was one of the funniest men in the world, with a wit that literally wouldn’t quit. Frank bubbled.”


Early on the morning of November 26, 1978, in his home in Van Nuys, Calif., Rosolino shot and killed his nine-year-old son Justin, shot and severely wounded his other son, seven-year-old Jason, then took his own life. Jason was left blinded but, at age fifty, is still alive and nearly the age of his father at the time of his death. Lees’ account of the murder-suicide and subsequent events is one of the most painful and powerful pieces of writing I know. It has haunted me for more than thirty years. Boris says of Lees, “what a smart, no-nonsense writer.” Consider that Lees was writing about a friend and a musician he admired enormously, who had committed unfathomably evil acts. He gives Rosolino his due but isn’t afraid to call him what he was: in his words, an asshole. As Solzhenitsyn writes in his subsequent paragraph:


“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.”