Monday, September 26, 2016

`The Secret Handshake'

“In Yiddish, Yahrzeit. There is no English word
that serves correctly. Anniversary
is gay, wears party hats, has dinner out,
but Yahrzeit tells the time by throbs of pain,
mourns the turning of each season’s screws
and can predict by inner aches the outer
weather,
             as the wounded learn to do
from predictable cycles of agony and numbness.”

David Myers was good at remembering the dead, his own and the world’s. He noted their passing, rousing us to reflection and hallowing memory. Now it’s our turn. When David died two years ago, the bookish precincts of the blogosphere lost their finest – most acutely analytical, most stylish, most widely and deeply read -- representative, and ever since it hasn’t been quite so much fun. David was the most difficult friend I have ever had. He was touchy, contrary and argumentative. His deportment before the world was unlike my own, and yet we felt some essential, brotherly affinity. I miss him every day. The passage quoted above is from the title poem in David R. Slavitt’s Equinox and Other Poems (Louisiana State University, 1989), and here are the subsequent lines:

“Pain and its diminution are the two
companions we trust, stars in our firmament.
We also have the telephone and each other.”

I miss our long discursive telephone conversations and almost daily exchanges of emails.  The best way to honor David, or any worthy writer, is to read him. A Commonplace Blog is a rare blog that remains vital and memorable long after its author departs. It rewards rereading. I remember the morning more than seven years ago when he took Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog/fox dichotomy and personalized it for all congenital foxes.

“These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

`Only a Woman's Hair'

“Lo here I sit at Holyhead
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian victuals stink of fish
I’m where my enemies would wish . . .”

Like photography and marksmanship, the art of invective relies on focus and strict recognition of existing conditions. Otherwise, it’s mere rant, a formless tantrum in words. Passion is less than half the job. The rest is “proper words in proper places,” as Swift wrote elsewhere. The poem excerpted above, “Holyhead. September 25, 1727,” was written in his journal and not published until 1882. Swift arrived at Holyhead on Sept. 24 but stormy weather kept him from traveling for five days. On Sept. 29, his ferry set sail but returned to Holyhead because of rough seas. He didn’t ship out until Oct. 1, and weather again delayed him. Swift came ashore in County Louth, some seventy miles from Dublin, and reached the city on Oct. 6 or 7:   
 
“I never was in haste before
To reach that slavish hateful shore
Before, I always found the wind
To me was most malicious kind
But now, the danger of a friend
On whom my fears and hopes depend
Absent from whom all climes are curst
With whom I'm happy in the worst
With rage impatient makes me wait
A passage to the land I hate.”

The “friend” is Esther Johnson, better known as “Stella,” to whom he addressed his Journal to Stella. Swift prayed at her bedside and composed prayers for her, but couldn’t stand to be present at her death, on Jan. 28, 1728. In another poem from his Holyhead journal, Swift writes of Ireland:

“Remove me from this land of slaves,
Where all are fools and all are knaves;
Where every knave and fool is bought,
Yet kindly sells himself for naught;
Where Whig and Tory fiercely fight,
Who’s in the wrong, who in the right;
And when their country lies at stake,
They only fight for fighting’s sake,
While English sharpers take the pay,
And then stand by to see fair play.”

Few writers could so combine political invective with the outlines of a love letter. Thackeray writes in his essay on Swift:

“In a note in his biography, Scott says that his friend Dr. Tuke of Dublin has a lock of Stella’s hair, enclosed in a paper by Swift, on which are written, in the Dean’s hand, the words: `Only a woman’s hair.’ An instance, says Scott, of the Dean’s desire to veil his feelings under the mask of cynical indifference.”

[“`Jonathan Swift’ is the only Fast Ferry on the Irish Sea route taking you across in just 1 hour 49 mins!”]

Saturday, September 24, 2016

`Preferably on a Variety of Somethings'

I’m reading J.V. Cunningham again, including the Iowa Review interview he did in 1983 with Timothy Steele. Cunningham died in 1985, the year the interview was published, at the age of seventy-three, and Steele went on to edit The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997). The poems are famously terse, cant-free and sometimes savage. In the interview he says:

“I ran across a note I made some years ago, wondering about what were . . . the sources of the bare plain style I find congenial, though certainly do not try to write in all the time. In that, I noted a small poem of Robinson, not the typical Robinson, but a small straightforward poem, `An Old Story,’ some Landor, and the poetry of Swift.”

I read “An Old Story” again and understood why a man as sensitive as Cunningham, whose own death was imminent, would favor a poem that closes with these lines: “I never knew the worth of him / Until he died.” Then I recalled that Cunningham’s other models, Landor and Swift, also wrote pithy, irreverent, epigrammatic poems about mortality and our reactions to it. Here is Landor’s “Age”:

“Death, tho’ I see him not, is near
And grudges me my eightieth year.
Now, I would give him all these last
For one that fifty have run past.
Ah! he strikes all things, all alike,
But bargains: those he will not strike.”

And this is Landor’s “A Funeral”:

“A hearse is passing by in solemn state,
Within lies one whom people call the great.
Its plumes seem nodding to the girls below
As they gaze upward at the raree-show,
Boys from the pavement snatch their tops, and run
To know what in the world can be the fun.”

For the record, a raree-show is, according to the OED, “an exhibition, show, or spectacle of any kind, esp. one regarded as lurid, vulgar, or populist” (e.g., a presidential campaign). From Swift we have this from “A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General”:

“And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
’Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that’s the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.”

The object of Swift’s contempt is John Churchill (1650-1722), the first Duke of Marlborough. Three centuries have passed and we still relish the venom.

Cunningham is one of those poets – Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson are others (as is Swift) -- who remain unclassifiable and will never be mistaken for “major” (whatever that means) by the critics. One reads them devotedly across a lifetime. They are reliably sane and companionable. Here is a parting taste of Cunningham:

“It might be observed that the idea implied, almost asserted, in the term `creative writing’ is not so good. There is a kind of pretension about it. There is a spiritual claim, the creative versus the inert, the organic versus the inorganic, and all that sort of thing. Anyone who is committed to the discipline of English should be able to write well on something and preferably on a variety of somethings.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

`First of All, the Tone Amuses'

Mundanity has its charms. If I could meet, say, Aristotle, or Dr. Johnson, I wouldn’t waste time with grand philosophical questions. I’d want to know what they had for lunch and their strategies for dealing with bores. And what they use for toothpaste, and how often they brush. And whether they have successfully treated flatulence, dandruff and acne. And how much a loaf of bread costs at the neighborhood bakery. Here’s the sort of account I have in mind:

“So by water home and to my office, whither by and by came my brother John, who is to go to Cambridge to-morrow, and I did give him a most severe reprimand for his bad account he gives me of his studies. This I did with great passion and sharp words, which I was sorry to be forced to say, but that I think it for his good . . .”

That’s from Samuel Pepys’s Diary on this date, Sept. 23, in 1663, and we acknowledge an immediate human connection – the nagging of a brother for his wayward junior. There’s comfort in recognizing human universals, like the urge to meddle and our mild regret for doing so. Pepys is wise not to leave out the daily stuff. We read him because we appreciate his unvoiced recognition that the dull and unromantic are also important. Auden called Trollope “the poet of the actual,” and the epithet fits Pepys nicely.

I didn’t expect to find a Pepys admirer among the modern French poets. In Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79 (trans. Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2013), Pepys is almost the only English-language writer mentioned by Philippe Jaccottet. In an entry from 1973 he writes:

“Samuel Pepys’ Diary. First of all, the tone amuses. It is the completely neutral tone of a schoolboy carefully composing his lessons. Pepys’ era was certainly less sentimental than ours. Today, we become indignant at the harshness with which Madame de Sévigné speaks about people of modest means. Pepys attended the torturing of men Charles I had condemned to execution without evincing the least horror; he simply notes that from his vantage point he could see on one side of him the heads of the two condemned men displayed in a corner of the  roof and on the other side, a very lovely view. Then he goes to eat and drink as usual, large amounts, in other words.”

Jaccottet writes admiringly of Pepys, in a tone that resembles wonder: “You can’t help but think that men of that time had stronger constitutions than we do now. Pepys often got up very early, at four or five in the morning, which did not seem exceptional to him, and went to bed late. His menus included enough for three meals today. Bribes are par for the course: Pepys never refuses them, he simply pretends not to notice them.”

There is no moral progress. We are no better, and perhaps a little worse, than our ancestors. Pepys is a man of world, in no way outstanding except in his dedication to documenting his days. In him is no moral preening, no pretensions to enlightenment. Jaccottet likens him to characters in Molière, perhaps Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme:

“His efforts to educate himself, his vanity in dress and his dreams of living in high style are pure Jourdain. And this confirms that we have here the portrait of a world that could have been found in London as easily as in Paris.”

[Go here to read Tess Lewis’ review of C.H. Sisson’s On the Look-out: A Partial Autobiography.]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

`Nor Am I Primarily Interested in Politics'

Friends in Canada and Europe have taken an unhealthy interest in our unending presidential campaign. The less unhealthy ones liken our quadrennial Grand Guignol to a snuff film – a spectacle so horrible you can’t resist staring, at least briefly. Others are simply confused and disgusted, while reveling in their confusion and disgust, and see it as America’s death rattle. They don’t understand that we’ve been throwing the same noxious clambake every four years for more than two centuries, and this year’s entry is just a little more entertaining and hopeless than its predecessors.  

I’ve always thought of the U.S.A. as a marvelous anomaly, an unlikely experiment that bucked human nature for a little while. Call me Hobbesian, but people aren’t designed to get along or respect each other. Our default mode is discord. We enjoy chaos the way a pyromaniac enjoys watching firemen battle a blaze he set himself. My guide to the 2016 presidential election, the book that served as my handbook when I covered government as a newspaper reporter, is A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana (1961), his book-length profile of Gov. Earl Long, brother to the better-known former governor Huey “Kingfish” Long. During an impromptu press conference with Earl, Liebling makes his move:

“I put all my admiration in my glance and edged my chair up to the end of the Governor’s sofa. When I try, I can exude sincerity as far as a lama can spit, and the Governor’s gaze, swinging about the room, stopped when it lit on me. My eyes clamped it in an iron grip of approval.

“I inched forwarder, trying not to startle him into putting a cop on me, and said, `Governor, I am not a newspaperman. I am with you all the way about publishers [Long has just said of Henry Luce: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.”]  Nor am I primarily interested in politics. I came all the way down here to find out your system for beating the horses.’

“An expression of modest disclaimer dropped like a curtain in front of the cocky old face.

“`I got no particular system,’ he said. `I think I’m doing good to break even. I think horse-betting should be dissected—into them that can afford it and them that can’t. I think if you can afford it it’s a good thing to take your mind off your troubles and keep you out in the air.’”

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

`A Cheap, Easy High--With No Side Effects'

Art that makes people happy is guaranteed to make certain other people itchy. The notion of deriving pleasure -- more than pleasure: felicity -- from artistic creation arouses deep suspicion in some. Art is serious stuff, and nothing is less serious than happiness. Every sophisticate knows that. Terry Teachout has recycled a ten-year-old post devoted to the music he listens to whenever he feels “the urgent need to upgrade my mood.” He writes, “I’ve always found music to be one of the most potent means of attitude adjustment known to man,” and his experience jibes with mine. (Hello, Jack Teagarden. Hello, Paul Desmond.) Music’s impact is prompt and unambiguous. In contrast, literature is an oral ingestion of medicine compared to the intravenous immediacy of music. Happiness, however, is not the only reason to read. Many great works are unequivocally unhappy, or describe unhappy circumstances. Likewise, happiness means many contradictory things. Given all that, here is an unpremeditated sampler of printed matter that reliably makes me happy:

Most anything by A.J. Liebling, Vladimir Nabokov and P.G. Wodehouse

Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation

The “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns of Myles na gCopaleen in the Irish Times

The poems of Marianne Moore, Richard Wilbur and Eric Ormsby

Tristram Shandy, especially the scenes with Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman

The essays of Joseph Epstein and Guy Davenport

A handful of stories by Chekhov, John Cheever and Eudora Welty


The “Days Trilogy” of H.L. Mencken

Whitney Balliett’s descriptions of jazz musicians performing

As Terry says at the close of his musical post: “I don’t guarantee results, but all of the items on this list can be counted on to give me a cheap, easy high–with no side effects.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

`More Confidence in the Dead Than the Living'

“The litany of great books can, of course, come across as mere litany. Books that charm us in one season, books that shake us to the core in another, can turn blank and empty if we approach them in a dull spirit. Reading them for the sake of duty or out of pedantry is certain to miss the point. The best books are best because of their quirky individuality, not because they are part of a club of `great’ books.”

“Great books” is a category without meaning, akin to “classic rock.” It smacks of marketing and focus groups. True, many of the books commonly stamped with that label are the ones we read to understand the culture we have inherited, to maintain a living linkage with the past and to enjoy. Our ancestors fairly often knew what they were doing. Among the reasons we read Plutarch is that Shakespeare read him, which is one of the reasons we read Shakespeare.

One must be skeptical of newly published books.  They are unknown quantities from a backward and provincial age. They must work hard to prove themselves, and seldom do.
The late D.G. Myers, who regularly reviewed current fiction, shared some good, seemingly contradictory advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz).” Here’s my corollary: If a book creates “buzz,” run away as fast as you can.

The author of the passage quoted at the top, Rachel Peterson, writes in “On Reading Old Books”: “But sometimes the most exhilarating departure from normal is to travel to another world. Old books are the ticket.” Of course, Peterson is reformulating something found in an old book, namely Hazlitt’s identically titled essay “On Reading Old Books” (1819). Hazlitt states the matter definitively: “I have more confidence in the dead than the living.”