Thursday, October 30, 2014

`But Not a Day Without Jazz'

“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.” 

Larkin’s lines recall Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and Saul Steinberg’s image of stubborn affirmation defying the ever-looming “BUT.” By the poet’s customary standards, “For Sidney Bechet” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964) is positively ebullient, an unqualified celebration of a fellow artist. In a 1960 piece for the Observer following Bechet’s death (Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, 2004), Larkin judged him “one of the half-dozen leading figures in jazz.” In “Bechet and Bird” (All What Jazz, 1970), Larkin describes “Blue Horizon” (1944) as “six choruses of slow blues in which Bechet climbs without interruption or hurry from lower to upper register, his clarinet tone at first thick and throbbing, then soaring like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice, commanding attention the instant it sounded.”  Earlier this week Terry Teachout shared “Ten moments of pure musical joy.” My list would start with “Blue Horizon.” 

Poets have cranked out libraries of poems about jazz, almost all of it rubbish. Larkin’s poem is the rare exception, in part because it feels like a personal declaration by a man seldom given to such things. The equating of Bechet’s clarinet and soprano-saxophone playing with love is revealing and almost unprecedented in Larkin’s work. Born in Coventry in 1922, when Bechet was performing in London, Larkin grew up listening to what became known as “trad” -- that is, traditional jazz, pre-bop, pre-free, much of it performed by New Orleans musicians, the music of Bechet, Armstrong and Morton. “For the generations that came to adolescence between the wars,” Larkin writes, “jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand.” It’s fashionable to dismiss Larkin as a musical reactionary, but few writers have captured the sheer affirming excitement of jazz and the devotion it inspires in listeners.  In the Observer tribute he writes: “There are not many perfect things in jazz, but Bechet playing the blues could be one of them.” 

In his 1981 profile for The New Yorker, “Le Grand Bechet,” Whitney Balliett called him “the first jazz romantic,” saying Bechet was “probably the most lyrical and dramatic of all American jazz musicians.” Here are links to “Egyptian Fantasy,” "I Can't Believe You're in Love with Me," “September Song” and Bunny Berigan’s signature song “I Can’t Get Started” (with Teddy Buckner). Bechet’s autobiography, Treat It Gentle, was published in 1960, the year after his death. (The poet John Ciardi was one of the people who interviewed Bechet, transcribed his conversations and helped edit them into publishable form.) Near the end of Treat It Gentle, one of the best jazz memoirs, Bechet says: 

“The blues, and the spirituals, and the remembering, and the waiting, and the suffering, and the looking at the sky watching the dark come down—that’s all inside the music. And somehow when the music is played right it does an explaining of all those things. Me, I want to explain myself so bad. I want to have myself understood. And the music, it can do that. The music, it’s my whole story.” 

Larkin, in a 1965 interview, says, “What did Baudelaire say, man can live a week without bread but not a day without poetry. You might say I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

`Prose and Perception'

When a writer we admire takes on the work of another we comparably admire, it’s like introducing our dearest old friends. Our hopes are elevated, but there are risks. What if one disapproves of the other? Must we choose sides? Does one turn Solomonic and brandish a sword? What are the ethics of neutrality? Here is Philip Larkin on Whitney Balliett: “He will visit a player, tape what he says, and carefully interweave large stretches of this vernacular with his own studied narrative, achieving what in the trade is called a profile but is really a Van Dyck portrait.” Larkin wisely begins by focusing on what Balliett, long-time jazz writer for The New Yorker, does best: assemble portraits of musicians generously laced with the players’ own talk. Balliett’s prose is elegant and impressionistic, free of hipster posturing. When woven through with the musicians’ often salty conversation, the high-and-low effect is richly Elizabethan. 

Less than four years before his death and more than a decade after he published All What Jazz, Larkin reviewed Balliett’s Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975-1980 in the spring 1982 issue of The American Scholar, then edited by Joseph Epstein. Larkin writes: “The fascination of a Balliett collection lies in watching his hypersensitive technique (a combination of Leica and lapel mike) receive and transmit so many various musical experiences.” Not that Larkin is uncritical of Balliett. He suggests that the jazz writer’s painterly prose may compromise his critical chops: 

“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. He wishes, or so it seems, to transmit, to reproduce, and so to preserve, knowing that anyone who writes down what he sees and hears for twenty-five years will in spite of himself become a historian of different, and perhaps rarer, quality than the term usually implies.” 

