Wednesday, October 31, 2012

`Immense If Shadowy in His Promise'

“[Keats’] letters, more mature in thought and feeling than most of his poems, make us appreciate what must have been lost to literature by his early death.” 

J.B. Priestley in Literature and Western Man (1960) forthrightly confirms what I’ve often suspected. He singles out the odes and some of the sonnets as Keats’ chief achievement in verse, but goes on to write: 

“…before his last fatal illness he developed and matured so quickly, adding to his poetry the high spirits, good sense, flashes of unusual insight, of his letters, that potentially he seems the greatest of these [English Romantic] poets, promising to be master of almost any form of literature.” 

“High spirits” is just right. We don’t expect Keats to be funny or the life of the party, and generally in the poems he’s not, but in the “Negative Capability” letter of Dec. 22, 1817, to his brothers Tom and George, he asserts “how much superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment.” Read the letter written in Dumsfires, Scotland, July 2, 3 and 5, 1818, to his fifteen-year-old sister Fanny. Included are nearly four pages of rhyming nonsense verse, composed for a little sister who missed her big brother: 

“There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he
For nothing would he do
But scribble poetry—" 

Then, in mock apology, Keats writes: 

“My dear Fanny, I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day's walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town like a Hoop without waking me. Then I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me--A Batch of Bread I make no more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull's head as easily as I used to do Bull's eyes. I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen'orth of Lady's fingers. Ah dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Clothes-basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.” 

In a blindfold test, detractors and admirers alike might fail to identify the author. Just two weeks earlier, already in Scotland, Keats writes to his brother Tom, who is dying of the tuberculosis that will have killed both brothers in less than three years: 

“What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.” 

This tonal mastery of prose substantiates what Priestley suggests: 

“He is too often considered in terms of his tragi-comic love-affair, his tuberculosis, his melancholy flight to Italy, his grave in Rome, as if he were a sentimental schoolgirl’s idea of a romantic poet. But the poetry itself, his letters, his life in its factual details, show us a very different sort of man, immense if shadowy in his promise, solid and enduring in his performance, brief though it was.” 

Keats was born on this date, Oct. 31, in 1795, and died Feb. 23, 1821, age twenty-five.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

`A Robust, Inward Strength, Like Keats'

“He had a robust, inward strength, like Keats, which has defended him from the worst endeavors of literary mawkishness, while his fortunes and his circumstances have moved the tenderness of all comers but Carlyle, who no doubt caught one aspect of him truly enough. We are never tired hearing of him; we are glad of every chance of his intimacy…”

William Dean Howells, of all people, was a great admirer – in his words, a “lover” -- of Charles Lamb. From January 1886 to March 1892, Howells published his “Editor’s Study” column in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, all of which can be read here. Much of the March 1891 column is devoted to a review of B.E. Martin’s In the Footprints of Charles Lamb. I’m pleased by Howells’ revisionist understanding of Lamb and Keats, so often trivialized into harmless sprites. Lamb, he says, has been “unsparingly sentimentalized.”

Howells suggests that “the English do not yet rank Lamb so high as we [Americans] do, or care so tenderly for him.” He accounts for this, a little dubiously, by citing Lamb’s friendships with such “low radicals” as Hunt and Hazlitt. I’m also puzzled by Howells’ assertion that Lamb’s humor “seems as little English in character as Heine’s wit seems German.” The Heine half I understand, but Lamb’s humor seems quintessentially English to me – the antiquarianism, the fine eye for manners, the puns and other linguistic extravagance, and Lamb’s enthusiastic tolerance for eccentricity and sheer silliness. With Sterne and Dickens, Lamb constitutes my American understanding of at least one strain of Englishness. A little poking about has uncovered another allusion to Lamb by Howells, in a novel I haven’t read, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890):

“[Basil March] went to his business, and hurried back to forget it, and dream his dream of intellectual achievement…he could not conceal from himself that his divided life was somewhat like Charles Lamb’s, and there were times when, as he expressed to Fulkerson, he believed that its division was favorable to the freshness of his interest in literature…He was proud of reading critically, and he kept in the current of literary interests and controversies.” 

Also, Howells above refers to Carlyle’s dissenting opinion on Lamb. Here’s what the Scotsman, surely among the most relentlessly unpleasant monomaniacs in literary history, writes in his Notebooks on Nov. 2, 1831, after visiting Lamb in Enfield:

“Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, rickety, gasping, staggering, stammering tomfool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for: more like a convulsion fit than natural systole and diastole. — Besides he is now a confirmed shameless drunkard; asks vehemently for gin-and-­water in strangers’ houses; tipples till he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him. Poor Lamb! Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!”

Monday, October 29, 2012

`Mingled Frenzy and Stupefaction'

“Evidence of his irresolution was his extravagant regimen of drunkenness, underworld sex, and public executions.” 

