Saturday, February 17, 2018

`An Eye Ever Open for Detached Good Things'

Some writers we go on reading even when their time has passed and they are no longer in vogue, or when their faults and failings are undeniable. To acknowledge Max Beerbohm or Ivy Compton-Burnett as “minor” is no reason to stop reading them. Not everyone is cut out to be Marcel Proust. Such readerly attachments are mistaken for sentimentality or a flawed critical sense, when they are acknowledgements of affinity. They answer some temperamental/aesthetic need in us as readers and perhaps as writers. Here is Edwin Arlington Robinson writing to his friend Harry de Forest Smith on April 22, 1894:

“Excepting The Task I have read little during the past week. I wonder why it is that I like Cowper as I do? Something tells me that he is not, and never will be, one of the really great poets, although in occasional passages he is well nigh unsurpassable. There is much of the sandy desert in his work, but still it is comfortable traveling. The green and glorious places that come every little while are all the brighter for the comparative barrenness around them.”

Makes sense, but I hadn’t made the connection. Cowper and Robinson are solitaries. Both are melancholics, with Cowper shading into suicidal madness. Both have a droll sense of humor, Robinson more obviously. Cowper had a strong religious sense, often tortured. Robinson had none. The letter continues:

“[Cowper’s] religion is akin to mawkish to a man of my doubts, but I readily overlook that in the consideration of his temperament and his surroundings. He is popularly and justly, I suppose, called feminine; but human nature has a word to say regarding such matters, and a little sympathy is not likely to be wasted upon this poet. His timidity was a disease, and the making of verse and rabbit hutches, together with gardening, was his occupation. He was a strange man; and this strangeness, with its almost pathetic sincerity, go to make up the reason for my fondness for his poetry.”

Robinson is twenty-four and a sophomore at Harvard. After the death of his father, he will be forced to drop out at the end of the academic year for financial reasons. He never earned a degree. A little more than a week later, on May 1, Robinson writes to Smith again and promises to send him a copy of The Task. His advice to his friend is excellent:   

“Never read it when you are in a hurry, depend upon finding much that is commonplace, and do not let Book I count for too much in your opinions. You must read with an eye ever open for detached good things rather than for a continuous presence of splendid poetry.”

Cowper and Robinson are the poets of sadness and loss (not to be confused with self-pity, on most occasions), themes as important as happiness and celebration. Robert Frost, in his introduction to Robinson’s posthumously published King Jasper (1935) called him “a prince of heartachers.”

[Quotations are from Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1947).]

Friday, February 16, 2018

`My Yale College and My Harvard'

My son Michael, 17, had a call first thing this morning from Sen. Ted Cruz’s office. He has been accepted into the United States Naval Academy. I couldn’t be prouder. When I told Joseph Epstein, he replied: “I have long thought that I should rather have U.S. Marines on my resume than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or any other school you might name.” This, in turn, reminded me of Ishmael’s boast: “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

`Splendid Imbecilities'

Forty years ago today, in the privacy of a letter not made public for another thirty-four years, Anthony Hecht articulated what many of us had already known for years:

“. . . when a [Robert] Bly review turns up I normally read it since I can count upon a number of splendid imbecilities that keep me humming contentedly to myself for days on end.”

Many of us keep handy an annotated list of literary confidence men like Bly who perform a useful service by being reliably wrong. Think of them as the Bizarro World's Consumer Reports. If they like a book, there’s got to be something wrong with it. If they pan something, it must be gold. In his Feb. 16, 1978 letter to Harry Ford, Hecht congratulates Ford on writing a letter of protest to the New York Times regarding Bly’s review of W.S. Merwin’s Houses and Travellers. To be fair, Merwin isn’t much of a writer, and Hecht may be more motivated by loyalty to a friend than critical acuity. Still, when Bly intones, “What I like about Merwin’s work is the persistent energy, the willingness to set down the imperfect,” you know you’re in the presence of an accomplished bullshit artist. Hecht writes: “In his own odd way [Bly] was very nearly a reliable critic; which is to say, I could almost be certain of liking any book with which he found vigorous fault.” As an example, Hecht cites a gratuitous disparagement by Bly of C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (a book I have not read by a writer who does not interest me), and writes:

“This is a book I had always been meaning to read, and Bly’s attack, converging upon my discovering the book, in paperback, remaindered at a sale, encouraged me to buy it, and I’m now reading it with all the pleasure of which I was virtually guaranteed by Captain Bly’s maledictions.”   

