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?’”]

Saturday, October 18, 2014

`Cults Form Around Defeated Generals and Unhappy Lovers'

Take a guess at who wrote this passage: 

“The two bartenders on duty looked as if their fathers might have poured for Lincoln’s last law partner, William Herndon, who was a whiskey man and survived his senior partner by twenty-six years. I do not mean that it was the whiskey that made Herndon live longer. It was the brandy John Wilkes Booth drank that killed Lincoln.”
The anecdote begins like the set-up for a joke: “There were these two bartenders…” Note the casual learning – Herndon not only studied law in the Logan and Lincoln law practice in Springfield, Ill., he became the future president’s partner and biographer. Herndon’s fondness for whiskey is well-documented, as is Booth’s for brandy. The writer, A.J. Liebling, starts with a saloon in Springfield in 1950 and in three sentences distills nineteenth-century American history. 

This is passable but not top-shelf Liebling. It's taken from “Abraham Lincoln in Springfield,” published in the June 24, 1950 issue of The New Yorker, and not collected in any of Liebling’s books. I found it in The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois, Civil War to the Present (ed. Robert P. Sutton, 1976). Liebling wrote memorably about food, France, boxing, combat, the press and what his editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, dismissively called “low life,” though seasoned readers suspect he could have produced interesting copy about subjects as unpromising as wind farms and Al Gore. Liebling wrote “Abraham Lincoln in Springfield” after leaving The New Yorker in 1949, for complicated marital and monetary reasons, to live in Chicago. He returned to the magazine and his home town the following summer. The other product of his Midwestern diaspora was Chicago: The Second City (1952). Though worth reading, the volume ranks as minor Liebling, compromised by his Manhattan-centric Weltanschauung. In the Lincoln piece, Liebling is mostly treading water, though he talks to a remarkable number of Springfield residents for so brief a story. (Note to reporters: Liebling prided himself on reporting with his feet – that is, leaving the newsroom and talking to people.) Here is Liebling's introduction to Springfield in the company of a loquacious cab driver: 

“When the driver mentioned the Abe, he meant the Abraham Lincoln, Springfield’s largest and newest hotel. After I reached my room there, I picked up the telephone directory to look for my friend’s number and right in the front of the book found the A. Lincoln Tourist Court, the Abe Lincoln Baggage Transfer, the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Ann Rutledge Apartment Hotel, and the Ann Rutledge Beauty Salon. After that, instead of looking up my man’s name, I made my initial concession to curiosity about Lincoln. I turned to the L’s and found listings for the Lincoln Advertising Agency, Lincoln Air Lines, Lincoln Automotive Mechanics School, Lincoln Baggage Transfer Company, Lincoln Cab Company, Lincoln Cafe, Lincoln Candy Company, Lincoln Cash Market, Lincoln College of Law, Lincoln Dental Laboratories, Lincoln Library, Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Lincoln Park Fieldhouse and Pavilion, Lincoln Radiator and Auto Parts Company, Lincoln School, Lincoln’s Home, and Lincoln’s Monument. Nothing, apparently, had been named for Mrs. Lincoln. Nor, I found, on turning to the D’s, was there anything named after Stephen A. Douglas, although in 1860 Springfield’s vote was almost evenly divided between the two Illinois Presidential candidates. Cults form around defeated generals and unhappy lovers, but the stature of wives and losing politicians evidently diminishes.” 

Liebling was born on this day, Oct. 18, in 1904, and died Dec. 28, 1963. His best books, according to this reader’s tastes, are The Sweet Science (1956), Normandy Revisited (1958) and Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), though Liebling seldom wrote a dull sentence.

Friday, October 17, 2014

`An Embrace Too Fixed and Metaphysical'

Les Murray teaches us a word I should already have known: Holodomor, Ukrainian, literally “extermination by hunger,” referring to Stalin’s systematic genocide by famine in 1932-33. At least 4 million Ukrainians died, probably many more.  The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t admitted the word to the language but a search of the dictionary’s digital version turns up as the first of its “nearest matches” a resonating echo: holocaust and Holocaust. It is emblematic of the twentieth century that we need to coin or remint words to describe our genocides. (In Murray’s Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, published in 1998, the title character witnesses the Turkish genocide of Armenians.) Murray contributes words to the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English, and Holomodor was accepted. He tells an interviewer: 

“`I give a list of words occasionally,’ he said. ‘Holodomor was one I wanted to get in there. It’s a Ukrainian word. It means the 7 million Ukrainians who were starved to death by Stalin. It’s a word that ought to be as well-known as holocaust. Sometimes they name these dreadful genocides and sometimes they don’t. It seemed a matter of justice that it got in.’” 

Inherent in a poet’s job description is the resuscitation of language, reviving old words, coining and importing new ones, recycling old ones in new ways. Murray, a gourmand of language, savors words like the hammiest of Shakespeareans. In a 1981 review-essay of the Macquarie Dictionary, “Centering the Language,” Murray says the volume shows “how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought, in part by gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live.” Murray titled a 1985 selection of his poems The Vernacular Republic. In the interview quoted above he goes on to say: “The bloke who wrote the Oxford English Dictionary was a cousin of ours called Sir James Murray; a Murray language freak comes up every century or so.” [See Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, published by the lexicographer’s granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray, in 1977.] Elsewhere, Murray refers to his love of words as “a family inheritance to some extent.” “In Murray’s Dictionary” is collected in Dog Fox Field (Carcanet, 1991): 

“The word aplace
lasted from Gower to the Puritans
but never got much use,
yet far from being obscure, it once
was more of a true antonym
to away than say back or home,
here, present or fixed in space:
`The king’s away but I’m aplace
And shan’t abandon him.’” 

“Aplace was maybe an embrace
too fixed and metaphysical
for the Anglophone genius,
somewhere lost, fled from or paradisiacal
where we’d know, or knew, our place.
Germans have no such fear:
da means both there and here,
but perhaps we sailed away
in our prize ship the Renaissance, 

“ravaging the locative case,
even voiding revolution that way,
shipping it out of every county
to erupt on Boston and the Bounty,
venturing impatiently apace
till locality was nowhere
and only God was there,
invisible, in the lay sense,
the Darwinian modern-day sense 

“that grows from a youthful enmity,
and it would take extremity
to make us reappear.” 

For an Australian linguistic nationalist, aplace must be an irresistible word. Murray’s poems are nothing if not local and particular – rooted, like words; aplace. No poet has less feel for abstraction or “poetics,” the fatal curse of much contemporary poetry. In the OED, we learn aplace is lifted straight from the French en place. The word, naturally, is “Obs.” and defined as “into this place, in place.” As Murray promises, we find citations from John Gower (1393) and from George Gillespie’s A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637): “Things abused to Idolatry...are farre better away then aplace.” It must have tickled Murray, a serious Roman Catholic who dedicates each of his books “to the glory of God,” to find a seventeenth-century Puritan from the land of his forebears, Scotland, lambasting Papists. 

Murray was born on this date, Oct. 17, in 1938. The Australian artist David Naseby painted Murray’s portrait in 1995, and wrote of the poet: “As a subject I found Les very intriguing. Along with his huge intelligence he had an air of strange simplicity. I have shown this apparent contradiction by painting his habit of sucking on a finger, and showing his coffee cup tilting on the floor --`like my life’, Murray said to me when he first saw the portrait.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

`It Is Quite an Education'

A library is a refuge for the body and mind. As to the former, we’ve all seen the “homeless” – a generic and misleading term for people whose presence bothers us but whom we can’t otherwise classify – seated with their bags at tables in the public library. Reading or not, hygienic or not, sane or not, conscious or not, they are welcome. A library ought to be an inviting place. 

Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent. Before last week, I had never seen him anywhere except at the helm of his library computer. That day I met him as I was entering the men’s room and he was leaving. He smiled and said, “Good morning,” in a tone once known as “chipper.” Alumnus? Professor emeritus? Lost soul? I don’t know and don’t have the impertinence to ask, but I admire his perseverance and good humor. 

Libraries figure often in the novels of Barbara Pym, frequently as the setting for romance, unrequited, unsatisfactory and otherwise. Pym read English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and regularly used the Bodleian Library, where her literary papers are housed. Pym wrote her second novel, Civil to Strangers, in 1936, when she was twenty-three years old, but the book remained unpublished until after her death in 1980. Much of the story is set in the Bodleian. Adam and Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon are an unhappily and comically mismatched married couple. Adam, as is customary with young men in Pym’s novels, is a feckless twit. Pym tells us: 

“[He] wandered about looking at various books and reading the Dictionary of National Biography to see if he could detect any mistakes in it. Then he went up to the Catalogue to look up several books that he might read. He also looked up his own novels and poems, and, for some reason, made a note of them. After that he leaned on a radiator and read several volumes of the University Calendar. Finally he went back to his seat and began a letter to Casandra, but he found it difficult to write, as he really did not know what to say. He was glad when the bell tinkled, for this meant that all readers must leave the library, which closed at seven.” 

That’s Pym’s gently satirical portrait of a young narcissist with literary pretensions. But here is the passage I remembered after exchanging greetings with the old man in the library. Adam, getting ready to leave the Bodleian, is joined by a clergyman he has never met before: 

“`I wonder, when you are working here, have you ever given a thought to all those who have died in Bodley’s Library, or as a result of working there?’ 

“Adam was forced to admit that he had not. 

“`You should, you know. It is quite an education.’ 

“`It would surely do one more good to concentrate on one’s work,’ said Adam austerely. 

“`That is my work,’ said the clergyman simply. `I am preparing a thesis on that subject for the degree of Bachelor of Letters.’” 

Pym’s comic genius is distilled in her choice of two contrasting adverbs: “austerely,” “simply.”