Thursday, June 10, 2021

'The Poem that Hurtles from Heights Unknown'

“The bolt of inspiration strikes invariably: you observe the flash in this or that piece of great writing, be it a stretch of fine verse, or a passage in Joyce or Tolstoy, or a phrase in a short story, or a spurt of genius in the paper of a naturalist, of a scholar, or even in a book reviewer’s article.” 

Some of us wait expectantly for such flashes, thinking of them as the literary analog of what Wordsworth called “spots of time.” We know certain writers are reliable suppliers. It’s not the only reason we read them, and it will impress some as a dilettante’s pastime, but such passages are the attentive reader’s reward. They feed our commonplace book. On Monday, a friend in Washington, D.C. shared with me a list of his favorite short stories by Bernard Malamud, and I resolved to reread the seven titles he chose, beginning with “The Loan,” originally published in the July 1952 issue of Commentary and collected in The Magic Barrel (1958).


Lieb is a baker, a poor man. An old friend, Kobotsky, shows up at the bakery after fifteen years of estrangement. I won’t recount the plot, which is beautifully sad and simple, except to say that Kobotsky asks to borrow $200 for his sick wife. Here is one of several passages in Malamud’s story that “flash,” as described above:


“The honey odor of the new loaves distracted Kobotsky. He breathed the fragrance as if this were the first air he was tasting, and even beat his fist against his chest at the delicious smell.


“‘Oh, my God,’ he all but wept. ‘Wonderful.’


“‘With tears,’ Lieb said humbly, pointing to the large bowl of dough.


“Kobotsky nodded.


“For thirty years, the baker explained, he was never with a penny to his name. One day, out of misery, he had wept into his dough. Thereafter his bread was such it brought customers in from everywhere.


“‘My cakes they don’t like so much, but my bread and rolls they run miles to buy.’”


Malamud’s prose never gets in the way. Biblical allusiveness, echoes of Yiddish syntax and the Holocaust, and common human suffering are rendered delicately and without emotional fuss. A single misstep in tone, a heightened appeal to melodrama, would have wrecked the story and left it embarrassingly false and sentimental.


The passage at the top is from “Inspiration,” Nabokov’s essay in the Jan. 6, 1973, issue of The Saturday Review. He is an unfashionable believer in artistic inspiration: “Conformists suspect that to speak of ‘inspiration’ is as tasteless and old-fashioned as to stand up for the Ivory Tower. Yet inspiration exists as do towers and tusks.”


Almost thirty years earlier, Nabokov published a poem about inspiration in the June 10, 1944, issue of The New Yorker. It is titled simply and significantly “The Poem”:


“Not the sunset poem you make when you think aloud,

with its linden tree in India ink

and the telegraph wires across its pink cloud;


“not the mirror in you and her delicate bare

shoulder still glimmering there;

not the lyrical click of a pocket rhyme--

the tiny music that tells the time;


“and not the pennies and weights on those

evening papers piled up in the rain;

not the cacodemons of carnal pain,

not the things you can say so much better in plain prose --


“but the poem that hurtles from heights unknown

-- when you wait for the splash of the stone

deep below, and grope for your pen,

and then comes the shiver, and then --


“in the tangle of sounds, the leopards of words,

the leaf-like insects, the eye-spotted birds

fuse and form a silent, intense,

mimetic pattern of perfect sense.”

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