Tuesday, November 21, 2017

'The Rule that There Are No Rules'

“There are owls who want prose to be wholly prosaic. Some kinds of it, yes. Like Locke’s. But, whereas poetry is better without any prose in it, prose can often embody a great deal of poetry. Prose in poetry is a blemish like ink on a swan; but prose without poetry becomes too often as drab and lifeless as a Sunday in London.”

The problem here is defining “poetry” in the context of writing good prose. It’s not poeticisms or purple patches. It’s not Look Homeward, Angel or The Tunnel or the abomination of “prose poems.” One of the reasons I read a lot of poetry is that I hope to write better prose. Good poems are precise, concise and organized. They are not rhapsodic or arbitrary. The passage above is from the chapter titled “Simile and Metaphor” in Style (3rd ed., Cassell & Co. Ltd., April 1956) by F.L. Lucas. Style manuals, by nature, possess little worth. Strunk and White, when not being self-evident are prim and tight-assed caricatures of schoolmarms. Lucas’ entertaining book is the sole exception I know, in part because its medium is its message. That is, he writes well. Lucas continues:

“By ‘poetry’ in this sense I do not mean ‘fine writing,’ such as De Quincey or Ruskin were sometimes tempted to overdo; I mean a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life. It is thanks to this that some can find more essential poetry in Sir Thomas Browne than in Dryden; in Landor than in Byron; in some paragraphs of Yeats’s prose than in twenty shelves of minor verse.”

This is an extraordinary observation delivered in the plainest of prose and the most neutral of tones. It echoes the old notion that style is the man. Style is an expression of sensibility rather than verbal veneer; architecture, not interior decorating. Here is the balance of Lucas’ paragraph:

“And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seems, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

In “Heavy Sentences,” Joseph Epstein reviews yet another unreadable book by Stanley Fish, and for relief refers at some length to Lucas’s Style. He describes it as “the best book on the art of writing that I know,” and praises Lucas for understanding “the element of magic entailed in great writing.” It’s not a science. Perhaps in approval of Lucas’ statement that good writers possess “a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life,” Epstein writes:

“Lucas didn’t hold that good character will make an ungifted person write better, rather that without good character superior writing is impossible. And, in fact, most of the best prose writers in English have been men and women of exceedingly good character: Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather. Even those excellent writers with less than good character—compose your own list here—seem to have been able to have faked good character, at least while at their desks.”

Epstein, like Lucas, understands that writing well has little in common with assembling a bookcase from Ikea: “In art, anyone writing a book on how to write ought to remember there are no rules except the rule that there are no rules.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

'I Only Knew His Poetry Moved Me'

“Ever since childhood, I’ve always been instinctively contrary, reacting against groups and prevalent opinion.”

My kind of contrarian, a species threatened with imminent extinction, and one I thought already extinct among poets. The speaker is Matthew Stewart, an English-born poet and vintner who for twenty-four years has lived in the Extremadura region of Spain. I discovered him on Sunday thanks to a tweet by A.M. Juster, who linked to Stewart’s interview with Paul Stephenson. It’s rare to find contrarianism mingled with maturity and good taste:

“When I started out in the mid-90s, I felt hugely alone in my poetic tastes, as anthologies and magazines at that time were full of poetry that was anathema to me. Larkin was my point of reference and departure. I didn’t care about his political and social opinions. I wasn’t bothered that most of the poetry world had turned their back on him. I only knew his poetry moved me. It was accessible yet layered with complexity, and I aspired to that achievement. Over the last few years, the attitude towards Larkin has shifted slightly in the U.K. scene. There’s now a new generation of poets who studied him at school and who embrace his work without fear that they might be tarnished in some way by his views on other issues. I’ve even noticed his influence on poets from the U.S., especially the likes of Joshua Mehigan.”

Let’s remember that outrage is easy. Any backward toddler can throw a tantrum. How many can muster the experience, empathy and equanimity to read Larkin with the attentiveness and understanding he deserves? In his review of Larkin’s Selected Letters (1992), Joseph Epstein acknowledges some of the dubious (and often very funny) things the poet included in letters to friends, and writes: “I wish Larkin had never said such things because they can only be used against him by people who along with being impressed with their own virtue cannot stand too much complication in human character.”

Stephenson asks Stewart what wines and poems have in common. This might have been an invitation to utter pretentious blather (wine snobs are even more impossible than poetry snobs), but Stewart replies:

“There are wines I admire technically but cannot bring myself to like. The same goes for certain poems. There are wines that aren’t objectively great, but they just fit a moment perfectly. The same goes for certain poems. Moreover, I expose myself to constant judgement and rejection every day of my life thanks to poetry and wine. In both cases, I send off samples: to wine importers and poetry magazines. In both cases, rejection is far more prevalent than acceptance. I’ve had to harden myself to this fact, to learn that a dozen rejections don’t matter if a single excellent wine importer or poetry journal accepts what I’ve offered.”

