Thursday, August 28, 2014

`It's a Very Solitary Instrument'

If this blog has accomplished anything worthwhile in eight and a half years, it is to keep alive the names and works of good writers half-lost to oblivion. There’s no fairness to literary reputation. Mediocrities thrive, worthies fade. The only true act of criticism is to read a writer attentively and share your pleasure or displeasure with another, whether in a high-toned journal or over breakfast. Chief among the writers I’ve championed for the most selfish of reasons, undiluted enjoyment, are two American poets, L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) and Herbert Morris (1928-2001). At a website called Spoken Web I found a recording of a reading Sissman gave at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1972, seven years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and four years before his death. The sound of his voice was new to me, deeper and somehow more richly American than I had imagined. A Detroit native, Sissman speaks with Midwestern flatness mitigated by a hint of Harvard. His voice is strong, betraying no cancer or its treatment. He talks like a polite and almost pedantic wiseguy, interrupting and revising himself frequently, a quality we find in his poems. 

Of the first poem he reads, “Mouth Organ Tunes, The American Lost-and-Found,” Sissman says he tried to capture “the terminal flatness and grain-ness of American life, United States life, and the attempts to alleviate this barrenness by all sorts of temporizing accommodations, going to Howard Johnson’s on a Sunday, or having a kinky party in New York to show off one’s new paintings or celebrating the death of a genuine antique American and New Englander and looking at the house that he lived in and so on.” 

In the poem and in Sissman’s comments, I detect no Ginsbergian snottiness about middle-class Americans. No contempt or condescension. The first section of the poem is titled “In a Ho-Jo’s by the River,” and Sissman is celebrating a familiar fixture of the American road. The only other writer I recall who singles out Howard Johnson’s is Stanley Elkin in the first phrase of the first sentence in The Franchiser (1976): “Past the orange roof and turquoise tower…” Sissman continues: 

“Anyway the tune is called, the poem is called `Mouth Organ Tunes,” and I use the mouth organ as an instrument here to suggest the, well the mouth organ is something that can be played in a band, but is better not, it’s a very solitary instrument and to me it always conveys the loneliness of an individual against insurmountable odds.” 

Not to mention cowboys around the campfire, bluesmen and Larry Adler – an all-American instrument. The other poems Sissman reads, all found in Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978), are “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “The Birdman of Cambridge, Mass.,” “A College Room, Lowell R-34, 1945,” “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” “The Museum of Comparative Zoology,” “A  Deathplace,” “Getting On: Grave Expectations,” “The Mid-Forties: On Meeting No One in New York,” “A Comedy in Ruins” and “Cockaigne: A Dream.” 

About “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” Sissman tells the audience it was about a “shattering experience” he had in 1964 when he returned to his old neighborhood in Detroit and found “how puny it was and how destroyed it was by the passage of time.” The poem recalls Donald Justice’s disciplined excursions into nostalgia. In it he writes: “This was Jerusalem, our vivid valley. / In our dead neighborhood / Now nothing more can come to good.” Here is the poem’s final line: “My thirst for the past is easy to appease.” 

Introducing “A Deathplace,” Sissman says: “Let me get onto a poem that is now again a little bit more serious, although not ultimately so I hope. It's about being very sick at the hospital and knowing one is in good hands.” The poem, the only one Sissman reads explicitly acknowledging the cancer that was killing him, has one of his grim, memorable, witty openings: 

“Very few people know where they will die,
But I do: in a brick-faced hospital,
Divided, not unlike Caesarean Gaul,
Into three parts.” 

And here are the final four lines: 

“Then one fine day when all the smart flags flap,
A booted man in black with a peaked cap
Will call for me and troll me down the hall
And slot me into his black car. That’s all.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

`Irrespective of the Reader's Convictions'

“Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers. For this reason the aphorist who adopts a folksy style with `democratic’ diction and grammar is a cowardly and insufferable hypocrite.” 

The writer of carefully hedged aphorisms, qualified to fit every contingency, is no aphorist at all. “Wiser or more intelligent” isn’t quite right. It’s more accurate to say an aphorist weds ruthlessness to cant-free concision, gifts few writers possess in tandem (Swift did, supremely). Aphorisms are as tight and difficult to write as sestinas. They can be cold, merciless and unforgiving, and thus are ideal for delivering carefully aimed jabs of truth and puncturing pretensions. Can one imagine a politically correct aphorism? There’s nothing of self-regarding virtue in the form. An aphorist assumes truth trumps compassion and tact. Elsewhere in his foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1962), W.H. Auden says an aphorism must “convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.” 

