Sunday, December 17, 2017

`A Congenital Preoccupation with Good Writing'

“In the middle of the dog-days I had been up at five and dug till seven when I had my coffee; I had irrigated till nine . . . And after that I had written till one—which is too long—had lunched off a tomato salad, taken my siesta, set out some romaine plants—and a hell of a lot of watering they would need if they were to come to anything. . . And I will confess that very few of them have. Still, they will give us a salad or two . . . Then, having no cooking either to think of or suggest, I wrote from five to seven—which is too long . . .”

An idyllic existence, at least from this distance in time and space. Ford Madox Ford seems never to have stopped working. The result was more than eighty books published, three or four of which are surely among the finest written in the twentieth century. The passage above is from one of them, Provence, from Minstrels to the Machine (1935), and is quoted in the second installment of Tim Longville’s “The Small Producer: Gardens in the Life of Ford Madox Ford,” in the winter issue of Hortus: A Gardening Journal. I wrote about the first part, in the autumn issue, here. (Thank you, and Merry Christmas, David Jones.)

Read the Ford excerpt above with attention to rhythm. Read it aloud. Ford seems naturally to work in units of five to seven words, perhaps keyed to breathing. The ellipses are his and represent pauses, not complete stops, in the forward motion of his prose. I’m reminded of water lapping gently against a pier. With Ford, the under-oath authenticity of what he is writing is dubious. And six hours of writing is unlikely to be “too much.” The way he weaves gardening, resting, eating and writing suggests an ideal balance, something he was never able to attain. Ford wrote as a gourmet but lived as a gourmand. Longville cites a letter to Janice Biala, Ford’s paramour du jour, written by Louise Bogan after visiting them in France:

“I remember the goat cheese and the casserole full of Ford’s magnificent cooking and the Gaulois Bleus and the ducks you almost bought in the market and the Marc and your Niçois hat and the Rossetti drawing on the wall and the big magnolia flower and your painting of the [Allen] Tates and Ford’s voice and your singing in the evening, and the garden terraces, mixed with salad leaves and herbs, and Debussy and Bach on the gramophone …”

Ford was born on this date, Dec. 17, in 1873, and died June 26, 1939. Longville describes Ford’s sad decline. He was hospitalized in Deauville and buried in its cemetery. C.H. Sisson in “Ford Madox Ford: Saltavit et Placuit” (The Avoidance of Literature, 1978) writes that Ford “had what you might call a congenital preoccupation with good writing, and a preoccupation of that depth is not to be confused with a fad or a social custom. It has the psychological depth of a moral virtue, like courage. It is deeper than courage, indeed—more like truthfulness.”  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

`His Sentences Are Like Little Excursions'

Thanks to Barton Swaim for reminding us today is the centenary of Murray Kempton’s birth. Swaim captures the essence of Kempton’s charm, especially for those of us with little or no interest in politics:

“His word choice is never quite what you would have predicted; his sentences are like little excursions, sometimes resolving in the ordinary way, sometimes fading into grammatical uncertainty or trailing off into a marathon dependent clause. It doesn’t always work, but it’s evidence of a mind steadfastly refusing to think or express anything in the usual tired old way.”

That’s close to the lesson I learned incrementally from Kempton. To imitate his prose would be fatal, but the notion of systematically thinking through each sentence, assaying word choice, keeping the rhythm in mind, avoiding the lazy and predictable word or phrase without resorting to cheap tricks – those are the lessons absorbed. Kempton was never afraid to be articulate, despite warning that newspaper subscribers read at the fifth-grade level. His goal was precision, a quality that in itself is elegant. I once worked for a newspaper editor who described Kempton as “flowery” and “too literary.” He preferred Jimmy Breslin. We have grown so accustomed to journalists who are unable to write and do so at great length that Kempton reads like Gibbon.

Starting in the eighties I clipped and saved Kempton’s three-times-a-week column in Newsday and his occasional pieces in the New York Review of Books. I still have thick stacks of them in a file cabinet. Here is a favorite piece from 1990 on Chekhov, Conrad and the fall of the Soviet Union:

“Chekhov had been dead for eighty-five years when first I took notice of his credentials as an analyst of Soviet society. I had glimpsed his authority earliest when I read `My Life,’ the long story whose protagonist learns that he has been abandoned by his wife in a letter in which she tells him that she has prepared herself to begin again by buying a ring like the one that King David had engraved `All things pass.’

“If I wanted a ring myself,” Chekhov’s hero reflects, “the inscription I should choose would be ‘Nothing passes away.’”

In conclusion Kempton writes:

“The cruelty and indifference of misgovernment explain the bandits of Conrad’s Costaguana, and perhaps the same things explain the FMLN in El Salvador’s hills today. We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand. His is the matter of fact. Social science and intelligence reports are the mere poor stuff of an unadorned imagination.”

Here is Kempton on the pointless question of whether Duke Ellington was “the twentieth century’s greatest composer”:

“There are representative lives and they are generally deplorable. There are also exemplary lives like this one. They are lived without lament or self-pity. They neither meditate alone nor unite with support groups in search of self-esteem. They just build it on the road in the community of work. It is a waste of breath to argue whether Duke Ellington was more or less than Bach or Beethoven or Haydn. All that counts is that he was like them in knowing what matters, and that, when all are dead who heard those horns live, there will be children to discover and hear them again.”