That’s the James Boswell who comes to mind without effort, embodying one face of eighteenth-century England, the Age of so-called Enlightenment. We know physicians treated him for venereal disease at least seventeen times (as dutifully documented in his journals). Remarkably, he lived to age fifty-five despite suffering malaria, chronic foot infections, gonorrhea (often contracted in the Blue Periwig, a brothel in The Strand, London), depression (possibly manic, known generically as "The Melancholia") and prolonged heavy drinking (whether or not clinically alcoholic, it didn’t help the depression). He added another addiction, gambling, lost heavily, and exacerbated his melancholia, all the while putting off his literary work, including the Life of Johnson. Peter Martin in A Life of James Boswell (1999) – the source of the sentence quoted above – writes of Boswell in the 1770s: 

“Alcohol became a major problem. There were stretches when he got drunk every day. If he dined out, with or without [his wife] Margaret, a recurring theme was his struggle to control how much wine, port and madeira he allowed himself…Heavy drinking was almost always followed by sickness, severe headaches and coldness, late rising, and ennui. The journal abounds with such passages: `outrageously intoxicated…After I got home, I was very ill; not sick, but like to suffocate’; `a complete riot, which lasted until near twelve at night’; `I drank three bottles of hock, and then staggered away’; I swallows about a bottle of port, which inflamed me much, the weather being hot’; `I grew monstrously drunk…mingled frenzy and stupefaction.’” 

This same sot, in 1791, seven years after his subject’s death, gave us the book that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to say: “I am taking a little of Boswell daily by way of a Bible. I mean to read him now until the day I die.” Like his friend Johnson, Boswell’s nature was irredeemably human, meaning contradictory, self-divided, defying facile understanding. We read both men because they are us, only finer and coarser. In all of literary history, I can’t think of a more unlikely writer of genius. His own death was protracted, painful and squalid. Wracked with fevers, headaches and intestinal anguish, suffering from uremia and progressive kidney failure, he died May 19, 1795. 

Sadder yet is Johnson’s death and Boswell’s reaction. The latter was in Scotland when his friend died in London on Dec. 13, 1784. Boswell learned of his passing four days later. In his journal Boswell wrote: “I did not shed tears. I was not tenderly affected. My feeling was just one large expanse of stupor.” Martin reports that only when he described Johnson’s death in the Life did he “properly release his emotion into words”: 

“I trust, I shall not be accused of affectation, when I declare, that I find myself unable to express all that I felt upon the loss of such a 'Guide, Philosopher, and Friend.' I shall, therefore, not say one word of my own, but adopt those of an eminent friend, which he uttered with an abrupt felicity, superior to all studied compositions:--'He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best:--there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.'" 

Boswell was born on this date, Oct. 29, in 1740, in Edinburgh.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

`Multiple Mysteries'

“He was very much in and of the world.” 

What a splendid judgment of a man, especially of a writer, a species seldom renowned for its at-homeness in the world. Jacques Barzun died on Thursday at age 104, and Joseph Epstein published an appreciation of his former colleague on Friday in The Wall Street Journal. Friday was also my birthday and among my presents was a copy of Epstein’s Essays in Biography (Axios Press, 2012). Few living writers inspire the obligatory acquisition of their books the way Bellow and Nabokov did when I was young. Epstein does (as did Barzun), even though, as with his new book, I’ve already read many of the essays as they appeared in periodicals. The new collection includes the portrait of his friend Matthew Shanahan that appeared last June in Commentary and that I wrote about here. The new book's dedication page reads “In memory of Matthew Shanahan (1917-2012).” The Shanahan piece remains the single best magazine article I’ve read all year. 

I stayed up too late Friday night reading half a dozen of Epstein’s portraits. In his essay on George Santayana, “The Permanent Transient,” he acknowledges the conventional wisdom that certain writers are most profitably read at certain times in our lives (“no Hemingway after twenty, no Proust before forty”). Epstein, instead, considers “the best time of day to read a writer,” and reports that in recent years he has read Santayana first thing in the morning: 

“Not only did the happy anticipation of returning to him serve as a reward for getting out of bed, but Santayana’s detachment, a detachment leading onto serenity, invariably produced a calming effect. Reading him in the early morning made the world feel somehow more understandable, even its multiple mysteries, if not penetrable, taking on a tincture of poetry that made the darkest of them seem less menacing.” 

Epstein’s work has a comparable effect on this reader (his portraits encourage forgiveness of our fellows), though I associate his books more with late evening, when I do my concentrated, undisturbed reading. Epstein accepts contradiction (“multiple mysteries”) as inevitable among humans. We’re constitutionally unable to understand ourselves, even the simplest and most complex among us. How can we expect to reach definitive assessments of others? Yet we never stop trying, and that’s the enduring appeal of biography. Epstein has perfected the brief life, the form introduced in English by John Aubrey, by leavening brute documentation with humor, vast reading, ravenous curiosity, tolerance for human inscrutability and deft prose. A longtime lecturer at Northwestern University, now retired, Epstein is the opposite of an academic writer. I have no doubt he, like the rest of us, writes to please himself, but unlike his drier cousins he never forgets his readers. 

 In a mixed reassessment of A.J. Liebling, much of whose work he deems “dated,” Epstein notes: “Something grim has happened to the culture. Today we no longer have `characters’ but only `cases.’” True enough, but Epstein consistently writes of “characters” in at least two senses I can think of.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

`There Is a Companionable Quality in Some Books'

“There are a great many people who shrink from opening an old book because it is old. There are almost as many who, if you present them with a book, and tell them it is a literary masterpiece, at once show signs of panic, and are evidently afraid to be left alone with it. If it is old, they think it is probably dull; and if it is a masterpiece, they are sure it will be over their heads.” 