For the record, I knew several guys in upstate New York who fell, briefly, for the Men’s Movement spawned by Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). Each was a lost but harmless soul. Soon they grew embarrassed by the drumming, chanting and running around half-naked in the woods. Each has grown up and become a contributing member of society.

[For the full letter see The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

`You Are with Me for Life, Pip!'

Dedicated readers will understand what it means to be transported by a book, moved in time and space from immediate surroundings to an alternate, not always happier but certainly more interesting and safer world. The gift is precious, rare and effective. Think of a trans-oceanic flight without a book.

In Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (Northern Illinois University, 2017), Polina Barskova devotes a chapter to the reading habits of Soviet citizens during the 872-day siege of Leningrad. From September 1941 to January 1944, the German army blockaded the city, leaving its three-million residents without food, heat or light. An estimated 1.5 million people died, many from starvation.

Barskova’s prose is too dry, academic and jargon-clotted to be read for pleasure. She drags in fashionable and irrelevant theory and theorists (Bachelard, Barthes, Foucault) but, fortunately, also cites accounts by survivors of the siege, many not otherwise available in English. Leonid Panteleev (1908-1987) was a popular Soviet writer for children. Barskova (all translations are hers) quotes his anecdote of a girl reading during an air raid:

“When the air raid siren sounded today I happened to be on a streetcar, near a girl who was reading. She reads greedily, `experiencing’ the book with the sort of passion and ardor you see only in children and certain adults who have held on to their childlike immediacy.”

Panteleev watches her continue reading without interruption on the platform after leaving the streetcar. He writes: “And just one square over, our antiaircraft guns are firing.” Barskova over-psychologizes the girl’s ability to concentrate, calling it a “trance mechanism.” What I admire is the girl’s choice of distraction by way of concentration. Other might drink, fight, grow catatonic or slowly fall apart.  

Not everyone was pleased with the idea of disappearing into books during the siege. Barskova quotes the diary of the critic Lydia Chukovskaia (1907-1996): “In the bomb shelter, Tusia reads Dickens. This angered Shura, who saw no point in distracting oneself or others with idle words—this is hypocrisy and weakness: one must concentrate and await death, one’s own or that of others.” Such distrust of devotion to reading sounds familiar. Would Shura have objected as strongly if Tusia had been reading, say, Pushkin or Lenin, rather than Dickens? Shura sounds like an apparatchik, a humorless true believer. Barskova looks at how blokadniki (Leningrad residents during the siege) read five writers – Tolstoy, Poe, Dickens, Proust and the Russian poet Alexander Blok. She quotes the critic Lydia Ginzburg (1902-1990):

“. . . during the war, people voraciously read War and Peace as a way of checking themselves (and not Tolstoy, whose validity no one doubted). And the reader said to him or herself: so, it means what I’m feeling is correct; that’s how it is. Whoever had the strength to read, voraciously read War and Peace.”

Of course, many of us read War and Peace that way. It encourages full immersion. I know several men still in love with Natasha Rostov and who suspect they have too much in common with Pierre Bezukhov. Barskova quotes Panteleev again:

“In the most horrific days of that winter I read Dickens’s Great Expectations. The book had just come out in a new translation; I bought it at a stall in the street. I read it by night, by the light of a smoky night-lamp. And I know that for me that night-lamp, its soot, and my breath-vapor have become forever linked with everything I was reading about, with the spirit and gloom and light and smells of Dickens’s novel. Whether you like it or not, whether I like it or not, you are with me for life, Pip! You’re a blokadnik.”

Panteleev and the artist and book illustrator Vladimir Konashevich (1888-1963) both read the first volume of Proust’s novel during the first winter of the siege, and both acknowledged their use of “involuntary memory” in writing their memoirs. Barskova quotes a passage from Konashevich’s memoir, On Myself and My Work (1968):

“People are pulling white, unpainted caskets on sleds. Everything is white. There’s a mass of snow. . . . This white winter reminded me of long-ago Moscow winters, when snow covered the streets in the same way. . . . It became very quiet. . . . How vividly it all comes back to me.”

