Thursday, September 03, 2015

`To Form a Bowl-Shaped Cavity'

So long as we use them prudently and with wit, one can never have enough words, so I was pleased when a friend sent me a note with the subject line “your boys might get a kick out of this list of words.” I did too. Of the 102 exotics, I knew or could figure out about thirty of them. Among my favorites is petrichor: “the smell of the first rain of the season after a long dry spell.” That’s pertinent to Houston, where we’ve smelled it all too rarely. The Australian poet Les Murray uses it in his essay “The Import of Seasons” (written in 1985, collected in A Working Forest, 1997):

“In the mid-1960s, Drs. Joy Bear and Richard Thomas of the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization] discovered that the characteristic smell of rain on dry earth, one of the truly poignant smells of Australia, was called by a yellow oil which they could distill from rocks and soil. They termed this oil petrichor, `essence of stone. . .’”

“Heavy rains release some of it from the earth’s surface to wash down into swamps and streams, where it triggers the reproductive activity of fish and other aquatic animals and thus starts the cycle of life after a drought. A fraction of this oil rising from the earth provides the smell we notice, an odour to which many animals are probably keyed.”

The OED confirms Murray’s explanation, citing an excerpt from an article Bear and Thomas published in the journal Nature in 1964: “The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name `petrichor’ for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an `ichor’ or `tenuous essence’ derived from rock or stone. This name, unlike the general term `argillaceous odour,’ avoids the unwarranted implication that the phenomenon is restricted to clays or argillaceous materials; it does not imply that petrichor is necessarily a fixed chemical entity but rather it denotes an integral odour.”

One criterion for the usefulness of an obscure word is the sense it gives of plugging a hole in the world. Even in less arid climates, people recognize that smell. I associate it with rain on old slate sidewalks. When I learned the word years ago I promptly removed it from the museum and put it into circulation.

One can never have enough terms of abuse for fools of various species, and the list obliges – hoddypeak, nihilarian, pronk, philosophunculist, phlyarologist, rastaquouere, slubberdegullion, ultracrepidarian, widdiful. Of that arsenal, pronk is the likeliest weapon, with its monosyllabic bluntness and generally comedic sound.  The OED labels it “Brit. slang (derogatory). Now rare,” and defines it as “a fool, an idiot; (also) an ineffectual or effeminate person.” Judged by its utility, pronk ought to go into heavy rotation.

A word like yepsen is different. The OED defines it as “the two hands placed together so as to form a bowl-shaped cavity; as much as can be held in this.” It sounds too much like a Danish surname to be used without irony, but knowing that a simple human act – cupping water, gold or grain -- inspired a word of its own, lends one a rare sense of solidarity with his fellows. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

`Long Before I Had Drugs'

A reader passed along a formerly well-known crack from Oscar Levant (1906-1972), a formerly well-known pianist, actor and wit: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” Humor is mortally rooted in time and place, and perishable as watercress, as is most pop culture. Americans my age would get the Doris Day reference. Not so for young people, though some might appreciate the wit even without knowing Day’s reputation for Hollywood wholesomeness. She was “America’s Sweetheart.” Levant, too, is forgotten, though even at the height of his fame (c. 1945-1965) he was an unlikely celebrity. Friend to George Gershwin, student of Arnold Schoenberg, co-star with the likes of Gene Kelly and Joan Crawford, Levant was a drug-addled mess who built a career on being a funny neurotic. I remember seeing him as a guest on Jack Parr’s talk show and liking his mordancy and charmless charm. My parents disapproved, which added to his luster. He was also a modestly gifted writer and author of three memoirs worth reading once -- A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965) and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968). Imagine a celebrity today writing this:

“Long before I had drugs, my real boosters were books. I thought it was I alone who discovered Ivy Compton-Burnett. I read about six books by this excellent English novelist and then talked loftily about her to Lesley Blanch, who at one time was the editor of Vogue in London. She informed me that Ivy Compton-Burnett was indeed known by others and that she, in fact, had done a whole layout on her. Thereupon I lost interest in her as a discovery but continued my admiration. Her novels are written almost entirely in dialogue—so brilliant that it makes T.S. Eliot sound like Johnny Carson.”