Since 2009, Stewart has maintained a blog, Rogue Strands, and he has common-sensical things to say about blogging: “For me, good blogs avoid self-obsession and axe-grinding, while also pulling off the awkward balancing act of remaining a personal project. Blog posts live longer than social media but should remain brief, encouraging readers to make discoveries for themselves.”

Finally, Stewart has something to say about his own plain-spoken poems: “My poems begin with the truth. They then reach out for an authenticity that lies far beyond the truth, aiming to generate a jolt of recognition in their readers.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

'The Murmurs of Peevishness'

Like most of us, the people in Joseph Epstein’s stories learn life’s woeful lessons not from books or Youtube but the hard way, by living them. They get cheated, lied to, stolen from and left alone. Their lives tend to be buffered and safely middle-class, not noirish, and they seldom get raped, shot or strung out on dope. Those are melodramatic fates borrowed from movies, pulp novels and newspapers, and most of us won’t experience them, though we hardly remain immune to lesser injuries. “Schlifkin on My Books,” in the first of Epstein’s four story collections, The Goldin Boys (1991), begins with suicide and mistaken identity, and concludes like this:

“Last week our accountant came in to close out our books at the end of our fiscal year. Among other details, I learned that the $178 Schlifkin owed was a write-off in the category of a bad debt. Schlifkin was finally off my books. For the first time I spoke to the accountant about retirement and what would be involved in turning the business over to my nephew. I must be feeling my age. I’m thinking seriously about getting out. I think maybe I’ve had enough.”  

Conclusively inconclusive, like life. Rooted in the mundane business of life. Weariness, regret, a late lesson learned. I was happy on Saturday to find a first edition of The Goldin Boys (“slightly foxed”) for sale at Kaboom Books in Houston. The original cover price: $19.95. I paid: $10. (The bookshop owner has a nice first edition of Thomas Berger’s first novel, Crazy in Berlin: $185. I salivated discreetly.) Now I have all of Epstein’s stories. For me, it’s rare to read contemporary short fiction. Most of it seems trivial, little more than plotless first-person gestures, even when written in the third-person. Epstein’s stories are mutedly comic and seem touched by what William Maxwell called the “breath of life.” On this date, Nov. 19, in 1751, Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #175:

“It is, indeed, impossible not to hear from those who have lived longer, of wrongs and falsehoods, of violence and circumvention; but such narratives are commonly regarded by the young, the heady, and the confident, as nothing more than the murmurs of peevishness, or the dreams of dotage; and, notwithstanding all the documents of hoary wisdom, we commonly plunge into the world fearless and credulous, without any foresight of danger, or apprehension of deceit.”

[On the back cover, The Goldin Boys boasts the most unlikely pairing of blurbists I have ever seen: George V. Higgins and Helen Frankenthaler.]

Saturday, November 18, 2017

'Here Were No Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters'

It’s no surprise that the list of books I first read as a boy and have continued to read periodically ever sense, despite fortunate changes in taste and understanding, is brief and respectable. Nothing to be ashamed of. No Zane Gray (whom I’ve never read) or Jules Verne (whom I haven’t read since I started shaving). There’s the Bible, Kim and Robinson Crusoe, all of which give me even more pleasure now than when I first read them as a kid. But when a reader wrote this week asking which “classic” (his word, not mine) I would recommend for his twelve-year-old daughter (“She’s already a strong reader”), the answer was simple: Gulliver’s Travels. The book can be read without strain as pure adventure and/or savage satire. The “and/or” is the secret to Swift’s genius. I can’t remember my initial reaction to the Houyhnhnms. Today, their portion of the book, Part IV, is my favorite. Gulliver, at last, knows a measure of happiness. What the Houyhnhnms lack is precisely what England has in excess, as spelled out in Chap X:

“I enjoyed perfect Health of Body and Tranquillity of Mind; I did not find the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering or pimping, to procure the Favour of any great Man or of his Minion. I wanted no Fence against Fraud or Oppression; Here was neither Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Fortune; No Informer to watch my Words, and Actions, or forge Accusations against me for Hire: Here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, splenetick tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuoso's, no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; no Encouragers to Vice, by Seducement or Examples: No Dungeon, Axes, Gibbets, Whipping-posts, or Pillories: No cheating Shop-keepers or Mechanicks: No Pride, Vanity or Affectation: No Fops, Bullies, Drunkards, strolling Whores, or Poxes: No ranting, lewd, expensive Wives: No stupid, proud Pedants: No importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing Companions: No Scoundrels, raised from the Dust for the sake of their Vices, or Nobility thrown into it on account of their Virtues: No Lords, Fidlers, Judges or Dancing-Masters.”

No Dancing-Masters, praise be. Swift delivers a lesson in stone-cold irony, a catalog of accelerating hilarity and some of the cleanest prose in the language. Precisely what a twelve-year-old needs.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

'The Race of Sonnet Writers and Complainers'

“I assure you I find this world a very pretty place.”