For inclusion in their anthology, Auden and his co-editor, Louis Kronenberger, rely heavily on the long-reliable – La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Kraus, Pascal, Chesterton, Santayana and, of course, Dr. Johnson. They quote Johnson, via Boswell -- “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath” -- and in nine words he acknowledges human mendacity even in death, and forgives it. 

Aphorisms can show up anywhere. They need not be written and discretely identified as aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, apothegms or aperçus. A reader can happen upon them in poems (as in Pope) and prose (as in Proust), where their serendipitous discovery contributes to the wallop they pack. Some writers are aphoristic with some regularity. It’s a quality, like a sense of humor, I associate with mental health. Take Stevie Smith’s “God and the Devil” from A Good Time Was Had by All (1937): 

“God and the Devil
Were talking one day
Ages and ages of years ago.
God said: Suppose
Things were fashioned this way,
Well then, so and so.
The Devil said: No,
Prove it if you can.
So God created Man
And that is how it all began.
It has continued now for many a year
And sometimes it seems more than we can bear.
But why should bowels yearn and cheeks grow pale?
We’re here to point a moral and adorn a tale.” 

If the final, aphoristic line sounds familiar, your memory is good. Smith borrows it from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and revises it for her own purposes: 

“His Fall was destin'd to a barren Strand,
A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;
He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,
To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.” 

Smith must have been exceedingly fond of the line. She used it a year earlier in her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper: 

“For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

`The Golden Age Continues, Even Now'

For some of us, connections with eminent forebears – real, physical connections, not sentimental swoonings -- are matters of some gravity. I’ve documented my pedigree and A.J. Liebling’s elsewhere, and now I’ve thought of another forming a pleasingly closed loop: I shook hands with Steven Millhauser, who shook hands with Lionel Trilling, who shook hands with Whitaker Chambers, who shook hands with Louis Zukofsky, who shook hands with Guy Davenport, who shook hands with me (many sub-loops could be traced, leading us to Auden, Barzun and Bellow, among others). I’m tempted to start another beginning with my introduction to Ralph Ellison but that’s enough phantom associations for now. I came across a more substantial, albeit broken, linkage while reading Walter Martin’s translation of Baudelaire’s Complete Poems (Routledge, 2002). In his “Afterthoughts,” Martin writes: 

“My credentials are as follows: Once I shook the hand of Basil Bunting, who dined with William Butler Yeats, who shared rooms with Arthur Symons, who spent twenty years translating Baudelaire and was a friend of Paul Verlaine, whose series of three articles on the book [Les Fleurs du Mal] had appeared in 1865. Two years later Baudelaire was dead, having refused, for reasons known only to himself, to meet Verlaine or Mallarmé or any of the young poets of his day who aspired to become him.” 

This notion of kinship, of writers as a sort of family to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, seems especially important to Martin. He traces two lines of descent from Baudelaire – Verlaine/Rimbaud,   Mallarmé/Valéry – and offers a lengthy list of writers who share his “complex patrimony.” Among them: Corbière, Proust, Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Montale and Winters. They passed along Baudelaire’s influence, Martin says, “so that in a sense, attenuated as it may be, exhausted as it is, the golden age continues, even now.” Martin’s fellow feeling extends to his acknowledgements page, where he expresses gratitude to, among others, Edgar Bowers, Dick Davis, Dana Gioia, Donald Justice, Helen (Pinkerton) Trimpi and Janet Lewis. Explaining his theory of translation, which includes replicating Baudelaire’s forms, meters and rhymes, Martin quotes bluesman Furry Lewis: “If it ain’t rhymed up, it don’t sound good to me or nobody else.” 

Martin sounds like an interesting fellow. The brief biographical note in the book says he was born in Texas, read French at Stanford and taught English in Nepal. He formerly owned Chimaera, a bookshop in Palo Alto, and was working on a translation of Théophile Gautier’s Émaux et Camées. Martin’s lineage and thankfulness prompts me to add an afterthought of my own: I’ve shaken hands with two men who shook hands with A.J. Liebling – Tony Hiss and James Salter.

Monday, August 25, 2014

`At Their Dapatical Banquets'

One of the joys of reading late Auden is the pleasure he takes in rare words used correctly. Like his friend Dr. Oliver Sacks, he loved trolling the Oxford English Dictionary for good catches. In his translation of Horace’s Odes (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) David R. Slavitt acknowledges (and presumably shares) Auden’s predilection. Here is his version of the final stanza of I.14: 

“And will your heirs mourn, or will they revel,
Breaking out the wines you have locked away
To guzzle and spill on the floor
At their dapatical banquets?” 