I’m reminded of My Century, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat’s “spoken diary” based on his recorded conversations with Czesław Miłosz. In his account of the time he served in Lubyanka, Wat recounts reading Machiavelli’s letters and the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu: “. . . the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

`If His Image Be Not in the Heart'

In the guise of Tom Toy, Dr. Johnson in The Idler #39 dispenses advice on marriage, love, gift-giving, jewelry and, as always, vanity. He speaks of what we call a charm bracelet:

“I know not whether it is the interest of the husband to solicit very earnestly a place on the bracelet. If his image be not in the heart, it is of small avail to hang it on the hand. A husband encircled with diamonds and rubies may gain some esteem, but will never excite love.”

This may sound like the prevarications of a cheapskate, but Johnson knew what he was talking about. His wife, Elizabeth Porter Johnson (1689-1752), known to him as “Tetty,” had been dead for seven years by the time he was writing the essay. When they married in 1735, he was twenty-five and she was forty-six. Tetty is said to have told her daughter after first meeting Johnson, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Sniggering began almost immediately after the wedding. In his biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate notes that when older women married younger men in eighteenth-century England, the male partner was judged “an unaggressive type of man—rather mousy, dependent, perhaps slightly infantile. Certainly the idea of such a marriage did not fit one’s notion of Johnson, with his huge, unwieldy frame, his immense physical strength, his courage and rhinocerine laughter, his uncanny incisiveness of mind.” Johnson told his friend Topham Beauclerk: “It was a love marriage upon both sides.”

Born forty-eight years after Tetty’s death, Macaulay confidently described her as “a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.” His judgment remains influential, especially among those offended by Johnson’s eminence. Defaming a man in matters of love and romance is a favorite tactic of inadequate minds. Tetty’s epitaph, composed by Johnson, reads: “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae [beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful].”

John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography of Johnson: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary: “Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.” And yet, Johnson was to write in his Idler essay:

“He that thinks himself most secure of his wife, should be fearful of persecuting her continually with his presence. The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence; and Fidelity herself will be wearied with transferring her eye only from the same man to the same picture.”

Ever the traditionalist, I have given my wife flowers and chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day. She has plenty of bracelets.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

`Who Sees, Will Spew; Who Smells, Be Poison’d'

Time to pour isopropyl on the wound. In other words, to read Jonathan Swift for the sting and the cleansing effect. There are times when he is my favorite poet, yet for much of the last three centuries he was judged not a poet at all: “It may be that Swift’s verse has been for so long the victim of its own bad reputation that even his admirers feel some sort of ritual obligation to discredit the work.” That’s Charles Martin in his contribution to Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem (Middlebury College Press, 1996). Martin, a fine poet and translator of Catullus, takes on Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” The nymph is Corinna, a prostitute who returns home after a john-less evening on the job. Corinna is not what she seems: “Then, seated on a three-legged chair, / Takes off her artificial hair,” and proceeds to dismantle the rest of her virtual self until

“With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.”

Swift’s irony is nuanced. Corinna’s plight has nothing to do with misogyny, at least not on Swift’s part. His portrait of Corinna is compassionate, not a moralistic cartoon. Martin notes that Swift’s poem remains unacceptable in what passes for polite, enlightened society even today:

“It goes against the contemporary grain in a number of important ways, not the least of which is the fact of its metrical virtuosity . . . this is a poem written in the vernacular of an uncommonly erudite poet. And while ours is an age that gives lip service to the notion that a poem can be written about any subject at all, the contents of the magazines that publish poetry these days suggest that we are most comfortable with poems of sensibility that explore chiefly the question of what, if anything, is going on in the poet’s own head.”