Strong words. All of us see only ugliness and waste sometimes, but there’s a voluble class of people unwilling to see anything else. Think of them as critics without portfolio. I once worked for an editor who returned from his first visit to Montreal and complained about the scratchiness of the hotel towels. The more balanced soul quoted above is Charles Lamb. On this date, Nov. 17, in 1798, Lamb is writing to his friend Robert Lloyd, who in a previous letter had complained that “this world to you seems drain’d of all its sweets.” Keep in mind that three years earlier, Lamb had spent six weeks locked up in an asylum. As he wrote to Coleridge in May 1796:

“I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol. My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told.”

On Sept. 22, 1796, his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. For the rest of his life, Lamb, who never married, remained her legal guardian. Lamb replies to Lloyd in his 1798 letter:

“At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! but I am afraid you meant more. O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and honey comb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings.”

Some readers find Lamb’s prose indigestible. He’s just too silly, unlike his friend and reflection in a funhouse mirror, William Hazlitt. Fortunately, they are not mutually exclusive tastes, and we can always be grateful that Lamb never published a three-volume biography of Napoleon and Hazlitt never wrote Lamb’s awful poetry. Lamb had every excuse in the world to be anguished and suicidal. Instead, he became one of the wittiest writers in the language, a master of tone and rhythm, even in letters. Who else among his contemporaries makes us laugh? Wordsworth?      

“Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. So good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you—you possess all these things, and more innumerable: and these are all sweet things. You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall. The bees are wiser in their generation than the race of sonnet writers and complainers.”

Lamb’s wish to comfort and reassure his friend is touching. To do so while being eloquent and funny is miraculous.         

Thursday, November 16, 2017

`Ninny-Hammers, Goosecaps, Joltheads'

I paused when I came to “jolter-head” in William Hazlitt’s “Merry England” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819). The meaning was clear from context: “They judge of the English character in the lump as one great jolter-head, containing all the stupidity of the country . . .” But where did it come from? The OED cites Hazlitt’s usage and refers the reader to another entry, jolt head: “a heavy-headed or thick-headed person; a blockhead.” The etymology, of course, is “obscure,” but one of the other citations is a gem and comes from Vol. 4, Chap. 4, LXXXIV of Tristram Shandy:

“And here without staying for my reply, shall I be called as many blockheads, numsculs, doddypoles, dunderheads, ninny-hammers, goosecaps, joltheads, nincompoops, and sh..t-a-beds--and other unsavoury appellations, as ever the cake-bakers of Lerne cast in the teeth of King Garangantan’s shepherds.”

Sterne’s hommage to one of his masters, Rabelais, is also a catalog of essential words. After all, we can never have enough synonyms for moron and buffoon. Yiddish is a virtual encyclopedia of such words (shmendrik, putz, shmegege, et. al.), but English has grown depleted. Use of ninny-hammer, though it shows up in Tolkien, seems to have peaked early in the eighteenth century. There’s no record of W.C. Fields using jolter-head or jolt head, but in The Bank Dick (1940), in the role of Egbert Sousé
(“Sousé – accent grave over the ‘e’!”), but he offered this advice to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (“Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub”):

“Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl! You’re not those, are you?”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

`He Read and Wrote and Read'

Heavy tasks undertaken with little likelihood of commensurate reward move me to admiration; the work of careerists – never. One such hero is Ford Madox Ford. He published more than eighty books, yes, and never had enough money, but in his final project he exceeded previous accomplishments. When Ford started work on The March of Literature in 1937, he was sixty-three, overweight and still feeling the effects of having been gassed twenty years earlier, during World I. He had rheumatism and, since 1929, had suffered several heart attacks. Ford spent eight months as writer in residence (then a novel concept) at Olivet College in Michigan, giving him time to read, research and write.

I read Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells when it was published in 1982. He chronicles the time at the turn of the twentieth century when those six writers were neighbors, friends and sometimes collaborators in East Sussex and Kent. In “An Old Man Mad About Writing” (Anywhere Out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, Death, 2005), Delbanco returns to Ford. He tells us his earlier book “was in large part powered by a desire to celebrate” the author of Parade’s End, whom he portrays as a one-man literary catalyst.

The March of Literature is no dry textbook. It’s inimitably Ford’s work, as personal as DNA. Delbanco says, “There’s an intimate wrangling discursiveness here, as though the host of a party has buttonholed guests, and it’s of no real consequence if they are distant or dead.” It ought to be academic but reads like inspired conversation. Delbanco seems to be repaying a debt. He writes:

“On the forced march to completion, Ford started work at five in the morning and finished at seven at night. Years before, he had transcribed spoken utterance from Conrad, and Henry James made of dictation a routine procedure, yet it still beggars the imagination—beggars mine, at any rate—to think of anyone producing so much scholarship so fast.”

Ford had spent a lifetime internalizing literature. It was never merely a job. He published his 900-page March of Literature in 1938 and died the following year, the task of a lifetime completed. In conclusion, Delbanco writes of Ford: “He read and wrote and read. He wrote and read and wrote.”