The shrinking and panicking have only accelerated since 1927 when George Stuart Gordon (1881–1942) wrote those sentences in his preface to Companionable Books, a collection of BBC radio talks about his favorite books, broadcast in 1926. Gordon was a wounded veteran of the Great War, a literary scholar and president of Magdalen College at Oxford. Like Ectopistes migratorius, he represents a species the world will never see again. Chatto & Windus posthumously published More Companionable Books in 1947, bringing together the original seven pieces and adding five more. Gordon’s taste is superb. Among his selections are Pepys’ diary, The Compleat Angler, Tristram Shandy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the letters of Cowper and Lamb, The Pilgrim’s Progress, William Kinglake’s Eothen (with Fermor’s and Waugh’s, my favorite travel book) and Trollope’s Autobiography. Each book, Gordon writes in the preface, is 

“…much more alive and a great deal more companionable than any best seller one might care to name. What most men and women are looking for all their lives is companionship, and so far as books provide it, here it was. There is a companionable quality in some books that skips the centuries, and I was reluctant that anyone should miss out through mere timidity and misunderstanding.” 

Gordon’s essays are conversational and enthusiastic, never donnish. He understands that for dedicated common readers, books are old friends, as cherished and relied upon as their human counterparts. Gordon is a gifted storyteller, modest enough to relate the stories of others and give them full credit, an impresario of anecdote. In “The Humour of Charles Lamb” he writes: 

“One of the terrors of his life was being left alone with a sensible well-informed man who did not know him. He was of that select minority (the salt of the earth) who if the sun rose in the West would observe nothing unusual. If a subject did not interest him, he left it alone, and in everything that related to science was `a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world.’” 

Of the Life of Johnson, Gordon writes: 

“Though it suits all ages, it is a book, I fancy, best appreciated in the middle years [Gordon has already told us he first read it as a schoolboy, and that it left an “almost magical impression” on him], and by those who have had to fight for their experience, who have not found life easy, and who are still in the battle. Intelligence is not enough, even superior intelligence, as Macaulay proved. No admirer of this book has more disastrously misunderstood it. To understand Johnson it is necessary to have lived and to have thought about life, for life was his trade.” 

And, in the talk on Lamb’s letters, Gordon reveals his rare appreciation of the mutually dependent kinship of life and literature: 

“Lamb was singular among his literary friends for his frank acceptance of life, and his devotion to duty. A clerk he began, and a clerk he remained, because he and Mary must live.” 

Lasting friendship is rare. It requires constant maintenance and is never a passive accomplishment. Not so with books. Despite our neglect and ingratitude, they remain constant, happy whenever we return. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

`The Whole of Human Life in All Its Variety'

Jacques Barzun, who happily for us lived a preternaturally long and productive life, has died in San Antonio at age 104. My favorites among his many books are probably God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love, Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1954) and A Stroll with William James (1983), though I might come up with a fresh list tomorrow. At the end of the latter volume, Barzun appends an “Epilogue-Anthology,” a commonplace book of quotations from James’ precursors, some of his “predecessors in the Great Conversation.” Among them is an extract from a conversation Dr. Johnson had on July 5, 1763, as reported by Boswell:

“I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some particular pursuit, view it only through that medium. A politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government in its different departments ; a grazier, as a vast market for cattle ; a mercantile man, as a place where a prodigious deal of business is done upon 'Change ; a dramatick enthusiast, as the grand scene of theatrical entertainments ; a man of pleasure, as an assemblage of taverns, and the great emporium for ladies of easy virtue. But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.” 

For “London” substitute “the world,” and replace “the intellectual man” with “Jacques Barzun,” and you have some sense of the sensibility of this great generalist and master of prose clarity. For more about Barzun go here, here, here, here and here.

`His Instinctive Attachment to All Odd Things'

“In one word, be less uneasy about me; I bear my privations very well; I am not in the depths of desolation, as heretofore. Your admonitions are not lost upon me. Your kindness has sunk into my heart. Have faith in me! It is no new thing for me to be left to my sister. When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it.” 

So Charles Lamb writes to his friend Maria Fryer on St. Valentine’s Day, 1834, four days after his fifty-ninth and final birthday. He has just returned from “keeping my birthday (pretty innocent!),” he reports, and is thanking Fryer for her concern over his health. His sister is Mary Lamb. In 1796, she had fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife and attacked their father. Charles obtained Mary’s release from lifelong imprisonment on the condition he take legal responsibility for her. They lived together, when Mary wasn’t confined to an asylum, until his death on Dec. 27, 1834, and even collaborated on the bestselling Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Such is the unlikely recipe for becoming one of the funniest writers in the language. 