In a column written in the waning days of the 1960 presidential campaign and collected in America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (1963), Kempton musters sympathy for a dispirited Richard Nixon:

“He is not a man I cherish, but there is in the sight of him the painful recognition that something human somewhere is being cruelly violated and humiliated. The gestures are the gestures of someone trapped five fathoms deep; when he stands on a platform and makes a fist, it is a piece of mush; the forearm no longer jabs for emphasis; it merely flounders. There are the movements of a drowning man.”

Kempton knew Alger Hiss was a liar and Whittaker Chambers was an unfashionable, unphotogenic truth-teller, and wrote movingly of both men in the first chapter of Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955). Fifteen years later, in his review of Chambers’ letters to his friend William F. Buckley Jr., Kempton not only sympathizes with Chambers but finds amusement in his enigmatic personality:

“Perhaps it was Chambers’s loneliness, the experience of having to begin life again so often as a stranger in new surroundings, which explains his need always to carry the aura of an ambassador from some Other Shore: the Hisses, he says, were drawn to him because they thought him a Russian, which, to the extent that the will could conquer an origin in Lynbrook, L.I., he certainly was and remained.”    

Friday, December 15, 2017

`Evanescent Brilliancy and Tremulous Imbecility'

In Lectures on the English Poets, William Hazlitt begins his evisceration of Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and his poem “The Pleasures of Memory” (1792) rather delicately. He calls him “a very lady-like poet.” Given the female poets of the day and Hazlitt’s chronic idiocy when it came to women, that’s mild. He’s just warming up:

“He is an elegant, but feeble writer. He wraps up obvious thoughts in a glittering cover of fine words; is full of enigmas with no meaning to them; is studiously inverted, and scrupulously far-fetched; and his verses are poetry, chiefly because no particular line, or syllable of them reads like prose.”  

Whenever I read a memorably savage takedown by a critic, I automatically think of the contemporary writers to whom it applies. The two sentences quoted serve as a rubber-stamp review for thousands of recent volumes. As described by Hazlitt, Rogers is the template for today’s poets. But Hazlitt isn’t finished. Poetry like Rogers’ is “a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgety translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminie-pimminie of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction.”

Let’s pause for a moment to savor “mimminie-pimminie.” As a noun, two citations show up in the Oxford English Dictionary, both by Hazlitt, including the one just quoted. Clearly, Hazlitt had happened upon a useful word. The OED defines it as “finicky or affected writing; verbosity, prolixity,” and calls it an “alteration” of the adjective “niminy-piminy,” and suggests it might derive from “mim”: “reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way; affectedly modest, demure.” It also calls the word “imitative of affected speech,” and I find myself wanting to sound the word sniffily through my nose when I say it aloud. Hazlitt has more on his mind:

“You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression. The fastidious and languid reader is never shocked by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world, with a single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure for the finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is refined, and frittered away into an appearance of the most evanescent brilliancy and tremulous imbecility.”

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to watch a writer having so good a time.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

`His Attitude Suited Me Very Well'

Chief among the teachers in my continuing education is Boris Dralyuk, editor, poet and translator. This week Boris posted his translation of “The Tram” by Yuri Kazarnovsky, a Russian poet whose name I had encountered (see below) but whose work I had never read. Written in 1932, “The Tram” reads like a celebration of all that is speedy, efficient and, above all, modern. Boris calls the poem “sprightly,” and adds:

“It reverberates with wit and the joy of invention. The poem’s lightness and brightness seem so incongruous with the cruel facts of Kazarnovsky’s life, but might in fact explain how he managed to withstand those facts.”

Successive catalogs whimsically tally the contents of the tram: “eleven meetings, / a lady’s purse, / a separation’s grief, / seven briefcases, / eight belated greetings, / and a beetle / on a jacket’s sleeve.” Remember, this is Stalin’s Russia Kazarnovsky is describing, the unhappiest place on Earth in 1932. Here is the ecstatic bustle of urban life, the reveling in technological marvels. Think of John Dos Passos’ city scenes in The 42nd Parallel (1930), the first novel in his U.S.A. trilogy:

“The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking, eyes greedy for warm curves of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench, blood tingles with wants, mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging . . . People have packed into subways, climbed into streetcars and buses, in the stations they’ve scampered for suburban trains; they’ve filtered into lodgings and tenements, gone up in elevators into apartment-houses.”

But that is the U.S.A. As Boris tells us, by 1932 Kazarnovsky had already spent four years in the Solovki prison camp, and would be arrested again in 1937, and later spend four years in Kolyma. In 1938, he was among the last people to see Osip Mandelstam alive, in a transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok. That’s how I knew Kazarnovsky’s name. He shows up in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), translated by Max Hayward. In the first volume, in the chapter titled “The Date of Death,” Kazarnovsky tells the widow her husband “`did well to die: otherwise he would have gone to Kolyma.’” In 1944, when Kazarnovsky was released from the Gulag, he met her in Tashkent:

“He lived there without a permit or ration cards, hiding from the police, terrified of everybody and drinking very heavily. He had no proper shoes, and I gave him some tiny galoshes that had belonged to my mother. They fitted him very well because he had no toes on his feet—they had become frozen in the camp and he had chopped them off with an ax to prevent gangrene. Whenever they were all taken to the baths, their clothes froze in the damp air of the changing room and rattled like sheets of tin.”