A situation that has only grown direr in twenty-two years. Swift never writes about himself, not in the banal sense. That’s part of the reason why his poems are so austerely potent. He commands attention by writing about social realities we all recognize, and by doing so in language that is admirably transparent but not conventionally poetic. There’s nothing ornamental – or confessional, or therapeutic -- about his best poems. They are not pretty. Martin rightly commends Swift’s “display of heartless virtuosity and gusto.” There’s no sentimentality, no whore with a heart of gold. The poem is “meant to be unsettling, meant to move the reader from the comfortable assurance of moral and aesthetic certainties.” Your average idiot can write a poem condemning or celebrating prostitution. Swift takes on something more complicated and interesting. In Corinna’s dreams, halfway through the poems, he brings in respectable society. Bridewell and Comptor are debtor’s prisons, and Swift even works in an oblique reference to the New World slave trade. Martin notes that only in the poem’s final lines, when Corinna is reassembling herself the morning after, does Swift “break the frame of authorial separation”:  

“The nymph, tho’ in this mangled plight,
Must ev’ry morn her limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her arts
To recollect the scattered parts?
Or shew the anguish, toil, and pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna in the morning dizened,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.”

No neat denouement. The reader cannot congratulate himself on his cleverness or compassion. Swift won’t let us.

Monday, February 12, 2018

`The Beauty of Somewhere You're Not.'

Without thinking much about it, I assumed the windows in “High Windows” were the sort you see in churches, tall and narrow like gun ports, well above the heads of worshippers. Some are made of stained glass; others, transparent and colorless. Seated in a pew, you see only sky, foliage or a tall adjoining building. Such high windows admit light and limit vision, perhaps with the intention of minimizing distraction and focusing attention on the service within.

Larkin wasn’t thinking of church windows. For most of his life he occupied rooms at the tops of houses. He dreaded living on the ground floor. At Hull, he lived in a university flat for almost eighteen years – the top flat. There he wrote most of The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and all of High Windows (1974).  But he may not have been thinking at all about top-floor windows. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett suggests Larkin’s “high windows” are “a purely mental image, rather than a verbal reality.” The final stanza, with its unexpected logical hinge, seems to substantiate this:   

“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

A Pascalian blank, coldly frightening, as in “Ambulances”: “And sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, / And for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and true.” Larkin punctures another illusion. He articulates what we merely push aside. All is vanity. Such coldness isn’t for everyone. In a 1981 interview Larkin says the ending of “High Windows” shows a desire" to get away from it all,” and goes on:

“It’s a true poem. One longs for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not. It shows humanity as a series of oppressions, and one wants to be somewhere where there’s neither oppressed nor oppressor, just freedom. It may not be very articulate.”

Larkin finished writing “High Windows” on this date, Feb. 12, in 1967.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

`The Moon was a Ghostly Galleon'

Just the other day, while walking the dog and apropos of nothing, I found myself singing/chanting this:

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.  
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”

The most convincing argument in favor of verse that follows the pulse of regular rhythm and the soul-satisfying ring of rhyme is sheer memorability. Our heads are filled with poems and songs because of their music. You can’t sing Charles Olson and no sane person has tried to memorize his poems. I make no grand critical claims for the lines above, but I’m glad to have them cued up in my mental jukebox. Why did they start playing the other day? No wind was blowing. The sun shone and the moon hadn’t risen. I suspect it was cadence, the words called up by syncing my gait to the dog’s, whose full name, Luke the Drifter, is an hommage to the poet Hank Williams. The poem is Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.”

We all need teachers, regardless of our age or theirs. Among the most reliable is Boris Dralyuk, who is half my age. Boris has just translated “Smugglers” by Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934). Boris writes of his fellow Odessan’s ballad-like song: “I’ve carried the poem in my head for decades, repeating its refrain over and over again.  In my translation, I drew on the spirit of English chanteys and ballads, and found special inspiration in John Masefield’s `Sea Fever.’” I hear that tradition and another: the great English adventure stories – Stevenson, Henty, Haggard, Kipling. I hear echoes of Masefield’s “A Wanderer’s Song” and Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break.” Like “The Highwayman,” these are heroic, declamatory poems that invite performance as much as solitary consumption. That’s a tradition long discredited by critics, poets and readers, and the loss is ours. Read this and try not wanting to read more:

“The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,
There was a wreck of trees and fall of towers a score of miles away,
And drifted like a livid leaf I go before its tide,
Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.”