Larkin goes on to cite some of Balliett’s harsher critical judgments, including an amusing précis of Sarah Vaughan’s singing – “no more intelligible than moos.” Balliett’s gifts were unorthodox, combining a documentary instinct for capturing personality with a poetic flair. His first profile, “Even His Feet Look Sad,” devoted to the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, appeared in The New Yorker in 1962. Here he is on Russell’s appearance: 

“A tall, close packed, slightly bent man, Russell had a wry, wandering face, dominated by a generous nose. The general arrangement of his eyes and eyebrows was mansard, and he had a brush moustache and a full chin. A heavy trellis of wrinkles held his features in place. His grey-black hair was combed absolutely flat.” 

And here is Balliett on Russell’s playing: 

“No jazz musician has ever played with the same daring and nakedness and intuition. His solos didn’t always arrive at their original destination. He took wild improvisational chances and when he found himself above the abyss, he simply turned in another direction, invariably hitting firm ground. By this time his first chorus is over, and one has the impression of having just passed through a crowd of jostling, whispering people.” 

You can see why this would irk musicologists and please readers. Balliett’s work in the profile form is collected in American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz (1996) and American Singers: Twenty-seven Portraits in Song (1988). Much of the rest can be found in Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2000). Larkin asks at the conclusion of his review: 

“Can the answer be that as long as any jazz player is being filtered through the transcendence of Balliett’s prose and perception, he is as good as any of his predecessors?” 

And there’s a bonus: On the bottom of page 289 in The American Scholar, in the middle of Larkin’s review, is an ad for the Penguin paperback edition of Joseph Epstein’s Ambition: The Secret Passion – an unrepeatable bargain at $4.95. According to the blurb from Forbes: “Should be must reading in executive suites as well as college classrooms.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

`Words Kept Getting in the Way'

Sometimes words are stuffed to bursting, like fat sausages, with meanings. One pities (and envies – think of Shakespeare, Swift, et al.) those learning English as a second language. Take this passage from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775): 

“In our return, we found a little boy upon the point of a rock, catching with his angle a supper for the family. We rode up to him, and borrowed his rod, with which Mr. Boswell caught a cuddy. The cuddy is a fish of which I know not the philosophical name. It is not much bigger than a gudgeon, but is of great use in these Islands, and affords the lower people both food and oil for their lamps.” 

First, contemplate the scene of Boswell and Johnson at Ullinish, a town on the southwest coast of Skye, stopping to talk with a little boy and borrow his fishing rod. How pleased was Boswell to show off his angling prowess? From the context I knew cuddy was a fish, though I’m not certain what Johnson means by “philosophical name.” Thirty-five years earlier, Linnaeus had published Systema Naturae, in which he sets out his system of binomial nomenclature. Was Johnson referring to the fish’s Linnaean name (perhaps Pollachius virens)? 

Why cuddy? It echoes with Cutty Sark, the clipper ship and whiskey.  The OED offers a wealth of meanings, some mutually exclusive. First, chiefly in Scotland, it’s a donkey (also, cuddy ass) and, figuratively, “a stupid fellow, an ‘ass’.” In Australia, it’s a small horse. Next comes Johnson’s usage: “a name for the young of the coal-fish or seath,” from the Gaelic cudaig. And then, “local name for the hedge-sparrow or ‘dunnock’, and for the moor-hen.” Finally, away from the zoological: “a lever mounted on a tripod for lifting stones, leveling up railroad-ties, etc.” And then a compound form, cuddy-legs, “a large herring.” Not to mention another, etymologically unrelated string of meanings, most nautical, but one meaning “a small room, closet, or cupboard” and related to cubby and cubby-hole. 

In 1978, Anthony Burgess reviewed The Linguistic Atlas of England for the Times Literary Supplement, and called it “one of this year’s really notable events.” His review is collected in the ridiculously titled But Do Blondes Prefer Gentleman? (1986). Burgess notes that cuddy, as in “donkey,” is one among many synonyms collected by the editors: “a dickey, a neddy, an ass, a fussock, a fussanock, a moke, a mokus [in the U.S., as a noun it means “loneliness, depression”; as an adjective, “drunk.” In Hungarian, mókus means “squirrel.”], a nirrup, a jack nirrup, a bronkus or a pronkus.” This reads like one of the more transparent passages in Finnegans Wake. Burgess goes on: 

Cuddy is not given as a form used in my own county of Lancashire, but most pubs named for a horse, black, white or grey, are popularly The Cuddy, even in sophisticated Liverpool.” 

One year earlier, Burgess had reviewed Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by the great lexicographer’s granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray. James Murray died in 1915 at age seventy-eight, lived only through the letter “T,” and Burgess writes of him: 

“It is true that Murray’s preoccupation with the OED begot a kind of monomania, but it must be regarded as a beneficent or at least an innocuous one. It became difficult for him to make aesthetic judgements on literature: words kept getting in the way.”

Monday, October 27, 2014

`Hammer Hammer Adamantine Words'

“I always had a passion for that crazy old ruffian,” says Samuel Beckett of the other Samuel, Johnson, in the third volume of his letters. Ruffian implies crudity of manners, bluffness, a provincial lack of polish, perhaps a willingness to resort to muscle – all true in Johnson’s case. In his day, the word referred to someone harsher, less jocular. As a noun, Johnson defines it in his Dictionary as “a brutal, boisterous, mischievous fellow; a cutthroat; a robber; a murderer,” and cites Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II:

“Have you a ruffian that will swear? drink? dance?
 Revel the night? rob? murder?”

Johnson surprises me with entries for ruffian as a verb – “to rage; to raise tumults; to play the ruffian” – and again cites Shakespeare, this time Othello. Montano says:

“A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements;
 If it hath ruffian’d so upon the sea,
 What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on them,
 Can hold the mortise.”

Also unexpected is Johnson’s entry for ruffian as an adjective: “brutal; savagely boisterous.” This time he cites Pope’s translation of the Odyssey:

“Experienc'd age
 May timely intercept the ruffian rage,
 Convene the tribes.”

The word across centuries has paled from Homeric savagery into something like fond good-old-boyness. From Beckett it’s a compliment. Johnson was among his lifelong enthusiasms. In a later letter, Beckett says of him: “I find it hard to resist anything to do with that old blusterer, especially his last years.”

In a 1959 letter, a tour de force of associative memory, starting with childhood memories of soccer and family strife and moving seamlessly into his current writing project, Beckett says: “Work no good, hammer hammer adamantine words, house inedible, hollow bricks, small old slates from demolished castle, second hand, couvreur [roofer] fell off backward leaning scaffolding and burst, fat old man, instantaneous the things one has seen and not looked away.”

Adamantine is an adjective Johnson defines as possessing “hardness, indissolubility.” A good modern synonym is “unbreakable.” As a citation, Johnson again quote’s Pope’s Odyssey:

“Tho’ adamantine bonds the chief restrain,
 The dire restraint his wisdom will defeat,
 And soon restore him to his regal seat.”

Sunday, October 26, 2014

`An Early Entrance Into the Living World'

Since his death one month ago, wisecracks and profundities from D.G. Myers have bubbled to the surface. Proud but never pretentious, David was generous with his best thinking, happily dropping pearls before swine. Of late I ruminate on themoral obligation to write well.” I thought of it again reading this rousing passage from C.H. Sisson’s free translation of Horace’s Epistle II.3, Ars Poetica: 

“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless
Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,
And equally put his pen through elaboration;
He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,
Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,
Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense
About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.
Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,
Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”

We’re drowning in bad writing, some of it intentional, some merely slipshod. Every choice of syllable is an act of criticism. Sloppy writing reflects sloppy thinking. When not simply lying, inept writers are betraying their lazy ignorance of the world. Dr. Johnson suggests as in The Rambler #168, published on this date, Oct. 26, in 1751: 

“Among the numerous requisites that must concur to complete an author, few are of more importance than an early entrance into the living world. The seeds of knowledge may be planted in solitude, but must be cultivated in publick. Argumentation may be taught in colleges, and theories formed in retirement, but the artifice of embellishment, and the powers of attraction, can be gained only by general converse.” 

I was born on this date in the waning days of the Truman administration, in 1952, and I’m still trying to write more pointedly, more honestly.

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.”