Mandelstam describes Kazarnovsky as “the first more or less authentic emissary I had met from the `other world.'’’ She learns that he and her husband had occupied beds in the same barracks. Nadezhda is desperate for information about Osip’s final days, but skeptical, as always: “[Kazarnovsky’s] memory was like a huge, rancid pancake in which fact and fancy from his prison days had been mixed up together and baked into an inseparable mass.”

In Hope Abandoned, Mandelstam refers to Kazarnovsky as a “minor Moscow poet”:

“From him I got the first reliable information about M.’s death—which was not easy to extract because of his endless prattle about the good old days in Moscow . . . and about poetry—French, Russian, and Muscovite. But in speaking of M. he was much less inclined to romanticize, if only because he saw nothing very glamorous about such a fate. In this respect his attitude suited me very well.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

`The Lustre of Their Lives'

“The death of great men is not always proportioned to the lustre of their lives. Hannibal, says Juvenal, did not perish by a javelin or a sword; the slaughters of Cannae were revenged by a ring [containing poison]. The death of Pope was imputed by some of his friends to a silver saucepan, in which it was his delight to heat potted lampreys.”

Readers who judge Dr. Johnson a humorless scold are advised to consider the possibility of Alexander Pope’s death by eel, raised in Johnson’s “Life of Pope.” The reference to Hannibal is taken from Juvenal’s tenth satire, the one adapted by Johnson as “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in which he turns the Carthaginian general into Charles XII of Sweden. In Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Johnson likewise recounts the grotesque and possibly apocryphal death of a more obscure poet, Thomas Otway (1651-1685):

“He went out, as is reported, almost naked, in the rage of hunger, and, finding a gentleman in a neighbouring coffee-house, asked him for a shilling. The gentleman gave him a guinea; and Otway, going away, bought a roll, and was choked with the first mouthful.”    

Sadder is the fate of John Hughes (1677-1720), whose life and death Johnson treats as an allegory on human wishes. Hughes’ work for the stage had never been popular. In February 1720, his final tragedy, The Siege of Damascus, was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and opening night was a smash. Hughes, sick in bed with consumption, was given the happy news, and died. Johnson writes: “He lived to hear that it was well received; but paid no regard to the intelligence, being then wholly employed in the meditations of a departing Christian.”

Readers will associate Johnson’s lifelong death preoccupation with Philip Larkin’s, in particular “Aubade.” The difference is critical. For Larkin, death is nullity, oblivion: “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Johnson, a “departing Christian,” thought otherwise. Boswell recounts a conversation Johnson had at age seventy-five, shortly before his death on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784:  

“JOHNSON. `As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.’ (Looking dismally.) DR. ADAMS. `What do you mean by damned?’ JOHNSON (passionately and loudly). `Sent to hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.’”

Johnson’s death mingled grotesquery with nobility. In his final months, he suffered from 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. His friend and biographer Sir John Hawkins reports Johnson’s final coherent words were Iam moriturus (“I who am about to die”), an echo of the gladiators’ salute to Caesar: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.” In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes the scene shortly before his death:

“Bloated with dropsy [edema], Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

`Attentive to the Individual Man'

One of the hundreds of seemingly minor characters in Vasily Semyonovich Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (trans. Robert Chandler, 1985) speaks for his creator:

“Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age. More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all
these people—as a Russian democrat . . . Chekhov said, let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere.”

Readers and critics most often liken Life and Fate to War and Peace, and Grossman acknowledged reading Tolstoy’s novel twice while working as a war correspondent for the Red Army during World War II. But his sensibility has always seems to me closer to Chekhov’s. The individual is always his focus. The novel’s most memorable scene begins with Sofya Osipovna Levinton being transported by train to a Nazi death camp. A doctor without children of her own, she befriends a little boy, David. On arrival at the camp, a German officer orders all doctors to step forward. Sofya Osipovna ignores the command and chooses to stay with David and the others, who are herded into a gas chamber. Grossman takes us inside the gas chamber to witness their deaths:

“This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

“`I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.

“That was her last thought.

“Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.”

The effect on the conscious reader is devastating, especially when Grossman switches to the second-person plural and addresses his readers directly: Sofya Osipovna “felt pity for all of you.” Grossman writes not of the six million but of two, as Chekhov might have done. Chekhov’s grand theme, covert and otherwise, was individual human freedom. He respects the individual in ways that are almost shocking. In the passage about Chekhov quoted above, Grossman might have had in mind the well-known letter his predecessor wrote to the radical poet and editor Aleksey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev on Oct. 4, 1888. That year, Pleshcheyev published Chekhov’s “The Steppe,” the story that announced his arrival as a major Russian writer (previously he had written dozens of mostly humorous sketches – light fare, though often amusing and  suggestive of better things to come). In his letter Chekhov writes:

“The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all of their forms . . . Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

Earnest twits like Pleshcheyev are still with us. But twits, given enough power, can turn into censors and worse. Grossman was born on this date, Dec. 12, in 1905, in Berdichev (then in Russia, now in Ukraine). He died on Sept. 14, 1964, never seeing Life and Fate in print.

[The passage by Chekhov is from Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky.]