My spell-check doesn’t recognize dapatical, though frayed memory and context figured it out. In his gloss, Slavitt says it is “exactly the right word to convey the idea of `the pontiff’s banquets,’ which was the way Romans referred to extravagance.” He goes on: 

“Auden uses the word in About the House; it comes from the Greek dapaien and means `to spend lavishly.’ It was Auden’s habit to use such low-frequency words to get them into the OED as a source—his idea of immortality. Without this note, I’m sure a number of readers would have had to look it up. My hope is that with the definition here, they will remember it. It’s a lovely word.” 

Agreed. And it gets lovelier if you follow the linguistic trail. The OED gives us the late Latin dapāticus, “sumptuous,” and uses the same English word to define, plus “costly.”

The most recent citation dates from 1721, and all three are from earlier reference. But no Auden. The unnamed poem Slavitt refers to in About the House (1965) is “To-Night at Seven-Thirty,” the tenth poem in a twelve-part sequence titled “Thanksgiving for a Habitat.” Auden dedicates the poem to the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, for whom he wrote an introduction to The Art of Eating (1963). In it he makes a rather dapatical claim: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” 

“I see a table
at which the youngest and the oldest present
keep the eyes grateful
for what Nature’s bounty and grace of Spirit can create:
for the ear’s content
one raconteur, one gnostic with amazing shop,
both in a talkative mood but knowing when to stop,
and one wide-traveled worldling to interject now and then
a sardonic comment, men
and women who enjoy the cloop of corks, appreciate
dapatical fare, yet can see in swallowing
a sign act of reverence,
in speech a work of re-presenting
the true olamic silence.”

More low-frequency words: cloop and olamic, and elsewhere in the poem: flosculent, cenacle, semble, curmurr, maltalents. Language, like life, is a dapatical feast. [For Auden’s essay on Fisher, “The Kitchen of Life,” see Forewords and Afterwords (1973).]23—1721

Sunday, August 24, 2014

`The First Passion and the Last'

The dullest people I’ve known, from infants to ancients, are the incurious, those indifferent to the wealth of interesting things that surround them. We’re born in wonder, free of charge, and we have everything to learn, with brains engineered to that end. A parent’s principal job, after security and sustenance, is imbuing a child with curiosity. The world is ours to reject or enjoy. Those who reject it or take it for granted, waiting for something better to come along, are fated for unhappiness. Over-sophistication proves as fatal to curiosity as its opposite.

The most unapologetically curious person I have ever known (in the flesh, I mean; no one could be more curious than Montaigne) was Guy Davenport, who once spent fifteen minutes in my company contemplating the color of Franz Kafka’s eyes (blue). In his essay “The Scholar as Critic” (Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987), Davenport writes: “Scholarship begins as a critical act of loving eyes: curiosity is passion.” He spoke of Samuel Johnson, with Plutarch and Montaigne, as one of his most influential teachers. On this date, Aug. 24, in 1751, Johnson published The Rambler #150. Enjoy the stately advance of Johnson’s prose and thought:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties. He who easily comprehends all that is before him, and soon exhausts any single subject, is always eager for new inquiries; and, in proportion as the intellectual eye takes in a wider prospect, it must be gratified with variety by more rapid flights, and bolder excursions; nor perhaps can there be proposed to those who have been accustomed to the pleasures of thought, a more powerful incitement to any undertaking, than the hope of filling their fancy with new images, of clearing their doubts, and enlightening their reason.”

It’s of some relevance to this writer that Davenport chose as the epigraph to Every Force Evolves a Form a passage from The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides, in which Boswell quotes Johnson. It is among the guiding precepts of Anecdotal Evidence:

 "I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

`He Was, in Fact, My Hero'

Seasoned readers develop secret crushes on writers who, if not exactly obscure or minor, and for whom appreciation will win you no place in the literary popularity contest, are little known and less admired. Think of Hubert Butler, Aleksander Wat and Aldo Buzzi. None was a genius. All make life more interesting. Such is Simon Leys, Pierre Ryckmans, the Belgian sinologist and literary essayist who died Aug. 11 at age seventy-eight. Like many others I encountered him first in 1977 when Chinese Shadows was published in English translation. Many in the West were still denying or tacitly approving of Mao's Cultural Revolution. In nuanced prose rooted in a learned love of Chinese culture, Leys documented its systematic destruction. Other books developing the theme followed: The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics. I never studied Chinese history closely but made an exception for Leys’ books. 