Today is my unlikely sixtieth birthday – “unlikely” because I’ve done little to merit even modest longevity. When young, I lived in such a way as to ensure my continuing existence would prove a minor miracle. I’ve outlived Lamb and Horace, Montaigne (dead, like Lamb, at fifty-nine), Spinoza, George Herbert, Pascal, Donne (dead, too, at fifty-nine), Sterne, Keats, Lincoln, Thoreau, Chekhov, Proust and Liebling (another one dead at fifty-nine). Even Shakespeare and Joyce. In 1797, Coleridge (who, remarkably, made it to age sixty-one) wrote “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and dedicated it to Lamb. Three times he addresses his childhood friend as “gentle-hearted Charles.” In a letter to Coleridge on Aug. 14, 1800, Lamb writes:

“In the next edition of the `Anthology’…please to blot out gentle hearted, and substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seld-shaven, odd-ey’d, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question.”  

George Gilfillan (1813-1878) was a Scottish writer little remembered today who in 1846 published Gallery of Literary Portraits. In his brief life of Lamb, he composed an epitaph-worthy summary of the essayist’s virtues, a mixed bag but one any respectable writer would happily claim as his own: 

“In his smallest composition you find all his qualities — his serious laugh — his quaint originality — his intolerance of cant — his instinctive attachment to all odd things, and all queer ambiguous people — his `very tragical mirth,’ the arabesque border of fun that edges his most serious speculations — his hatred of solitude — his love of cities — his shyness of all contested questions — his style so antique, yet racy, imitative yet original — his passion for old English authors — his enjoyment of recondite beauties, and the fine subtlety of his critical judgment.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

`Theirs But to Do and Die'

I learned “The Charge of the Light Brigade” not from a book but from Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who recited Tennyson’s poem, or at least the first two verses and a portion of the third, in the 1936 Our Gang comedy “Two Too Young.” Even in that form the poem was rousing and rhythmically memorable. I can’t remember not knowing the lines Alfalfa recited and a few others later in the poem, in particular “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die,” which I’ve always thought distilled a military and patriotic ideal. The cavalry charge Tennyson immortalized occurred on this date, Oct. 25, in 1854, at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War (1853-1856). 

In `Theirs But to Do and Die’ (Astra Press, 1995), Patrick Waddington collects, along with Tennyson’s war horse, forty-eight other poems written to commemorate the charge, one of the great blunders in British military history. Casualties included 118 dead, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner by the Russians. French Marshal Pierre Bosquet, who witnessed the charge, famously observed: “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie.” Little more than a month later, on Dec. 9, 1854, Tennyson published his poem in the Examiner. Slightly revised, it was collected the following year in Maud, and Other Poems, and published as a four-page quarto broadsheet for the British troops in the Crimea. Waddington cites George Orwell’s inclusion of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” among the “good bad poems” that “reek of sentimentality” yet are “capable of giving true pleasure to people who can clearly see what is wrong with them.” Waddington praises the poem’s “exalted verbal memorability,” saying: 

“Part of its apparent greatness may, in fact, reside in its quasi-scriptural phraseology: those who have it by heart approach it like a religious text.” 

Other poems collected by Waddington include outright parodies of Tennyson’s, and many make reference to it, directly or allusively, seriously or comically. Among the surprises: Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), the American author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” wrote “Balaklava” (Words for the Hour, 1857). Waddington admits the poem is “frankly rather simplistic and the presentation uneven,” though he praises the second line of the sixth stanza: 

“At serried gallop on they press,
Swerveless as pencilled lines of light,
And where a steed turns back in fright.
That steed is riderless.” 

More typical of Victorian prosody and piety is “The Charge of Death” by the future author of Lorna Doone, Richard D. Blackmore. Even Waddington, who maintains proper scholarly deportment through most of his commentary, says some of Blackmore’s lines are “weak, even unintentionally comic,” as in the second of his twenty-four stanzas (“they” refers to the Russians, and the Turks were British allies): 

“With swift advance they put to rout
(Like leaves before October gale)
The Turks, who held yon steep redoubt,
And drove them down the widening dale;
Thus far they came—but where we stand,
They met the Scotchmen hand to hand.
Whose limbs are bare to battle’s brunt,
But never seen except in front.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

`Berthed in the Dictionary'

“I know a word that describes the feeling you have in the roof of your mouth when peanut butter sticks to it, but I will never use it; in fact, I decline to disclose it.”

I’m not certain if this is what William F. Buckley Jr. had in mind, but I’ve learned that the fear of having your soft palate packed with peanut butter is known to psychiatrists with shrinking practices as arachibutyrophobia. The French for “peanuts,” a quintessentially American word, is arachides, and peanut butter is beurre d'arachides. Buckley was famed for his sesquipedalianism (a word I learned from one of his columns decades ago), and the sentence quoted above is from a column titled “The Conflict over the Unusual Word” (collected in Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, 2004). In it, Buckley qualifies his use of lengthy, rare, obsolete or arcane words.

Every word “berthed in the dictionary,” as he puts it, is there for one of three reasons: an “objective thing or a concept or abstraction” appears and needs a word to identify it (“cyberspace” is his example”); an “artistic hand closed in on what had been a void,” and the word gains currency (“seakindly”); or an “authoritative writer simply uses the word and such is his prestige” that it sticks (“tushery,” coined by Robert Louis Stevenson).

When I encounter a new word, lengthy or not, I like to know what it means and where it comes from. I won’t necessarily use it, in writing or speech, but I’ve grown accustomed to plugging holes in my knowledge of the world. Plain speaking is essential but so, on the right occasions, are eloquence and verbal lushness. Part of linguistic effectiveness is sensitivity to context and audience. When it’s not mere showing off, deployment of obscure words adds a pleasurable texture to poetry and prose – one of many reasons we read Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne. A gifted writer commands styles and is not limited to one. In addition, what’s obscure or pretentious to you may be familiar and homely to me.

Noting that Dwight Macdonald in his famous 1962 review of Webster’s Third relegated some words to the “zoo section” of the dictionary, Buckley says “…while one can be very firm in resisting people who spout zoo words, one should be respectful  and patient with those who exercise lovingly the wonderful opportunities of the language.”

On Monday, reading Ink Stone (2003), a collection of poems by Jamie McKendrick, I came upon one titled “Pasodoble.” From the context of the poem, I had no clues. Proper name? A city? Vaguely Spanish-sounding. A step, a pace? Double? I looked it up: a traditional Spanish dance associated with the music played at bullfights. This doesn’t help at all with McKendrick’s poem, but another hole is plugged. Also, while poking around, I came upon a sort-of-sonnet he published last week in the Guardian, “Teazles”:

“Out in the vacant lot to gather weeds
I found these teazles – their ovoid heads
delicately armoured with crowns of thorns.
Arthur, from whom I haven't heard a word
in thirty years, who must be ninety if
he's a day, told me they were used to raise
the nap on the green felt of billiards tables
and, since Roman times, for combing woollen stuff.
He also said their seeds were caviar
to the goldfinch. And then I lost the knife
he'd lent me to cut some – the loss of which
was the cause of grief. In honour of gruff Arthur
I shake the seeds out in our small green patch
and stick the spiky seed heads in a jar.” 

Teazle, or teasle, is a word I wrote about three years ago. Subsequently, in Michael Drayton’s Muses Elizium (1630), I found an amusing use of the word: 

“By stinging Nettles, pricking Teasels
Raysing blisters like the measels.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

`Their Impetuous Bravura'

While rereading an early A.J. Liebling collection, The Telephone Booth Indians (1942), I happened on a word the general sense of which I’ve understood for decades without knowing where it came from or its precise definition: bubkis or bupkis. I’ve taken it to mean nothing, an empty set or in the vernacular, squat. The word sounds racy, raffish, Runyon-esque, probably Yiddish in origin and almost certainly impolite, as though the speaker were inviting another to kiss his bub or bup (an echo of “bum kiss,” itself an echo of bumf for bumfodder or toilet paper, used metaphorically by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop: I shall get a daily pile of bumf from the Ministry of Mines”). But that’s a false etymology. Liebling, referring to the Jollity Building where down-at-the-heels performers looking for work visit talent agents, writes: 

“Only when rendered desperate by hunger do they stray down to the third floor, where the people Morty call the heels hold forth in furnished offices each about the size of a bathroom. Since the heels constitute the lowest category of tenant in the building, no proprietor of a first-class chop-suey joint or roadhouse would call on them for talent. `The best you can get there,’ performers say, `is a chance to work Saturday night at a ruptured saloon for bubkis.’ Bubkis is a Yiddish word which means `large beans.’”

In other words, this class of performers works for little or no pay. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms the Yiddish derivation from bobkes, meaning “nonsense, rubbish, nothing,” but “of uncertain origin.” The dictionary labels it “N. Amer. slang (orig. in Jewish usage),” defines it as “absolutely nothing, nil,” and cites Liebling’s usage. In The Secret Lives of Words (2000), Paul West, in his entry for bupkis (he spells it “bupkiss”), says it derives “from the Russian for a few beans, it has come to mean not that but literally nothing.” West describes the word, neologistically, as “zerophilic.” West hears the false echo I hear, and approves:

 “How quaint that speakers of English with no training in philology, phonology, or linguistics happily hear in bupkiss a word as remote as bumkiss.  Heedless of language families, and all such fancy taxonomy, they hear what they want to hear, siting much of their heart’s desire on mere percussion, raciness, and verbal physiognomy. The language is the people’s, and so long as they keep it vivid although unruly, who cares? Those of us who write can hardly afford to squander their impetuous bravura.” 

Further poking about suggests bupkis may have been absorbed into Yiddish from the Russian and Polish bobek, “bean,” but from a very specific usage. The Yiddish kozebupkes means goat droppings, combining the Russian koza (“goat”) and bobki (“little beans”). Bupkis is goat shit: “Bupkis mit Kuduchas.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

`They Teach Us How to Die'

“I cannot easily dismiss the subject of the fallen leaves.” 

In five minutes I had raked enough leaves, acorns and pine needles to fill a plastic trash can, empty it into the bin and refill the can. The sheer biomass produced by four trees in one front yard in a week is astonishing.  

“Consider what a vast crop is thus annually shed upon the earth. This, more than any mere grain or seed, is the great harvest of the year.” 

As kids we had a deep front yard with two maples growing near the street, and our neighbor had five silver maples and a sugar maple standing in a line parallel to our yard. By this time of year our lawn was thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, at first mostly yellow, then turning brown. We make raking them a reluctant, day-long job, rewarded only by the acrid sweetness of leaves burning in the driveway, a smell as redolent of autumn as marigolds and apples. 

“This annual decay and death, this dying by inches, before the whole tree at last lies down and turns to soil. As trees shed their leaves, so deer their horns, and men their hair or nails. The year’s great crop. I am more interested in it than in the English grass alone or in the corn. It prepares the virgin mould for future cornfields on which the earth fattens. They teach us how to die.” 

One year my brother buried me under a heap of fallen leaves three or four feet deep. It was a dry fall and the leaves rustled even as I tried to remain still. The simple act of breathing, the expansion and contraction of my chest, produced a sound like radio static or wind through branches, as though my being had somehow revived the fallen leaves.

The quoted passages are from Thoreau’s journal entry for Oct. 22, 1853.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

`Still Clinging to the Idea of Being Summer'

It’s a dry time but not a drought, at least in the short term. The stones leading to our front door are littered with gray-green leaves from the water oaks. Ours survived in what looks like vigorous good health, though I heard the other day that last year’s drought was hardest on water oaks and pines. Acorns are plentiful, a restorative response to so many dead and dying trees. We have few maples, beech or poplar here, so the fall palette is narrow and the leaf fall sparse. In Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (2012), David Ferry has a poem called “October”: 

“The day was hot, and entirely breathless, so
The remarkably quiet remarkably steady leaf fall
Seemed as if it had no cause at all.
 

“The ticking sound of falling leaves was like
The ticking sound of gentle rainfall as
They gently fell on leaves already fallen,
 

“Or as, when as they passed them in their falling,
Now and again it happened that one of them touched
One or another leaf as yet not falling,
 

“Still clinging to the idea of being summer:
As if the leaves that were falling, but not the day,
Had read, and understood, the calendar.”
 

In twelve lines, some form of “fall” appears eight times. If it has a theme, Bewilderment is about old age, coming to terms with its diminishments, how all eras in our lives remain alive in memory. Ferry turned eighty-eight this year. I thought of the memory of the childhood tree in “The Lesson,” Ferry’s translation from the Latin of Dr. Johnson’s In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfieldiae Diffuentem, and how Ferry has returned so often in his work to Johnson. In an interview collected in Talking With Poets (edited by Harry Thomas, 2002), Ferry says: 

“I tend to be a hero-worshipper of some writers, and Dr. Johnson is one of them. So I was very interested in everything of his that I could find…”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

`The Butcher Began His Work'

By the time of Anthony Hecht’s death on this date in 2004, the year had already been an unforgiving one for our better poets. On April 25 we lost Thom Gunn; Aug. 6, Donald Justice; Aug. 14, Czesław Miłosz. A few months later, Guy Davenport and Saul Bellow joined them – a grim time, still the first half of a decade that had also claimed Edgar Bowers, William Maxwell, W.G. Sebald, R.S. Thomas, Penelope Fitzgerald, C.H. Sisson and D.J. Enright. For Hecht, a poet of poise and elegance, death was never an abstraction. He witnessed it first-hand as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, and as a member of the 97th division he helped liberate the death camp at Flossenbürg. Two weeks earlier, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been hanged there. Hecht was assigned to interview the French prisoners, and decades later recalled: “The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.” Here, from Hecht’s final collection of poems, The Darkness and the Light (2001), is “The Hanging Gardens of Tyburn”: 

“Mysteriously fed by the dying breath
Of felons, by the foul odor that melts
Down from their bodies hanging on the gallows,
The rank, limp flesh, the soft, pendulous guilts, 

“This solitary plant takes root at night,
Its tiny charnel blossoms the pale blue
Of Pluto’s ice pavilions; being dried,
Powdered and mixed with the cold morning dew 

“From the left hand of an executed man,
It confers untroubled sleep, and can prevent
Prenatal malformations if applied
To a woman’s swelling body, except in Lent. 

“Take care to clip only the little blossoms,
For the plant, uprooted, utters a cry of pain
So highly pitched as both to break the eardrum
And render the would-be harvester insane.” 

In a note to the poem, Hecht cites the ancient folk belief that mandrake, used as an opiate and love potion, grew under gallows from the dripping semen of hanged men. Donne memorably alludes to the plant and its folklore, and Shakespeare refers twice to mandrake (Romeo and Juliet: “Shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth”) and twice to mandragora, another of its common names. Hecht gives his poem a comically grotesque title, starting with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and combining it with Tyburn, the village in Middlesex, now part of London, where hangings were performed for six-hundred years starting late in the twelfth century.  Executions were holidays attended by thousands. Among those hanged at Tyburn – posthumously, after his body was disinterred from Westminster Abbey – was Oliver Cromwell. Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers, in Recollections of the Table-Talk (1856), recalls a pitiful scene: 

“I recollect seeing a whole cartload of young girls, in dresses of various colours, on their way to be executed at Tyburn. They had all been condemned, on one indictment, for having been concerned in (that is, perhaps, for having been spectators of) the burning of some houses during Lord George Gordon’s riots. It was quite horrible,--Greville was present at one of the trials consequent on those riots, and heard several boys sentenced, to their own amazement, to be hanged. `Never,’ said Greville with great naïveté, `did I see boys cry so.’” 