Monday, December 11, 2017

`Quintessential California'

It’s an attractive idea for reasons practical and commercial. Some readers are intimidated by bulk. Small books seem accessible. Thus, the Pocket Poets series of Everyman’s Library. Some of its attractive little volumes (4⅛ by 6¼ inches) are devoted to individual poets – Robinson and Akhmatova, for instance. Others are themed, and that’s where a good idea begins to sour. When poems are chosen because they conform to a theme – “On Wings of Song,” “Animal Poems” – with little or no thought given to their worth as poetry, even the most intrepid anthologist is doomed to compromise. I’ve looked at several volumes in the Pocket Poets over the years – they have the irresistible heft small objects sometimes possess – and customarily put them down in disappointment. Too much dubious work that feels like padding or just bad taste.

Poems of the American West (2002), edited by Robert Mezey, is the exception. His notion of what constitutes a poem of the West is elastic (Apollinaire makes the cut), and he was compelled to include the work of some well-known inferior poets – Jeffers, Rexroth, Bukowski – in order to fill out the theme. But the overall quality of his choices is remarkably high: Janet Lewis, Yvor Winters, J.V. Cunningham, Zbigniew Herbert, Edgar Bowers, Donald Justice, Henri Coulette (who died in 1988, not 1989, as Mezey reports), Thom Gunn, R.S. Gwynn, Timothy Steele, Timothy Murphy. In other words, much of the best poetry written in the twentieth century, though he leaves out Helen Pinkerton and Dana Gioia. Here is Coulette’s witty and very Californian “Quake”:

“Jack Donne and Raymond Chandler, like shattered pigeons, fall,
All thud and blunder, quintessential California.

“A name like Richter gives a signature to fear,
And palm tree rats now hearken to the lisp of God.

“The swimming pools of Eden suddenly are empty.
Bertolt Brecht’s spectacles lie splintered on the floor,

“For the world is made of glass and makes to break,
And shines like stars without a heaven, and makes to cut.

“Alas, O children of paradise, it comes to this:
This bed thy centre was, that is a midnight mouth.”

Also included is a poet I have read only in scraps, though all of them have been good: Suzanne Doyle. She is the poetic grand-daughter of Yvor Winters, whose student, Edgar Bowers, was her teacher. Her single poem in Mezey’s anthology is the Wintersian “Heart’s Desire.” Here are the closing lines:  

“It is inhuman beauty, cold, austere,
You open to receive without a fear,
Arousing your remote and shattered core
To the release that only it can bring:
Annihilation of the self by Nothing.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

`Like Pancakes, Hot and Hot'

“. . . three pence in my pocket. With this for my whole fortune, I was trudging through Richmond, in my blue smock-frock and my red garters tied under my knees, when, staring about me, my eye fell upon a little book, in a bookseller’s window, on the outside of which was written: ‘TALE OF A TUB; PRICE 3d.’”

Stories of lives changed by books are always pleasing. In this case, the reader and writer is William Cobbett (1763-1835), the farmer and malcontent best known for Rural Rides (1830). He was a master of prose in the plain style, a link in the eccentric English chain stretching from Swift, Defoe and Johnson to Hazlitt, Orwell (in his best essays, not the fiction) and Theodore Dalrymple.  As Hazlitt wrote in his essay on Cobbett: “A really great and original writer is like nobody but himself.”

“The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited. I had the 3d. but, then, I could have no supper. In I went, and got the little book, which I was so impatient to read, that I got over into a field, at the upper corner of Kew gardens, where there stood a hay-stack. On the shady side of this, I sat down to read.”  

The anecdote is taken from one of Cobbett’s polemics, “To the Reformers,” published on Feb. 5, 1820 in the Political Register. The anecdote is idyllic, and even if embellished or invented, worth believing. Throughout his work, Cobbett returns to Swift like Antaeus making certain to touch the Earth.

“The book was so different from anything I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought of supper or bed. When I could see no longer, I tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when off I started to Kew, reading my little book.”

I thought of the first time I read Ulysses as a teenager. Pages passed in a stupor. I understood nothing. Then words would flash and I would keep reading. That’s how we learn to read, not merely recognize signs on a page. Cobbett describes an event that occurred when he was thirteen. He gets a job as groundskeeper at Kew:

“The gardener, seeing me fond of books, lent me some gardening books to read; but, these I could not relish after my Tale of a Tub, which I carried about with me wherever I went, and when I, at about twenty years old, lost it in a box that fell overboard in the Bay of Fundy in North America, the loss gave me greater pain than I have ever felt at losing thousands of pounds.”  

My heart is with the autodidacts of the world, those who would forsake a meal so they can buy a book. Hazlitt says of him: “His ideas are served up, like pancakes, hot and hot.”

Saturday, December 09, 2017

`An Unrehearsed Intellectual Adventure'

In The Idler #34, published on this date, Dec. 9, in 1758, Dr. Johnson tells us “the qualities requisite to conversation are very exactly represented by a bowl of punch.” The rest of the essay amounts to an ingeniously elaborated metaphor:

“Punch, says this profound investigator, is a liquor compounded of spirit and acid juices, sugar and water. The spirit, volatile and fiery, is the proper emblem of vivacity and wit; the acidity of the lemon will very aptly figure pungency of raillery, and acrimony of censure; sugar is the natural representative of luscious adulation and gentle complaisance; and water is the proper hieroglyphick of easy prattle, innocent and tasteless.”