Last year brought good news. New York Review Books published The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays and the plump paperback took its place on what L.E. Sissman called the Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf. He returns to China, of course, as Hazlitt inevitably returns to painting and Lamb to the prose masters of the seventeenth century, but also to literary matters – Waugh, Orwell, Chesterton, Balzac and Nabokov, among others. Leys’ prose is measured and pithy, with an aphorist’s pointed concision. Here he is on, of all people, his fellow Belgian Georges Simenon: “An artist can take full responsibility only for those of his works that are mediocre or aborted—in these, alas! he can recognize himself entirely—whereas his masterpieces ought always to cause him surprise.” 

Theodore Dalrymple, himself a crush growing into something more substantial for this reader, has written a fine tribute to Leys: “He combined in his person qualities that are rarely so closely associated or inextricably linked: vast erudition and scholarship, exquisite taste, complete intellectual honesty, coruscating wit and brilliant literary gifts. 

“I admired Simon Leys more than any other contemporary writer. He was, in fact, my hero, in so far as I have ever had one.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

`A Life of Small Disappointments'

A proven reporter’s dodge for loosening up recalcitrant interviewees – get them talking about family or work. If the former, be careful. You can blunder into tender domestic woes – divorce, illness, wayward children, death. Work is safer. If the subject likes his job and is good at it, or thinks he is, he’ll brag. If he hates it, he’s apt to indulge his hunger for grievance. Either way, he’s talking. Even when a misery, work is central and time-intensive, so how peculiar it is that writers today devote so little attention to it, or treat it only as wallpaper. One of the joys of Roth’s American Pastoral is learning about the glove-making trade. L.E. Sissman, an advertising executive, wrote about that business, and Larkin gave us "Toads." Add to the list the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s “The Bottom Line,” a veritable mock-epic of fifty eleven-line stanzas, published in a limited edition in 1994 by the Dedalus Press of Dublin and collected in Quality Time (Anvil Press, 1997). 

Most of the poem is narrated by a nameless business man, not the CEO but a mid-level executive. There’s mention of “sales” but the product is never named, prompting recollections of Lambert Strether’s “little nameless object.” It’s useful to know that O’Driscoll, who died on Christmas Eve 2012, joined the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin at age sixteen, specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” and remained there for almost forty years.  In his memoir-essay “Sing for the Taxman,” O’Driscoll says, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a `poet’ or `artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.” “The Bottom Line” is not a protest poem, telling truth to corporate power. The narrator is realistic about the compromises he has made, appreciative of the rewards, complaining only mildly about the job’s inevitable headaches. O’Driscoll avoids the vying clichés – “organization man” apologist and anti-corporate “activist.” The tone here, in the fifth stanza, should not be mistaken for arch satire: 

“I am a trustworthy, well-adjusted citizen
at this stage, capable of a commanding
pungency in business talk, good grasp
of office jargon, the skill to rest
phones on my shoulders as I keep tabs,
the ability to clinch a deal convincingly…” 

O’Driscoll knows the turf, the lingo and folkways of the working world. He is the Larkin of the office, minus the looming sense of desolation – almost Larkin Lite. In the 2009 essay “Working Bard” (The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, 2013) he writes: “Philip Larkin’s mutterings about work, as a `toad’ squatting on his life, did not blind him to the jewel in the amphibian’s head; waxing lyrical, he conceded that his choice of librarianship as a career was, in retrospect, an `inspired’ one.” From O’Driscoll’s sixth stanza: 

“A life of small disappointments, hardly
meriting asperity or rage, a fax
sent to the wrong number, an engagement
missed, a client presentation failing
to persuade: nothing you can’t sweat off
at gym or squash.” 

The concluding lines of that stanza recall Larkin’s “Aubade”: 

“But, in the dark filling
of the night, doubts gather with the rain
which, spreading as predicted from the west,
now leaves its mark on fuscous window panes;
and you wait for apprehensions to dissolve
in the first glimmer of curtain light.” 

There’s no melodrama or Hollywood mayhem in “The Bottom Line.” It’s true to our experience, not revenge fantasy, written by a mature adult for and about his peers. O’Driscoll closes his poem, and the narrator’s day, thoughtfully, peace of mind wrinkled faintly with apprehension: 

“Halogen lights tested, alarm clock set,
I burrow into the high-tog, duckdown quilt;
the number-crunching radio-clock squanders
digital numbers like there was no tomorrow.
Who will remember my achievements when
age censors me from headed notepaper?
Sometimes, if I try to pray, it is with
dead colleagues that I find myself communing…
At the end of the day, for my successors too,
what will cost sleep are market forces, vagaries
of share price, p/e ratio, the bottom line.”