Hangings at Tyburn were abolished in 1783 and moved behind the walls of Newgate Prison. Samuel Johnson, one year before his death, objected to the sequestering of executions. Boswell reports him saying: 

“The age is running mad after innovation; and all the business of the world is to be done in a new way. Men are to be hanged in a new way; Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation…it is not an improvement; they object, that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the publick was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it.” 

Between 1535 and 1681, one-hundred five Roman Catholic martyrs were executed at Tyburn. Among them was the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who was hanged, drawn and quartered with two other priests on Dec. 1, 1581. In Edmund Campion (1935), Evelyn Waugh writes: 

“The scene at Tyburn was tumultuous. Sir Thomas More had stepped out into the summer sunshine, to meet death quietly and politely at a single stroke of the axe. Every circumstance of Campion’s execution was vile and gross.” 

And this: 

“The cart was driven from under him, the eager crowd swayed forward, and Campion was left hanging, until, unconscious, perhaps already dead, he was cut down and the butcher began his work.”

Friday, October 19, 2012

`For a Year More of Life'

The late Christopher Logue writes of Samuel Beckett in Prince Charming: A Memoir (1999):

“Beckett loved Samuel Johnson. He was always referring to Johnson. `Rasselas is a grand book. He could be rude—but he had a kind heart. Towards the end of his life he suffered from dropsy. Water was blowing him up. When the doctors would not drain more of it off, he asked his servant [Frank] Barber – a negro, they were together for years – for a knife and stabbed and stabbed his own legs.’”

When, as kids, we dropped something on the floor, invariably someone observed: “You must have the dropsy.” The definite article was puzzling. If we were clumsy and given to dropping things, why “the dropsy?” Today, doctors diagnose edema, but the the is a vestigial trace of the old medical terminology for fluid retention in the soft tissue, before the discovery of digitalis. Similarly, one has “the croup” or “the hives.” Dropsy is from the Greek hydor, “water,” by way of Old French and Middle English.

Beckett’s admiration for Johnson’s work and life is well documented. He no doubt remembers the leg-slashing incident as an act of savage desperation, literally self-lacerating, but I suspect Beckett is also moved by Johnson’s stoical courage in the face of suffering and impending death. The event he describes occurred late on Dec. 12, 1784, the day before Johnson’s death at age seventy-five. In his biography, W. Jackson Bate recounts a veritable Merck Manual of maladies suffered by the writer at the end of his life: general circulatory disease, made evident six months earlier by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by growing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. Together, the emphysema and congestive heart disease resulted in what Johnson and his doctors called “asthma.” In Paradise Lost, Milton might have been diagnosing Johnson: “Dropsies, and Asthma's, and Joint-racking Rheums.”

The dropsy, by the end, had spread from Johnson’s chest to his feet and lower legs. Johnson asked his surgeon, William Cruikshank, to make additional cuts in his legs to drain the fluid. The doctor feared infection and necrosis, and had only gently lanced the surface. Bate reports Johnson’s protest: “Deeper, deeper; I want length of life, and you are afraid of giving me pain, which I do not value.” Another witness reports him saying: “I would give one of these legs for a year more of life, I mean of comfortable life, not such as that which I now suffer.” A friend of Johnson’s, William Windham, later spoke with Frank Barber and gave this account: 

“He had compelled Frank to give him a lancet, and had besides concealed in the bed a pair of scissors, and with one or the other of these had scarified himself in three places, two in the left leg, etc….of which one in the leg [was] not unskillfully made; but the other in the leg was a deep and ugly wound from which, with the other, they suppose him to have lost nearly eight ounces of blood.” 

Johnson seems to have believed that the dropsy, the swelling from fluid of the soft tissue in his legs, was the source of his illness rather than a symptom. Sir John Hawkins reports in his biography of Johnson: 

“He looked upon himself as a bloated carcass; and, to attain the power of easy respiration, would have undergone any degree of temporary pain. He dreaded neither punctures nor incisions.” 

Boswell, perhaps out of respectful deference toward his friend, makes no mention of the leg-slashing. Johnson’s last known words were made to his friend the Italian teacher Francesco Sastres. When he entered the room, Johnson reached out and said, “Iam Moriturus” – “I who am about to die.” Bate notes that the lifelong fighter may have been thinking of “the ancient Roman salutation of the dying gladiators to Caesar.” That is, “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

`East German Plastic Bag'

Les Murray on Ezra Pound, his Cantos and their devotees:

“The approach is historical and progressivist, concerned more with state-of-the-art than with art. It is better to be new and daring than to write well. The resulting damage to poetry from all this has not been fatal, of course; the more grievous damage has been to its reception by readers.”