Often Johnson’s essays read like sermons – wise but culpatory, though he seldom sequesters himself from the guilty. But this Idler is different. He makes his moral points wittily, noting that good conversation succeeds by “tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat.” That, of course, is precisely what he is doing in his essay. Swift described conversation as a “useful and innocent pleasure.” And yet, how seldom it is. Talk in a social setting is likelier to be complaining, pontificating or inane verbal gestures – more like near-beer or Mad Dog 20/20 than punch. Increasingly, conversations turn into ad hominem ego-fests, the opposite of what Michael Oakeshott prescribed in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962). For him, conversation was the model for living a civilized life: “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Recently I reread Timothy Steele’s 1983 interview with J.V. Cunningham, whom he describes like this:

“He is no more given to wasting words in conversation than to wasting them in poems, and when he says something one feels in the utterance a weight of care and reflection. At the same time, his speech and personality possess a quiet sympathy which makes him an engaging as well as an enlightening conversationalist.”

Friday, December 08, 2017

`A Plainspoken, Dark Humor'

I’m late reading John Foy, and now a reader has suggested I visit his web site. He’s a poet but the first words of his I read were prose, there on the home page:

“Generally, I’d say my poetry mulls over the grit and chime of a suboptimal world. Wars go on in the Middle East, my mother dies and the creatures of the field are `much the worse / for having been beneath the rotor blades.’ My poems are by turns contemplative and savage, invoking Meister Eckhart but acknowledging that `we die like dogs in the deep snow.’ They take account of what gets lost to war, accident and time. If they offer solace, it’s in a plainspoken, dark humor.”

That’s a mensch, a good guy, somebody worth paying attention to. He probably won’t waste your time. “Grit and chime” is good. So is the mock-scientific “suboptimal.” The first quoted lines are from Foy’s poem “Killing Things,” which is about poetry and the fragility of living things, and the second set comes from “Condolences.” I haven’t seen even one of Foy’s books yet, and hadn’t heard his name until Thursday morning, but he sparked not just interest but conditional trust. I like the way he quotes different lines from Julius Caesar in separate essays, which suggests he knows it. He likes Catullus and Thomas Hardy, and refers (affectionately, I think) to Yvor Winters as “the old pessimist.” He writes his poems consciously and conscientiously:

“There are things we do say and things we could say, in moments of perfect clarity and articulation. My poetry is a negotiation between those two states. It’s pinned down to the real but always reaching higher, with a form built into the lines through meter, unobtrusive rhyme and sonic echoes.”

And here he is in a self-interview:

“I have grown very tired of the war between free verse and formal poetry. Both done well are worthy; little of both is done well. We may have lots more people writing poetry now, so there are greater quantities of it everywhere, like pizza, but now as in most periods of history, the majority of it is not great and won’t last.  Genius is not democratic.  It doesn’t care about you or your rights under the law. Vicious idea!”

Thursday, December 07, 2017

`Nought But Shows'

Somewhere I picked up the Modern Library edition of Studs Lonigan when I was a kid, and read it two or three times before my twenty-first birthday, and never again. Once Nabokov had showed me how beautiful prose and the architecture of fiction can be, Farrell’s clunky sentences and stridency became largely unreadable. What kept me reading at first was the raw, unformed power of Farrell’s working-class characters and settings. His people reminded me of my mother’s Irish-American family. Her brothers, from the generation after Studs, were house painters, and had taken their first steps into the middle class after service in World War II.

As an experiment I picked up Farrell’s Omnibus of Short Stories (Vanguard Press, 1956). The epigraph is unexpected: “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door.” At random I turned to “Street Scene,” originally published in To Whom It May Concern (1944), which begins: “‘Say, do I belong to the human race?’ the old man asked himself aloud as he stood at the corner of Ninth Street and Michigan.” Not a promising start. The reader already sniffs portentousness, a grasping after Bigger Things. Here is the next paragraph:

“It was an Indian summer afternoon. Across the street, in Grant Park, there was a playograph recording of the World Series baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees. The old man wore shapeless clothes; his shirt was gray with dirt, and the toes stuck out of his army boots. He shuffled along and stopped in front of the gold and bronze entrance to the Nation Oil Building.”

The hackneyed language and bargain-basement symbolism make it tough going, though it was interesting to learn about the playograph. Inevitably, a crowd gathers. An audience, really. The old man is putting on a show. He pantomimes undressing, putting on pajamas and lying down in bed. “Street Scene” starts sounding theatrical. The reader has seen such people on the street, afflicted, reading from a covert script. The crowd speculates: Is he “full of canned heat”?  “Coked up with wood alcohol”? A cop shows up, and the old man “meets his gaze with innocent eyes.” He explains to the cop that “maybe I’d just like to lay down and die.” One sense this isn’t the first time he has staged this stunt. A police sergeant shows up and asks, “What’s the matter with you? You can’t die there,” and the old man replies, “Jesus Christ, can’t a man die in peace, even in a free country?”