This is from Chapter 7 of The Unimportance of Being Oscar, an account of the writers he had admired or met. Levant is an Olympic-class namedropper, who, in one chapter, gifts us with Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Kenneth Tynan, Elaine Dundy, Hemingway, Clifton Fadiman, Virgil Thomson, Aldous Huxley, Robert Lowell (“he reminded me of a Gentile Clifford Odets”) and others he met. He notes, winningly: “My own opinion is that Pound is a great poet, all right, but not a great man if you happen to be a Jew.” Levant isn’t shy about dropping the names of the dead: “The two great writers who have never let me down over the years are Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde. They always manage to brighten my life with something new, full of flavor, and to the point.” At various times in his life, Levant enjoyed reading Ambrose Bierce, Stendhal, Thomas Carlyle and Booth Tarkington. He writes:

“In my youth, I read all the good Russian authors such as Feodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoi, Anton Chekhov, and Ivan Turgenev. Youth is the period when they should be read. After I passed that age in life, I was never able to stand their morbid attitude about existence.”

This sound suspiciously like Bill Clinton touting the charms of Marcus Aurelius (“he was deeply spiritual and understood that life required balance”). Except for Dostoevsky, there is nothing morbid about the Russian writers Levant mentions. He may have read them but he resorts to a boilerplate cliché about the gloomy depths of the Slavic soul. His taste is often dubious (Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy), but then he surprises us:

“Another enthusiasm of mine—and a personal revelation—were the books with one-word titles (Loving, Nothing, etc.) of Henry Green, the pseudonym of the Birmingham businessman-author [Henry Yorke]. I read them in 1952 when I was convalescing from my heart attack and found them brilliantly amusing.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

`An Ability for Joy'

With books I seek familiarity. I want to know about the world, especially people, not utopia or some other tedious fantasy. Gulliver’s Travels is about us, not giants and little people. With music, it’s different. I look for the familiar but because I’m musically illiterate I enjoy surprise as inarticulately as a child. I’m more open-minded because my experience of it is subjective. I’m free to enjoy things I don’t understand. I know what I like and I know what bores me. When it’s just me and the radio, I can’t fake sophistication. Driving to work several weeks ago, I tuned midway into Alec Wilder’s “Air for Flute” and felt better for the rest of the morning. Later, driving home, I heard Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” and it took care of the evening. Writers ought to envy musicians and composers the power they wield.

Mark W. Wait is dean of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence. He’s also a concert pianist and lately I’ve enjoyed the Stravinsky recordings he made with the pianist Carolyn Huebl. Last week I asked Mark about Wilder, one of my favorite composers, and he replied:      

“Oh, I like Alec Wilder very much, and I think he is undervalued.  His music is witty, urbane, and well-crafted in the best sense. (In music,`well-crafted’ is sometimes code language for `competent but boring.’ I mean no such thing.) His chamber music is really good, and I enjoy his piano music, too, though of course it’s the songs that attract the most attention.”

I also asked Mark Wait about Aaron Copland, another composer I love, and he wrote: “So I’m with you on Wilder. On Copland, too. Virgil Thomson had a nice line about Copland, specifically about the Piano Concerto (1925), his most jazz-influenced work.  Thomson called the Piano Concerto `Aaron’s one wild oat.’”

Increasingly, I look to music for joy. That was not always true. I’ve had periods of Sturm und Drang and turned to an appropriate soundtrack. I listen a lot to Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Erroll Garner, Ruby Braff, Art Tatum, Paul Desmond and Maurice Ravel. In an essay on Copland collected in A Ned Rorem Reader (Yale University Press, 2001), Rorem compares him to Ravel: “Like all artists Aaron was a child, but where some play at being grown up Aaron’s childishness had a frank visibility that I’ve never seen elsewhere, except perhaps in Ravel, of all people.” Rorem says both composers dwelt “far from the madding crowd, Copland in sophisticated innocence, Ravel in naïve sophistication.” Maybe that is what I recognize in their music. In another brief piece in his Reader, “Notes on Death,” Rorem writes:

“Art and unhappiness are unrelated. Because an artist sees the truth as a way out, and can do nothing, he is unhappy. Because he is seen seeing the way out, he is happy. And he often is willing to market his misery, sweep his madness onto a talk show and laugh at his own tears. Perhaps finally the greatest intelligence is an ability for joy.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

`The Sort of Person Who Would Prose Away'

In D.J. Enright’s poetry collection Under the Circumstances (1991), he titles a prose interlude, naturally enough, “Prose.” It reads, in part: 

“Between courses a venerable oriental silently proffered his car. It described him a `Proser.’ One hid one’s smiles behind one’s chopsticks. From which dangled something unidentifiable but delicious. 

“Evidently the sort of person who would prose away, weighing the pros and cons! Who for certain boring reasons, probably prudential, would rather not be deemed a poet, sometimes labeled Rhymester or Versifier. 

“Later, having recourse to one’s Oxford Dictionary, one actually discovered the word there, much to one’s disbelief. `A writer of prose.’ Going back hundreds of years. One simply hadn’t recognized it, among all those exotic dishes.” 

Please, Enright is not guilty of “orientalism.” He taught for years in Japan, Thailand and Singapore, and knew their people more intimately than most Westerners. He’s right, of course, about the OED, which defines proser as “a writer of prose,” though my spell-check software doesn’t recognize it.  (Nor does it recognize prosiast, which is almost as funny as prosit, and promptly changed it to prosiest). The first citation for proser, dated “?1614,” is from a poem, and not just any poem but one central to the Western poetic tradition – Chapman’s Homer (Odyssey): “This Prozer Dionysius, and the rest of these graue, and reputatiuely learned.” Subsequent citations are also of interest: 

The Battaile of Agincourt (1627) by Michael Drayton: “And surely Nashe, though he a Proser were / A branch of Lawrell yet deserues to beare.” 

The Feast of Poets (1815) by Leigh Hunt: “Such prosers as Johnson, and rhymers as Dryden.” 

Leaves from My Journal in Italy and Elsewhere (1854) by James Russell Lowell: “Poets and prosers have alike compared her [sc. Italy] to a beautiful woman.”
Later citations carry a satiric tang. Proser, perhaps in part because it echoes poser, seems to have become a term of comic condescension, a puffed-up appellation, which brings us to its second definition: “A person who proses; a person who talks or writes in a dull or tiresome manner.” Its first citation comes from 1769, a century and a half after Chapman’s Homer. I’m guessing it was a matter of status. Poetry was somehow more elevated, more elegant and respectable than mere prose. Of course, there was a time when that was true. Today, most poetry is prosaic and too much prose is poetic. At their best, poetry and prose share some of the same virtues – concision, precision, musicality. My guiltiest wish is that I could someday write memorable poetry. Unlike most people who share that aspiration, I know it will never happen. For now, as I’ve said before, I’m proud to be a proser.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

`Richard Savage Had Nothing on Her'

“If you would have dark themes and high-flown words,
Great albatrosses drenched in sacredness,
Go read some other book; for I confess
I cannot make my verses to your taste.
And though they are not trifles made in haste,
Mine are to those such light things, little birds,
Sparrows among their kind, whose one last shift
Is shelter from the universal drift."                                                 

In a few of us, at some rare and unforeseeable point, humility and defiance merge – a point often mistaken for self-pity, knee-jerk rebelliousness or aggrieved entitlement. But some people really are different from the “universal drift,” for reasons internal and otherwise, and a few among them serve as witnesses who report back to us, the naïve and skeptical masses. Their news is not happy or hopeful but possesses the rarer virtue of clear-eyed truthfulness. The intelligence they supply is reliable.
Until now, Catherine Breese Davis (1924-2002) as a poet and woman hardly existed. The lost souls among us leave little evidence of their existence. Their lives and deaths are anonymous. Davis’ fate is described by George Eliot in the final paragraph of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The long-deferred publication by Pleiades Press of Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master (2015) gives readers a chance to appreciate a gifted poet virtually erased from the memory of readers.
Helen Pinkerton, who attended Stanford with Davis and edited her poems in an earlier unsuccessful effort to get them published, contributes an essay to the new volume, placing Davis’ poems in their poetic context: “Her best poems are in the classical plain style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets – Wyatt, Ralegh, Donne, and Herrick—and are further influenced by the modern American plainness of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louise Bogan and J.V. Cunningham.” Davis’ academic pedigree is impeccable. Among her teachers were Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Cunningham, Yvor Winters and Donald Justice. Another Stanford veteran, Kenneth Fields, in “Learned Distrust,” writes of the poem quoted above, “Passerculi,” part of a sequence of epigrams titled “Insights”:
“Davis herself understood how fragile the survival of her poems might be, and she expresses this in her references to the Roman poet Catullus. In “Passerculi” (little sparrows) she at once refers to Catullus as well as the rhetorical formula of the lesser contrasted to the greater—Sappho staking her territory of amorous passion against Homeric epic warfare is one example. Davis is thinking of Catullus mourning the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, one of the little things (like all of us) destined to be lost in the obliterating underworld.”
Fields briefly chronicles Davis’ “rough life, never far from poverty.” Her father went to prison for armed robbery when she was a baby, and she never saw him again. Her mother was a textbook monster. Davis suffered a mild case of cerebral palsy, misdiagnosed as polio. When her mother discovered Davis was a lesbian, she threw her out of the house and never saw her again. Davis suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease. As Fields says, “She knew about loss.” Her best and probably best-known poem is “After a Time,” which begins:

“After a time, all losses are the same.
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.” 

One is impressed not by the pain or even by Davis’ stoicism, but by the way in which her command of form contains the suffering and loss. This is not writing as therapy. There’s nothing “confessional” about it. Davis is an artist. She’s not competing in the crowded field of the Victim’s Marathon. Please read Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master, especially the earlier poems, for their artistry, not because Davis belongs to some demographic du jour. Fields writes: “It’s pointless to wonder what she might have been like as a writer in less straitened circumstances, but I wonder anyway. Richard Savage had nothing on her; Doctor Johnson would have loved Catherine Davis.” To my knowledge, Davis never murdered anyone. But Fields is surely right about Johnson.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

`We All Sat Composed As At a Funeral'

Inside every sane, sober and honest man is a schoolboy waiting to shout Bottom!, if not something stronger, during the sermon. This is not a defense of anti-clericalism. Rather, it describes our essentially anarchic, pre-adolescent natures. Part of us remains forever in the third grade, when every suggestive word or sound elicits a snort. By nature we are divided, and no one is perpetually grown-up and well-mannered, or even civilized. The more disciplined among us just keep it under wraps. Consider a gathering held at the home of the recently widowed Mrs. David Garrick on April 20, 1781. Among those present were Johnson, Boswell and Reynolds. Boswell, who recounts the evening in his Life, describes it as “one of the happiest days that I remember to have enjoyed in the whole course of my life.” He writes of his friend, then seventy-one and just three years from death:

“Talking of a very respectable author, he told us a curious circumstance in his life, which was, that he had married a printer's devil. REYNOLDS: `A printer's devil, Sir! Why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.’ JOHNSON: `Yes, Sir. But I suppose, he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. (Then looking very serious, and very earnest.) And she did not disgrace him; ­­ the woman had a bottom of good sense.’”

You can see where this is going. Boswell, who sought treatment for gonorrhea at least nineteen times, continues:

“The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule when he did not intend it; he glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, `Where's the merriment?’ Then collecting himself and looking aweful [sic], to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, `I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.”

I admire Johnson’s sangfroid, the way he acknowledges the giggle-provoking thing he said by undercutting it with irony, and thus preserving his dignity. Boswell’s final comment – “We all sat composed as at a funeral” – is priceless. It reminds me of something Charles Lamb wrote in a letter in 1815 to Robert Southey: “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

`The Laws of the Universe Should Be Repealed'

I was talking with a reporter I worked with at a newspaper in Indiana more than thirty years ago. Time has soothed old grudges and gripes, and we laughed about them. Like most reporters, we knew editors were sub-literate cretins. We were young and certain of our righteous cause. Both of us still write for a living, but not for newspapers, and we seem to have cooled off significantly. One memory was different, more sobering, and we remembered it identically.

One of the guys on the production side – not a reporter or editor – also ran a dairy farm. I didn’t know him well but our relations were cordial. I knew he had a wife and young children. One day on the farm, his wife was backing up a tractor and ran over one of their boys, killing him instantly. He was, as I remember, four or five years old. Most of the newspaper staff attended the memorial service. The little boy was laid out in formal clothes, in an open casket, with his right hand holding a toy tractor. That’s when I started crying. Everyone wept. It remains the most emotionally impossible experience of my life, and now I have three sons of my own. Those parents, especially the wife, must wake to a memory of that pain every morning. On this date, Aug. 28, in 1750, Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #47:

“For sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.”

Johnson was married when he wrote these words. Two years later, Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson would die at age sixty-three. On first meeting Johnson she had told her daughter Lucy: “That is the most sensible man I ever met.”