Murray published his review of a new edition of The Pisan Cantos in 1974, less than two years after Pound’s death, in the Sydney Morning Herald (later collected in The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose, 1992). Had I read it thirty-eight years ago, I might have been spared the precious hours of my youth squandered on Pound’s ravings. But probably not. Like other autodidacts and other young people smitten with literature, I was a sucker, easily impressed by kulchur (Pound’s favored spelling). For all my supposed independence, I was naïve and credulous. I took the word of too many readers and critics who sounded authoritative, without realizing they too were following the pack and denying their own good sense. I remember being shocked by the essay in which Karl Shapiro, who had voted against the Bollingen Prize going to the obscene bric-a-brac of The Pisan Cantos, bluntly called Pound “stupid.” Shapiro, of course, was being fair and correct, but only slowly did I come to understand that literary reputation and most of the writers and critics who fashion it are engaged in a vast Ponzi scheme. We buy shares in their investments, with little or no hope of a return. The scheme succeeds because each fortune-hunter wishes to appear daring, sophisticated and, above all, hip. All, after all, is vanity. Murray writes:

“All establishments exist to compel acceptance and to deflect, for as long as possible, the question of absolute quality. In both respects the Pound establishment has been highly successful.  In an era of the political test in literature, they have even been able to gloss over their hero’s fascism [and anti-Semitism]. There is an unpleasant sense in which Pound has been forgiven much because he is the universities’ man.”

Things have only fallen further apart. Political posing is pandemic. The Language Poets make Pound read like a model of Dick-and-Jane clarity. Murray sees in Pound the germ of subsequent literary hipsters:

“Pound went on to promote the ideal of the bohemian guru standing over against the Establishment, an ideal which led on to the grotesqueries of Messrs Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and a score of others. The Sharon Tate murders may be said to have consummated that line of historical development.”

In his preface to The Paperbark Tree, Murray refers to the mass of assumptions that regulate the literary world as the “East German Plastic Bag.” He defines it as “that clammy sheath of expected allegiance and enforced style which is still jammed over your head as soon as you come near the world of literature or commentary.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

`Betrayed By What Is Wild'

It’s a happy day for readers as we celebrate the birthday of two poets in the truest possible fashion -- by reading their work. Yvor Winters was born on this date in Chicago in 1900, and Les Murray in Nabiac, New South Wales, Australia, in 1938. First, let’s address their apparent differences. In the 1929 essay “Notes on Contemporary Criticism” (Uncollected Essays and Reviews, 1973), Winters distills his mature thought and alienates almost everyone who fancies himself a writer or reader of poetry:

“The basis of evil is in emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood.”

Among others, Winters probably has in mind Hart Crane, a poet egregiously self-indulgent with emotions. Winters described his erstwhile friend as “a saint of the wrong religion,” and critics have subsequently caricatured Winters as a super-rational despot, some even accusing him of pushing Crane to suicide. Seemingly in contrast to the American, Murray, whose son is autistic, says in an interview:

“A lot of modern art is very autistic. There is this arbitrary law that you're not supposed to be sentimental or have any feelings. What the bloody hell is that but autism, pretending to be some kind of automaton?”

In the same interview, Murray diagnoses himself as “a high-performing Asperger,” odd in a man whose poetry is Shakespearian in its deployment of every emotion known to humans. Here’s a test for both poets. If any subject invites sappy sentimentality, wallows in whimsy, it’s dogs. Their extreme poetic admirers want to be admired for their love of canines. To address the subject in poetry without falsity or self-admiration means swimming against the warm fuzzy tide. Winters raised and showed Airedales. Here is his “Elegy on a Young Airedale Bitch Lost Some Years Since in the Salt-Marsh” (Before Disaster, 1934):

“Low to the water's edge
You plunged; the tangled herb
Locked feet and mouth, a curb
Tough with the salty sedge.

“Half dog and half a child,
Sprung from that roaming bitch,
You flung through dike and ditch,
Betrayed by what is wild.

“The old dogs now are dead,
Tired with the hunt and cold,
Sunk in the earth and old.
But your bewildered head,

 “Led by what heron cry,
Lies by what tidal stream?--
Drenched with ancestral dream,
And cast ashore to dry.”

That Winters loved his dogs is inarguable and probably irrelevant. Here he is writing a poem, not telling us how much he loved his young Airedale bitch. The poem’s operative phrase is perhaps “Betrayed by what is wild.” Beware of what is wild, in nature and in poetry. I find Winters among the most emotionally rich of modern poets precisely because he mediates emotional expression, transmutes it and makes it memorable through form. Murray is another dog lover. Here is “A Dog’s Elegy” (Conscious and Verbal, 2001):

“The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
to make speech-like sounds to his humans
lies buried in the soil of a slope
that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

“He hated thunder and gunshot
and would charge off to restrain them.
A city dog too alive for backyards,
we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

“but now his human name melts off him;
he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
the coral tree and the African tulip
will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

“Our longhaired cat who mistook him
For an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
And teetered in top twigs for eight days
As a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

“The cattle suspect the Dog lives
but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
eared gazing wigwams of fur.”

Asked to distinguish between the sentimental and the not sentimental in the interview cited above, Murray says: “I think it's probably in not telling lies. There's always something false about the sentimental. When it's feeling without lies, it's terribly scary, but it's not sentimental.” Murray has an eerie gift (one formerly possessed by fiction writers) for inhabiting other beings in his poems (an odd talent for a self-diagnosed proto-Asperger), including other species, as in his 1994 collection Translations from the Natural World. In the hands of another poet, capitalizing “Dog,” reading the minds of cattle and interpreting kangaroo behavior might be dubiously sentimental. Not here. In his foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947), Winters defines a poem as “a statement in words about a human experience,” and later in the same book says “special pains are taken with the expression of feeling.” He writes of “special pains,” not exclusion.