Monday, June 16, 2014

`And We Drink, Alas, Prose'

In “Paysage de Crépuscule,” the last piece he wrote for The New Yorker before his death in the final days of 1963, A.J. Liebling played Boswell to the occasionally Johnsonian James A. Macdonald, aka Colonel John R. Stingo, the New York horseracing writer for the National Enquirer (yes, that National Enquirer). In 1953, Liebling had published an entire book, The Honest Rainmaker, dedicated to the Runyonesque character he called “my favorite writer.” Rather than Boswell/Johnson, perhaps a more suggestive literary cognate is Charles Lamb/Elia; for, though a certified citizen of the United States of America, Stingo is at least half Liebling and most of the other half, hung on the skeleton of an historical personage, is the Platonic ideal of Raffishness. “Paysage de Crépuscule” (“The Twilight Landscape”) is a sad and funny retrospective by a dying man who wrote better than almost anyone and found immense pleasure in prose – his own and other writers’. Liebling writes: 

“As Colonel John R. Stingo, for thirty years he wrote a column called `Yea Verily’ for a Sundays-only paper called the New York Enquirer and its successor, the National Enquirer, which bills itself as `The World’s Liveliest Newspaper,’ in order, no doubt, to avoid confusion with the Chicago Tribune, which is the World’s Greatest Newspaper. He received no direct emolument for what he wrote, although he is in my opinion the best curve-ball writer since Anatomy Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, making the prose of his contemporaries look shabby and unfurnished.” 

Which, of course, is precisely what Liebling did, mingling sports metaphors and allusions to his great seventeenth-century prose forebears. Liebling is our truest rebuke to those who judge that prose best which is most utilitarian. The above was prompted by a piece published in the New York Times on Sunday, Poetry: Who Needs It?,” in which poet-critic William Logan writes: 

The way we live now is not poetic. We live prose, we breathe prose, and we drink, alas, prose. There is prose that does us no great harm, and that may even, in small doses, prove medicinal, the way snake oil cured everything by curing nothing. But to live continually in the natter of ill-written and ill-spoken prose is to become deaf to what language can do.” 

I won’t argue this point by point. Logan is mostly correct. Our age is linguistically dull because it’s linguistically indifferent. Most of our poetry is indifferent prose, and much “literary” prose is merely bad poetry. But prose need not be prosaic. The best of it is energized and energizing, suffused with thought and feeling, as concisely precise as a chromosome. Good prose doesn’t have to be as gleefully rococo as Liebling’s often is. It can be as plain and acidic as Swift’s or J.V. Cunningham’s. In a footnote to The Honest Rainmaker, Liebling formulates the only writer’s credo I could ever endorse: “The way to write is well, and how is your own business. Nothing else on the subject makes sense.” 

[“Paysage de Crépuscule,” published in The New Yorker on Jan. 11, 1964, is collected in Liebling at The New Yorker: Uncollected Essays (University of New Mexico Press, 1994).]

No comments: