Saturday, September 22, 2012

On a Phrase by Charles Tomlinson

“the sufficiency / of water and a few trees.”

For the first time in more than twenty-two years, my wife is no longer a journalist. I lasted a little longer, but still keep my hand in with the occasional freelance job. I doubt she will. The reasons we got in the business no longer apply. She liked the hurly-burly of breaking news, bargaining with cops and councilmen, and I liked talking to people who otherwise would have been ignored, and turning what they told me and what I observed into orderly arrangements of words. Thanks, in part, to working as a reporter, I grew up a little, on the job. I like to edit but, as you can tell, I could never have been an editor. Too many reporters have been ruined by being promoted into editors. In Chapter 2 of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau says some foolish and interesting things about the news. To start with the foolish: 

“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”

Not so, if it’s your husband or father or son who’s robbed, murdered or killed by accident. This is Thoreau the adolescent prig, putting contrariness before humanity. We and our families and friends are those “myriad instances and applications” Thoreau sniffs at. He bends a little in the subsequent sentences:

“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.” 

More than Thoreau could have imagined, news today is gossip in the vulgar sense. Of course, gossip has honorable origins. The Old English sense referred to a godparent or sponsor at a baptism, which morphed into any familiar acquaintance, and by Shakespeare’s time into “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk.” By Keats’day, the modern sense of “trifling talk, groundless rumor” was established. In “News” (The Vineyard Above the Sea, 1999), Charles Tomlinson writes: 

“The people in the park
are not news:
they only go to prove
what everyone knows –
the sufficiency
of water and a few trees. 

“The people in the gallery
are not news either:
they are here for more trees
and the permanence of water
of various kinds: everything
from the seastorm to spring rain. 

“Walking in the street,
we are not news, you and I,
nor is the street itself
in the first morning sun
which travels to us from so far out
sharpening each corner with its recognition. 

wilting underfoot, news
always about to lose its savour,
the trees arch over the blown sheets
rain is reducing to a transparent blur
as if water with trees were alpha and omega." 

The “blown sheets” I take to be the familiar sight of newsprint pushed down the street by the wind. The real news, Tomlinson suggests, is nearby, blithely ignored.


Kata Phusin said...

I know you dislike the passing-by, pseudo-anonymous comment, but I am still composing a letter of introduction... (years in the writing). And I couldn't help but comment here - regarding both gossip and the news (though here about humanity): Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics used the word "anthropologos" to mean "gossipy" - which came to "denote theories about human nature" (I am quoting Grafton's The Classical Tradition). We may not be news - but we have a lot to say about ourselves!

Helen Pinkerton said...


Thanks for your comments and the Tomlinson poem. "Water and a few trees" describes countless landscapes from Claude Lorrain to Corot and Inness--some great paintings, some mediocre--all satisfying to the soul. As Tomlinson's second stanza notes, "The people in the gallery" are there "for more trees / and the permanence of water / of various kinds: everything / from the seastorm to spring rain." Or, as Ishmael noted of an artist's "enchanted bit of romantic landscape," the chief element is "the magic stream before him." Water and a few trees.