Sunday, August 01, 2021

'A Kind of Collection of Flies in Amber'

“‘Why the many quotation marks?’ I am asked. Pardon my saying more than once, When a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better, why paraphrase it? Hence my writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils, a kind of collection of flies in amber.” 

There’s a joy in sharing the good words of others. Reading is an exclusively private occupation. The next natural step is to give what most pleases us to others we think worthy of the gift. Not everyone will get it. A reader complains that I too often quote too much and at too great a length. The impulse behind my quote-mongering is a variation on gift giving. Ideally, a reader will enjoy the quotation, want more of the same and pursue the book from which I’ve taken it. That’s why I try to be specific about sources. Some time ago another reader complained that I used too many quotation marks. I want the demarcation of my words and others’ to be unambiguous.


I’m reading Journal of the Fictive Life (1965) by Howard Nemerov, who has recently become one of my favorite poets. It’s very much a Sixties book, fragmentary and straddling genres – part autobiography, part commonplace book, even dabbling with the novel (thus the title). I have a fondness for books that mingle multiple forms – bookish centaurs. Nemerov’s Journal is probably essential reading for those who wish to appreciate Nemerov the poet. He was an ambitious reader with interests beyond the literary canon. This is reflected in his frequent use of quotations. One quote often leads to another – a practice I understand.


He reads Sir Charles Sherrington’s Man on His Nature (1940), the published title of his Gifford Lectures for 1937-38. He was an English neurophysiologist who, with another researcher, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 for his work on the functions of neurons. Nemerov writes:


“The reason for my excitement over Sherrington’s essay can clearly not have been scientific; like many poets, I read a good deal of science, and, like most of the poets who do, I do not read it for the sake of science but rather for the sake of metaphor. I shall copy out some of Sherrington’s metaphors and descriptions, including many that I copied out at the time along with some others.”


Nemerov then weaves two pages of Sherrington’s words, all carefully bracketed with quotation marks, into his own. He is especially interested in Sherrington’s discussion of “the making of the eye” and its similarity to and differences from a camera (Nemerov's sister was the photographer Diane Arbus). It helps that Sherrington’s prose is elegant, precise and jargon-free, readily understood by an intelligent non-scientist. Then Nemerov quotes King Lear, including Cordelia’s “this most precious square of sense,” as well as William Empson and, finally, lines from Section XIV of his own poem, “Runes” (New Poems, 1960):


“There is a threshold, that meniscus where

The strider walks on drowned waters, or

That tense, curved membrane of the camera’s lens

Which darkness holds against the battering light

And the distracted drumming of the world’s

Importunate plenty. . . .”


[The quotation at the top is from the introduction to A Marianne Moore Reader (1960), which is also excerpted in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (ed. Patricia C. Willis, Viking, 1987). Moore is one of literature’s great quoters, in poetry and prose.]


Tim Guirl said...

This brings to mind Joseph Epstein's essay "Quotatious"

Baceseras said...

Your English readers might boggle unless they know, or guess, that Nemerov's "strider" (short for water-strider) is the American name for the insect they call a pond-skater.