That’s as close as Farrell gets to comedy. Played differently, the scene might have had a Beckett-like humor about. But another two and a half pages follow, more of the same – much dialogue, a little scene-setting narration. “`I’ll be dead soon,’ he soliloquized,” Farrell writes, again emphasizing the theatricality – not because he is writing meta-fiction, but because mentally ill people often imagine themselves performing on a stage. A patrol wagon takes the old man away. He’ll get “thirty days in Bridewell,” the cop explains to someone in the crowd, “but it won’t do no good. Them bums is jus [sic] bums.” Here’s the concluding paragraph:

“The cop strolled back along Michigan Boulevard. There was a cheer from the crowd by the playograph, and it broke up. The Yankees had won the world series from the Cardinals in four straight games.”

A Leftist cliché: once the show, the “street scene,” is over, the unfeeling mob turns its attention to the other spectacle. Farrell writes sentimental propaganda, though I enjoyed reading “Street Scenes” and several other stories that display occasional hints of tough-guy charm. Call it a wallow in nostalgia. The title of Farrell’s story reminded me of an identically titled poem by David Ferry, one that I wrote about more than nine years ago. One of the lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XV quoted by Ferry seems appropriate:

“That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows”

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

`Living in a Book-Lined Universe'

“Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to recommend ‘a course of reading.’ Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course. Let this be a reply. No other answer shall they get from me, the inquiring young men.”

When I was one of those young American men, it would never have occurred to me to ask for help finding the next book to read. I still think of books as links in an invisible chain: one inevitably leads to others. No, not a chain. It’s more complicated than that. More like a mesh or net of complicated weave. Recently, David Ferry, after I reread some of his Horace, sent me to Peter Levi’s biography of the Roman poet, which moved me to read about the Kreipe caper as described in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Abducting a General, which in turn inspired me to pull out Sword of Honour so I can read it over the Christmas break, and that reminded me to get a copy of Philip Eade’s recent biography of Waugh. If I have “a course of reading,” call it “informed serendipity.”

The passage quoted at the top is from the title essay in Andrew Lang’s Adventures Among Books (1905). Previously, I described my limited experience with the prolific Lang, and I still have read only the essay “Adventures Among Books,” not the entire collection it’s drawn from. That’s because while reading a chapter in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) by the late John Gross, I came upon this passage:  

“This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library.”

Ambitious readers are freaks of nature, and I’ve met only two in my lifetime, and one of them is dead (he could quote Dante at length from memory, in Italian, in an Italian restaurant). Here’s the context for Gross’ use of the Lang quote: “Whatever subject he touched on – and in theory he offered to write about anything except religion and politics – his manner was almost always that of a man living in a book-lined universe. [Insert quote.] He read incessantly, and out of his reading he tried to construct an arcadia where the natives were always on friendly terms.”

Lang (1844-1912) is an extreme though thoroughly benign example of his species. Today he would be diagnosed with OCD and prescribed clomipramine. Lang had his blind spots. He seems not to have read the Russians whose lives overlapped his – Tolstoy, Chekhov and the rest. But that’s grousing. Here’s Gross on Lang’s lifelong relation to books: “He clung tenaciously – and, if challenged, petulantly – to the conviction that literature ought to remain the same cheerful pastime that it had seemed when he was a boy.” Amen.

[ADDENDUM: A reader, Tim Brewer, corrects me:

“In regard to your post in Anecdotal Evidence today, Lang’s book-lined Universe did include the Russians, though probably not much if anything of Chekhov (in English), given the dates. He wrote an essay ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ in the London Magazine, for May 1891, in which it is clear that he had read the Russian novelists but was unsympathetic to what he took to be their  gloom-mongering. The sentiment chimes nicely with the `cheerful pastime’ conviction Gross attributes to Lang. For more po-faced critics such as F. R. Leavis, reading as a cheerful pastime cannot be a conviction, only grounds for conviction.

“`The genius of Tolstoi, Tourguenieff, and Dostvievsky there is no denying. One can only object that they deserve the punishment which Dante assigns to those who deliberately seek sadness. The world is trying enough, but it has its brighter moments. These, perhaps, we should rather seek to prolong by a certain cheerfulness in fiction. Shakspeare wrote As You Like It, and Much Ado about Nothing, and Henry IV, as well as Othello. He was not always in Hamlet's vein. But the Russians, as a rule, are for ever in the mood of the Prince of Denmark, and their example is contagious. Then their admirers, in some cases, will hear of nothing but the Russians, and the glorious Frenchmen and Finns, and Lithuanians. Sursum corda! We should have merry endings and prosperous heroes, now and again. Their gloom begets within me a certain prejudice against the gifted Muscovites. It is not exactly a literary judgment; it is a pardonable antipathy. One wearies of hearing Count Tolstoi called the Just—justissimus unus. One feels a reaction in favour of Gyp, when she is not writing her last novel, and outdoing Le Disciple on his own grubby and grimy ground. However, that there may be no ill feeling between this vessel and the realm of the Great White Czar, let us print a translation from Lermontoff, sent by a Scot in Russia. Lermontoff, like all great men, including Skobeleff, was a Scot, a Learmont, and mayhap a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer.’”] 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

`He Enjoys Everything'

“Brilliant superficiality”: How does a reader react to so fruitful an oxymoron? One bounces from noun to modifier, weighing the emphasis. “Brilliant” is, presumably, an incontestably good thing, always preferable to “dull.” Can the same be said of “superficiality”? And who might be a writer we judge “brilliantly superficial”? Ronald Firbank? It’s a rare designation, in this case used by Philip Larkin to describe a writer he elsewhere praises unambiguously, Whitney Balliett, the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker. Three of Larkin’s reviews of Balliett’s books are included in Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-1984 (eds. Richard Palmer and John White, Continuum, 2004).  

