Saturday, October 25, 2014

`You Celebrate What Is, and God'

Some writers cast a magnetic field across the bookish world, attracting like-minded readers and fellow writers, and repelling others. Both services are useful. Since I belatedly discovered C.H. Sisson (1914-2003) several years ago, he has served as a sort of literary Consumer Reports. His tastes are less often incorrect than almost any critic I know. In this he resembles Yvor Winters. Both share a Johnsonian bent for common sense and plainness of style.  Both possess first-rate bullshit detectors. Neither is infected with niceness, always fatal in critics. Neither is out to make friends but both inspire readerly loyalty. Here’s an example of Sisson’s judgment, from a 1990 review of Donald Davie’s Collected Poems: 

“Davie does not write for effect, or to enlarge his own claim to consideration. He writes what he thinks is true, however awkward it may be.” 

Incidentally, the words apply with precision to Sisson’s own work. In “Summer Lightning” (The Batter Wife and Other Poems, 1982), a poem addressed to Seamus Heaney, Davie writes: “Dread; yes dread—the one name for the one / Game that we play here, surely. I think Sisson / Got it, don’t you? Plain Dante, plain as a board, / and if flat, flat. The abhorrent, the abhorred, / Ask to be utter plainly.” Sisson published his translation of La Divina Commedia in 1981. In Under Briggflatts (1989), Davie collects three essays devoted to Sisson, including a review of the 1980 poetry collection Exactions. He praises its “astringent pleasures” and says Sisson’s poems are “a further tightening of English as practiced by for instance Swift and Defoe in prose, and by any one of his fellow citizens speaking under the stress of extreme experience.” 

Thanks to Sisson I learned of the South African poet David Wright (1920-1994). In On the Look-out: A Partial Autobiography (1989), Sisson writes: 

“…you would recognize from the first gesture, certainly from the first words, that you were in the presence of l’authenticité, le seul luxe, as de Montherlant—himself less certainly authentic—called it. For a moment one might be shaken into believing in the existence of the human personality. If there were such a thing, this would be a specimen. Whether or not there is such a thing, there is, under the name of David Wright, a literary instrument of precision.” 

In turn, Wright composes “Horse Fair (for C. H. Sisson)” (A View of the North, 1976) and “A Letter to C.H. Sisson” (Poems and Versions, 1992). In the latter Wright writes to and of his friend: 

“The vision, spare and authentic,
Of an intellect I now know
As savage, luminous, and just.” 

And this: 

“For all that you appreciate
The underlay of the absurd
Beneath each surface, comedy
Of things as much as lacrimae
Rerum, I’d say your outlook is
--Although justified by log—
One that, to what I call my mind,
Appears inordinately bleak:
Nihilistic would be the word,
But that, against all evidence,
You celebrate what is, and God.” 

Sisson has sent me back repeatedly to Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Barnes, Hardy and Péguy, not to mention Horace, Catullus and Lucretius. He’s an enormously energizing writer, one who spurs me to read more and write better. Here is an early poem with a Dantean title, “In a Dark Wood,” appended by Sisson to the beginning of his novel Peter Homm (1965):     

“Now I am forty I must lick my bruises
 What has been suffered cannot be repaired
 I have chosen what whoever grows up chooses
 A sickening garbage that could not be shared. 

 “My errors have been written in my senses
 My body is a record of the mind
 My touch is crusted with my past defences
 Because my wit was dull my eye grows blind. 

 “There is no credit in a long defection
 And defect and defection are the same
 I have no person fit for resurrection
 Destroy then rather my half-eaten frame 

 “But that you will not do, for that were pardon
 The bodies that you pardon you replace
 And that you keep for those whom you will harden
 To suffer in the hard rule of your Grace. 

 “Christians on earth may have their bodies mended
 By premonition of a heavenly state
 But I, by grosser flesh from Grace defended,
 Can never see, never communicate.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

`A Lonely Activity Which Can Yet Be Shared'

The poet and classicist John Talbot sent me a link to a video of Christopher Ricks, his former colleague at Boston University, discussing his 2010 volume True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, which I reviewed here. The video sent me back to a poem by Talbot, “To Professor Christopher Ricks, on the Publication of His Book on Literary Allusions,” part of a sequence titled “The School of Mastery” collected in The Well-Tempered Tantrum (David Roberts Books, 2004). This, in turn, sent me back to the Ricks title in question, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford University Press, 2002). Reading is endless and unbounded, and always circles back on itself in a happy spiral. 

No one reads more closely and carefully, and sees and hears more as a result, than Ricks. Take “Loneliness and Poetry” in Allusion to the Poets, first published as his contribution to Loneliness (ed. Leroy S. Rouner, 1998). In it, the critic explores his theme by looking at poems by E.E. Cummings, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Dickinson, William Barnes and Larkin, with brief side-excursions into Geoffrey Hill, Samuel Beckett, Bob Dylan and Kierkegaard, among others. What might come off as pretentious in the hands of a dimmer critic resembles the conversation of a remarkably fluent, enthusiastic and well-read spell-binder. Ricks, as always, is excellent company, which emerges as one of his sub-themes: 

“One immediate challenge for any artistic realization of loneliness comes from the fact that, whatever else art may or may not be, art always constitutes company. Not all company, it is true, is comfortingly companionable, and there is a good company that is not feel-good company.” 

Along the way, Ricks notes that lonely and loneliness have no synonyms in English; that dictionary definitions of the words are inadequate and possess none of the “emotional colouring, none of the plea” they have; that there are no lonely proverbs, catch-phrases, metaphors or similes; and that the only rhyme for lonely, rather pleasingly, is only. Ricks tells us that Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defined loneliness as “solitude; want of company; disposition to avoid company” – almost but not quite our modern meaning, and adds: “Loneliness is in critical respects a Romantic phenomenon.” We post-Romantics tend to think of loneliness, thanks to Wordsworth & Co., as a stylized adolescent emotion, the bread and butter of pop-song writers and Chet Baker. Ricks concludes his essay with a superb reading of Larkin’s “Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel” (High Windows, 1974): 

“Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet.  A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room. 

“In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.  How
Isolated, like a fort, it is --
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on.  Waves fold behind villages.” 

What I’ve always admired about Larkin’s sonnet is the way he suggests absence by the way we leave behind traces of our former presence – empty chairs, an “unsold” newspaper, full ashtrays, “shoeless corridors,” lights left burning. The only human present is the night porter. The salesmen left for Leeds. It’s an Edward Hopper strategy, and the American might have painted this English scene. Ricks emphasizes Larkin’s elaborate weave of sounds, all those l’s (“larger loneliness”), the absence of an l in only one line (“The headed paper, made for writing home”), the deployment of “Light” and “Night” at the start of the first and last lines, and the “unspeakability” of “(If home existed)”. Ricks’ closing paragraph is a decrescendo of unhappiness and hope: 

“The poets have more than a narrowly therapeutic aim, but they would agree with Robert Graves that one at least of the things that poetry can be is a medicine chest stocked against mental disorders (and emotional deprivations), and they would agree with Dr. Johnson that the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it. As to my own enterprise here, it has been to try to show the ways in which, in the very moment in which a great poem realizes loneliness for us, it acknowledges humanely the limits of the human imagination. A poem can claim so much, yes, and can claim only so much. And the `close reading’ of poems, a lonely activity which can yet be shared, may do something to ameliorate our propensity to evacuate the suffering, not only of others but of ourselves, into abstraction. There are the particulars of rapture and, likewise takingly, those of grief.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

`The Village Scrivener, a Clerk'

Some people fancy themselves drill sergeants of culture. Unsolicited, a reader orders me to read a writer. Obedience, he promises, will “straighten [me] out quick.” Curious, I give some of the titles he prescribes a forensic skim: rubbish, of course, fashionable whining and woolgathering by an “activist.” Unreadable. Dr. Johnson offers consolation: “Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page.” 

A writer I do read to the last page is Fred Chappell, the North Carolina poet and novelist whose most recent book, Familiars: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), has just arrived. Chappell, at age seventy-eight, is one of our best poets. His Midquest (1981) is a rare successful long poem, endlessly readable, free of pretentiousness, filled with good stories and as funny as Swift. In “Welcome to High Culture” (Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry, 1993), an essay about Reynolds Price, his friend from their undergraduate days together at Duke, Chappell writes: 

“Writing is such an inescapable part of literate culture, such an ordinary part of communal aspiration, that a writer should not much pride himself on his precious volumes. Even if he is the most radical of thinkers, someone who desires to tear his culture down and build it again from the bottom up, society—American society, anyhow—can turn to him and say, ‘Yes, but the reason you were educated was to enable you to think precisely these thoughts.’ The radical writer in America is stuck with this anomaly, that his only audience is the literate Establishment, who are by and large a broadminded and tolerant bunch.  This fact makes him fight the band that heeds him.” 

As Charles Lamb says of the pun: “It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Writers, especially the “progressive” sub-species, have always been lemmings heeding the collectivist instinct over the edge of the cliff. Alone, they’re afraid. In the herd is comfort. In his introduction to Enemy Salvoes: Selected Literary Criticism (1975) by Wyndham Lewis, C.H. Sisson, a writer as honest and temperamentally difficult as Swift, writes: “A chronic independence of mind is unpardonable in any age; in our own it has certainly been safer to praise independence than to exemplify it.” But let’s give Chappell the last word: 

“…no matter how many Miltons, Chekhovs, and Prousts have appeared or shall appear, the writer in the end remains what he was in the year 6000 B.C.—the village scrivener, a clerk.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

`Let Sour Words Go By'

In September, a colleague stopped me in front of the library to express surprise that I was the author of this blog, which he had recently discovered. Our relations are friendly but not intimate, and I’ve never proselytized on the job for Anecdotal Evidence. Having read a post from 2013 in which I mention John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been,” he asked if I could find him a copy of the story, and I obliged. Soon he sent me an email marveling at Updike’s delicate handling of narcissism among college-age people and the way we experiment when young with adult responsibilities. All accurate and especially pleasing because the observations come from a man I hadn’t known was a reader. Then he really surprised me: His favorite novel, he said, one he rereads every few years, is Pale Fire, not everyone’s idea of a rollicking good read. Among Nabokov’s books, it’s the one I reread most often, even more than Lolita and Speak, Memory. My co-worker gave me the rare experience of feeling a pang of hope for the readers of our republic. 

Nabokov, of course, takes his title from Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 3, lines 431-35: 

“The sun’s a thief and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears . . .” 

In lines 961-62 of John Shade’s poem-within-the-novel “Pale Fire,” he writes: “But this transparent thingum does require / Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.” Shade’s insane commentator, Charles Kinbote, glosses Shade’s lines like this: “But in which of the Bard's works did our poet cull it? My readers must make their own research. All I have with me is a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens — in Zemblan! It certainly contains nothing that could be regarded as an equivalent of `pale fire’ (if it had, my luck would have been a statistical monster).” The true “statistical monster,” of course, is that the only play he carries around is Timon of Athens, a minor work by anyone’s calculation, and written in a language that doesn’t exist except in Kinbote’s delusions of grandeur. In Pale Fire, Nabokov takes game-playing (“Word Golf”) and puzzle-solving, pleasures his critics find irritatingly trivial, and uses them in service to a profoundly sad and funny story. For its depiction of heart-broken grief in twentieth-century fiction, Hazel Shade’s suicide is rivaled only by Leopold Bloom’s vision of his dead son Rudy. 

By happenstance, a reader last week sent me a passage from Timon of Athens as a comment on something I had written. I wrote back appreciatively and he replied with a story about his time in the airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga. He had three friends there, all, like him, university graduates and all humanities majors. Let him pick up the story:  

“We played several literary games during our time together, the main one being `What poem is this line from?’ Another game was to pick the most beautiful passage from Shakespeare, an impossible chore, of course, but we pretended. It helped pass the time, and it was a lot of fun. In the Shakespeare game, I dug up the below lines from Timon of Athens. I remembered these men and our games when I quoted Timon…”
Here is the passage, spoken by Timon, my reader favored: 

“Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover; thither come,
And let my grave-stone be your oracle.” 

My reader resumes: 

“My pals, bright men all, agreed the passage was lovely, but, as you might expect, they had lines they thought more lovely—and their lines were at least as lovely. I have often thought, particularly now than I am older that no oracle speaks a greater truth, if truth can rest on gradients, than a grave-stone. I wonder after the four of us went our separate ways if any of the three were killed in Vietnam. I refuse to visit the wall and look.” 

People like my colleague and my reader help make life endurable and rewarding. Poetry is not an academic recreation, a career move or a way to impress your friends with your sophistication. Here are the lines that follow the passage above, the final words spoken in the play by Timon: 

“Lips, let sour words go by and language end:
What is amiss plague and infection mend!
Graves only be men's works and death their gain!
Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign.” 

Followed by a simple stage direction: “Retires to his cave.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

`That Is the Land of Lost Content'

Much of my earliest literary education was conducted with the assistance of anthologies, the gift and curse of the autodidact. Gift, because an industrious anthologist does half the labor, gathering work that is rare and forgotten, at least to us. Curse, because we’re encouraged to read without context, with a scrambled chronology and little sense of who read whom in the work-in-progress that is literary history. Of course, concealed within the curse is another gift: prejudice-free enjoyment–reading for pleasure. The rest of our reading life is about filling in the pencil sketch with oils. 

The first and probably most formative of my anthologist-instructors was Oscar Williams, a minor poet but a world-class collector of others’ work (Oct. 10 was the fiftieth anniversary of his death). I bought Immortal Poems of the English Language and A Pocket Book of Modern Verse – small box-like paperbacks from Washington Square Press with galleries of author portraits on the front and inside the front and back covers. In them I first read Donne, W.S. Gilbert, Pound and Karl Shapiro, among dozens of others. His anthologies were like Whitman Samplers, and I savored them for years, including the samples from Whitman. Later supplements to my education came from such anthologists as Louis Untermeyer, Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields, W.H. Auden, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. 

I’m reading Larkin’s again, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), and recalling what an eye-opener it was. Larkin’s aim was at once scholarly and provocative. In his preface, he defends his selection as “wide rather than deep representation.” When dealing with the post-1914 generations, Larkin says his “loyalty turns perforce to poems rather than to individuals.” Thus, he includes “This Houre Her Vigill,” a poem by the marvelously named Irish diplomat Valentin Iremonger (1918-1991), whose work I have otherwise never read. The same is true of K.W. (Karl Watts) Gransden (1925-1998), represented by “An Interview,” a mordantly comic poem that appeared in Any Day (1960) but seems unavailable online. These are poems and poets little known even to English readers, I suspect. Minor? Yes, but also out of fashion, or never in fashion, and wonderful to read. Both poets write as though Modernism had not happened, which, of course, would have been just fine with Larkin. Art is not about marching with the mob but doing what one does best. Both Iremonger and Gransden give their attention to the dailiness of our days and remind me of an observation made by the late D.G. Myers in an email from May 2013: 

“I've been thinking how much of life is absorbed with `small cares’ that seem overwhelmingly important at the time--or at least disabling--which are forgotten in the sequel: the headaches, stomach aches, the traffic jams, the appointments which are late. Don’t these take up the majority of our time? They almost never make it into literature, and in fact literature seems an unstinting propaganda on behalf of the dramatic occurrences of human life. I may try to write about the `small cares,’ but I'm not sure yet what I want today.” 

This reminds me of nothing so much as the gallant letter Larkin wrote to his publisher, lobbying for publication of Barbara Pym’s novels:  

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.” 

Anthologies serve another function. They can rip familiar poems from their familiar contexts and make them new. What could be more familiar than A Shropshire Lad, poems we’ve known from childhood in the austere, title-less confines of Housman’s volumes? Larkin selects eight of them, including “XL”:  

“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those? 

“That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.” 

The line retained in memory was “blue remembered hills.” This time, “the land of lost content” seemed charged full of extra meaning. “Yon far country” echoes with a war undeclared for another two decades. Who would expect “happy highway” in a Housman lyric?

Monday, October 20, 2014

`At the Beck and Call of His Memory'

My eyes were opened to the sensitive world of contemporary American poetry at a party in Albany, N.Y., in the mid-nineteen-eighties. I was new in town and had acquired a reputation for being a “bookworm,” so my hosts, two fellow newspaper reporters, wanted me to meet the lone poet among their friends. People assume that readers and writers go together like a horse and carriage – one glows, the other reflects his splendid luminosity. It didn’t work out that way. True to type, the poet was drunk and getting drunker, and more interested in attracting female attention than in having a literary conversation with a male. 

I have no problems with that. Trouble started when he proclaimed the predictable countercultural brand-names – Ginsberg, Olson, Kerouac, Creeley – and I countered with, among others, Larkin, Bowers, Justice, Hecht. He had never heard of Larkin (who, at the time, was still alive) but the last name incensed him. By this point he was ranting at the center of a very crowded party, attracting both male and female attention. The particulars are hazy but he was certain that Hecht, a Jew who as a combat infantryman helped liberate the death camp at Flossenbürg, was a fascist. That’s when I left the party. 

Why Hecht? Why the spit-spraying vituperation? Why the kneejerk resort to an all-purpose, slanderously inappropriate political epithet? I suspect the intensity of the drunk’s tantrum was directly proportional to Hecht’s gift. Hecht was a technical wizard besotted with the Western tradition of literature and art. He brooded over evil and more mundane human failures, and wielded a fierce satirical wit. He was, in short, a civilized man, something our would-be renegade couldn’t abide. He would never recognize himself in “Green: An Epistle,” “The Venetian Vespers” or “The Transparent Man.” For him, and for millions like him, poetry was a lifestyle choice, like being a vegetarian, not a dedication to craft. In a brief statement on poetry and children titled “Beginnings,” Hecht writes: 

“There's not a good poet I know who has not at the beck and call of his memory a vast quantity of poetry that composes his mental library. Sometimes this is undertaken in desperation, as when Osip Mandelstam’s wife committed all his poems to memory in fear that both he and his poems would be destroyed by Stalin. Always, in any case, it is done out of love.” 

The word that cinches it here is not “love” but “good.” The shelves in the mental libraries of most lousy poets are empty, though being well-read and equipped with a capacious memory is no guarantee of being a good poet. That takes a refined ear, a willingness to sweat and a lot more reading. Hecht died on this date, Oct. 20, ten years ago, in 2004, at age eighty-one. David Yezzi is writing his official biography, and the poet’s Selected Letters appeared last year. Most of his poetry can be found in Collected Earlier Poems (1990) and Collected Later Poems (2003). He was the greatest of postwar American poets.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

`Where Do the Naughty People Lie?'

A happy confluence: One of the epigraphs Gary Marmorstein appends to A Ship without a Sail (2012), his biography of the great lyricist Lorenz Hart, is taken from Dawn Powell’s diary entry for March 1, 1939: 

Wits are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction is direct, with no integumentary obstacles. Wit is the cry of pain, the true word that pierces the heart. If it does not pierce, then it is not true wit. True wit should break a good man's heart.” 

We think of wit as an aphoristic retort, a barbed bon mot delivered with venomous aplomb. We think of Johnson and Wilde. But wit comes in many forms, and not all are self-satisfied. Powell’s novels, especially the later ones set in New York City, are deliciously witty, and she knew something about anguish. So too are Hart’s lyrics witty, supremely so in the American Songbook: 

“Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little bit weak
When you open it to speak, are you smart?” 

Of course, that’s from “My Funny Valentine,” a title already witty in a mere three words. For some reason, Marmorstein leaves off the final two sentences of Powell’s diary entry quoted above, and they’re the pierced heart of it. “Wits are never happy people,” yes, but neither are witty words happy, affirming, empowering – name your poison. Without the pain, wit isn’t witty, though it may be funny or merely cynical. Here is wit imbued equally with humor, bite and melancholy. On this day, Oct. 19, in 1810, Charles Lamb writes a letter to William Wordsworth praising the latter’s “Essay on Epitaphs.” Lamb asks, “But what is the reason we have so few good Epitaphs after all?” Being Lamb, he recommends the epitaphs to be found in “the Church yard of Ditton upon Thames, if you know such a place,” which are “all different, and all ingenious.” He adds (and one wonders how Wordsworth, not the wittiest of men, received it): 

“I have seen in Islington Churchy’d (I think) an Epitaph to an Infant who died `Ætatis four months,’ with this seasonable inscription appended, `Honor thy Fathr. and Mothr. that thy days may be long in the Land &c.’ —Sincerely wishing your children better.” 

[In his 1935 edition of The Letters of Charles Lamb, Vol. II, E.V. Lucas adds this note: “Lamb had begun his criticisms of churchyard epitaphs very early: Talfourd tells that, when quite a little boy, after reading a number of flattering inscriptions, he asked Mary Lamb: `Where do the naughty people lie?’”]