More than twenty year ago, when I was writing about jazz for a newspaper in upstate New York, I was a shameless Balliett impersonator. Pick up his books for the jazz, I told newspaper colleagues, but stick around for the prose. Balliett ably juggled music and musicians. Of Thelonious Monk as composer/improviser he wrote: “His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.” Here is Balliett on one of his heroes, the drummer Big Sid Catlett: “Everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist, his big feet, and the columnar neck.” And here on another drummer, Gene Krupa: “When he played, his hair fell over his eyes; he chewed gum; he hunched over his drums or reared back, his arms straight in the air, like a politician at a rally; he sweated; in his climactic moments he converted his arms and hands and drumsticks into sculpted blurs.” Balliett is not for stolidly musicological readers, though he has much to teach them. You need not be a seasoned jazz listener, any more than gluttony is a prerequisite for reading A.J. Liebling (another New Yorker writer whose style I abjectly cribbed).

“Brilliant superficiality” is from Larkin’s review of Balliett’s 1968 collection Such Sweet Thunder (a title borrowed from the name of Duke Ellington’s 1957 album). Citing the Krupa passage, Larkin writes: “The prose, it will be noticed, is literate without being literary” – a fine distinction that suggests artfulness without pretentiousness. Larkin goes on to observe that Balliett’s “chief characteristic, as a critic [as opposed to writer], is that he has virtually no characteristics.” Not quite true, but it is inarguable that Balliett was temperamentally not a caviler but a celebrator. Larkin writes:

“This is probably the only charge that can be levelled against him: he has no blind spots. As Arnold Bennett said of Eddie Marsh, he’s a miserable fellow, he enjoys everything. . . . one looks almost in vain for a barbed remark, much less for a hatred as vehement as one of his many delights.”

Balliett, in other words, was not Larkin. But Balliett’s job title is “jazz writer” (no one calls Liebling a “boxing critic”). He never stopped judging the quality of performances, but always in a larger context. In an interview shortly before his death in 2007, Balliett said: “I think the role of any critic is, first, to explain or describe what it is that he is criticizing, and then make his evaluation.” Larkin’s critical strategy was largely the reverse of Balliett’s. In a review of Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975-1980, written for The American Scholar in 1982, Larkin repeats the Arnold Bennett/Eddie Marsh remark and writes:"

“And indeed there comes a point when Balliett’s role as pure sensibility, proposing nothing and imposing nothing, starts to drag a little. None of the complimentary remarks about Balliett and his other books reproduced on the jacket of this one uses the word `critic,’ and this may well be significant. For a critic, after all, is a man who likes some things and dislikes others, and finds reasons for doing so and for trying to persuade other people to do so. This is altogether alien to Balliett’s purpose."

In you have a copy of Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2001), look at the back cover and you’ll notice that Larkin posthumously supplied Balliett with a blurb: “Balliett is a master of language.”

Monday, December 04, 2017

`The Assistance of My Muse'

In a letter to his cousin Lady Hesketh, written on this date, Dec. 4, in 1787, William Cowper describes a visit from a “plain, decent, elderly figure,” the clerk of the parish of All Saints in Northampton. Part of the clerk’s job is to attach to a bill of mortality (a death certificate), published each Christmas, “a copy of verses.” That is, an epitaph – an exacting literary genre now extinct. The clerk asks Cowper if he would compose it. At first, the poet demurs, saying “`you have several men of genius in your town, why have you not applied to some of them? There is a namesake of yours in particular, . . . the statuary, who, every body knows, is a first-rate maker of verses. He surely is the man of all the world for your purpose.’”

The clerk, a literary critic of amateur standing, replies: “‘Alas! Sir, I have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a gentleman of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him.’” Cowper tells his cousin he “felt all the force of the compliment implied in this speech, and was almost ready to answer, ‘Perhaps, my good friend, they may find me unintelligible too for the same reason.’” Cowper learns the clerk had walked to Weston solely to ask his favor – to “implore the assistance of my muse.”

The poet says he felt his “mortified vanity a little consoled, and, pitying the poor man’s distress, which appeared to be considerable, promised to supply him. The wagon has accordingly gone this day to Northampton loaded in part with my effusions in the mortuary style. A fig for poets who write epitaphs upon individuals! I have written one that serves two hundred persons.”

Cowper, when not insane and “buried above ground,” was the kindest of men. His compassion for the suffering of others caused him to suffer in a literal, visceral way. He wrote an epitaph for his pet hare, Tiney. Cowper closes his letter to Lady Hesketh with another revealing anecdote:

“A poor man begged food at the hall lately. The cook gave him some vermicelli soup. He ladled it about some time with the spoon, and then returned it to her, ‘I am a poor man it is true, and I am very hungry, but yet I cannot eat broth with maggots in it.’ Once more, my dear, a thousand thanks for your box full of good things, useful things, and beautiful things.”

Cowper's neutral tone in his reporting is admirable. He never makes fun of the man's ignorance. I was surprised to learn that vermicelli – the word, the pasta – was already known to the English in the eighteenth century. The hungry man was not mistaken, in the etymological sense: The Latin vermis, “worm,” arrived a century earlier by way of Italian. In 1709, Matthew Prior had written in “Paulo Purganti and His Wife”:

“Thus tho’ She strictly did confine
The Doctor from Excess of Wine;
With Oysters, Eggs, and Vermicelli
She let Him almost burst his Belly.”

Sunday, December 03, 2017

`Moments of Irresistible Charm'

“Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through my writing.”

Those who judge human nature an uncomplicated affair find humor and seriousness inconsistent. To be funny is to be frivolous and to be serious is to be – what? Grown-up? Smart? Sophisticated? Numbingly earnest, I should think. Humorlessness appears to be metastasizing across the body politic. A reader has admonished me for enjoying and writing about Philip Larkin, and especially for finding him funny. There’s nothing new about this reaction. The warriors of virtue will always disapprove, which merely adds a complementary layer of mirth. My reader writes: “There’s nothing funny about making fun of people.” On the contrary: few things are funnier. A writer’s job is to write well, not to serve as a cheerleading squad. Making fun of the deserving is a solemn obligation.

In All What Jazz (1985) Larkin refers to Miles Davis as “his usual bleak self, his notes wilting at the edges as if with frost,” and to one of his live albums as “an experience in pure duration.” He describes Erroll Garner’s “baroque floridity” and a live Bill Evans date as “more forthright, less Pierrot-and-Columbine.” All are from reviews that are positive but nuanced. I would describe myself as a longtime admiring, non-worshipful listener of Davis at his best, and a lover of Garner and Evans. Literal-minded readers of Larkin, beware.

The passage quoted at the top is from an interview Larkin gave the Observer in 1979. It’s a first-class performance described by his biographer, James Booth, as “sincerity and irony blended in an inscrutable mix.” For instance:

“I read everything except philosophy, theology, economics, sociology, science, or anything to do with the wonders of nature, anything to do with technology – have I said politics? I’m trying to think of all the Dewey decimal classes. In point of fact I virtually read only novels, or something pretty undemanding in the non-fiction line, which might be a biography. I read almost no poetry.” 

You can hear the sophisticates tut-tutting. Readers and critics are unaccustomed to poets and other writers who are funny and who speak in varied voices. Humorlessness among poets takes many forms – pretentious incoherence (Charles Olson), pathological self-infatuation (Sharon Olds), gibbering daftness (Ezra Pound). It’s almost absent in Larkin, who isn’t afraid to give his readers a good time. In a record review from 1963, in which he celebrates the joy that was Fats Waller, Larkin expresses “a weakness for the entertainers of jazz (as opposed to more sombre characters who suggest by their demeanour that I am lucky to hear them).” The performances on the reissue Larkin is reviewing are middling, he says, but “what saves them is the clean, ringing professionalism of the playing, the energy and good humour, and the moments of irresistible charm.”

Saturday, December 02, 2017

`Astonishing the Brickwork'

“I don’t look for any kind of `light’ in poetry. I like Larkin because to me he tells the truth, and I love his technical mastery of writing verse.”

I fell hard for Yeats and the “Celtic Twilight” business when I was fifteen. I bought the hardback Collected with the blue and white cover, and loaned it to a girl who never returned it. In 1975, I replaced it with the newer edition, with Yeats on the cover looking like a blind man. It’s beat-up and defaced with useless notes, most heavily from The Tower (1928) onward. Several weeks ago I took it from the shelf for the first time in years and browsed without expectations. That’s not quite true. I was hoping the old ardor might rekindle, and was hardly disappointed when it didn’t. The failing is mine. Some writers supply us with what we need at specific times in life. A few go on doing so forever. Others fade. I can’t dispute Yeats’ gift and have no desire to disparage it, but it’s one that’s no longer useful.

The quote at the top is from an email I received Friday from a friend. He is reading Seamus Heaney’s prose collection The Redress of Poetry (1995), specifically “Joy or Night: Last Things in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin.” Heaney looks at “Aubade” and concludes: “For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, `Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called the ‘spiritual intellect’s great work.’” I’ve heard such objections before, and appreciate them without agreeing. No writer is obligated to perform such “great work.” Heaney calls the poem “defeatist.” I would note that there are many ways to succeed, and among them is writing a poem with rare “technical mastery,” to use my friend’s phrase. He continues:
   
“I like Yeats but in some ways I find him always on stage, posing and acting. As I age, I find myself reading more and more Larkin and Hardy than, say, Yeats and his epigones. I see the poet under no obligation to cry out, when all is said and done, a stentorian YES. Sometimes it’s good tonic for a poet to shout out a loud NO.”

Like Bruce, I don’t go looking for “light” in what I read, if by that we mean flattering affirmations. Yeats is often flattering himself. The truth in literature is what I crave, and I seldom sense soft-headedness or aggressive dishonesty in Larkin. Consider “Coming” from The Less Deceived (1955):

“On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
Laurel-surrounded
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon—
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.”

By Larkin’s standards, “Coming” is a giddy cry of exaltation. His phrasing and word choice is unexpected and precise (in most poets, a rare combination): “Its fresh-peeled voice / Astonishing the brickwork.” So too, “forgotten boredom,” seemingly an oxymoron. In Larkin one learns to value moments of happiness, and it comes only in moments, not lifetimes.

Larkin died on this date, Dec. 2, in 1985.