Friday, November 27, 2015

`A Nation Defined by and Consisting of Poets'

Bill Brandt (1904-1983) was a German-born English photographer who documented his adopted home for more than half a century. He was prolific, and specialized in photographing working-class subjects and nudes, but the volume that occupies me is Literary Britain (Cassell and Company, 1951). From the title I assumed it would contain photographs of mid-century writers, but few people of any era or occupation show up in Brandt’s pictures. Rather, he most often shoots building or landscapes associated with England’s great writers, starting with Chaucer and Langland, and running through W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke and Shaw, or with their work. The photos are black and white, and often heavily shadowed. The mood is elegiac and only indirectly celebrative. Brandt seems to be saying, “Look at what we once had.” For Kipling he photographs a darkened section of Hadrian’s Wall, little more than a long stretch of rubble. Accompanying the picture is an excerpt from Puck of Pook’s Hill, part of which reads: 

“A little curtain wall, no higher than a man’s neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts’ side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains.” 

It’s typical of Kipling that he writes of the distant past in the present tense, an echo of Brandt’s photographic method. The Picts are an ancient pre-Celtic people who lived in what is now Scotland. The Romans first noted them in 297 A.D., when they and the Irish attacked Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 A.D. For Thomas Hardy, Brandt photographs cows grazing among the stones, standing and fallen, of Stonehenge, accompanied by a passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles: 

“The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun stone beyond them.” 

One of the most striking of Brandt’s photographs, devoted to the Brontës, shows the churchyard at Haworth. In the background, obscured by trees, is the church and rectory, and in the foreground, as close as tiles on a floor, are horizontal grave stones. All are heavily inscribed but illegible in the photo. On the adjoining page is an excerpt from a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen Nussey: 

“There have I sat on the low bedstead, my mind fixed on the window through which appeared no other landscape than a monotonous stretch of moorland, a grey church-tower rising from the centre of a church-yard so filled with graves that the rank weeds and coarse grass scarce had room to shoot up between the monuments.” 

The only conspicuous absences I note in Brandt’s pantheon are Defoe, Gibbon, Sterne, Hazlitt, Conrad and Beerbohm.  The one entry that moved me to reread the complete work it’s taken from accompanies a photograph of the old rectory at Somersby, where Tennyson was born in 1809. The passage is drawn from In Memoriam: CII. Here is the final stanza: 

“I turn to go: my feet are set
To leave the pleasant fields and farms;
They mix in one another's arms
To one pure image of regret.”

Brandt’s book of photographs confirms my sense that England, for civilized men and woman, for those who cherish civilized virtues, is home. No other nation has spawned so much literary genius across such a span of centuries. Bryan Appleyard said as much several years ago in Poetry and the English Imagination”: 

“Poetry has no serious contenders as the English national art. Ah, it is often said, but Shakespeare wrote plays. And so he did. But consider these plays. Hamlet is a weird drama made magnificent by a torrent of peerless poetry, and I have always thought of it as a long poem whose cosmic structure seems to pivot on the words `We defy augury’. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright on earth, but he is heaven’s poet. And the list of his poet-compatriots – Chaucer, Browning, Dryden, Wordsworth, Clare, Donne, Auden, Tennyson, Keats, Pope, Herbert, etc. etc. – closes the case. We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.”

Thursday, November 26, 2015

`One Never Writes Alone'

Norm Sibum suggested I read Montreal Before Spring (trans. Donald McGrath, Biblioasis, 2015) by the Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon (b. 1947), whose voice is quiet, companionable and elegiac. He originally published L’Avant-printemps à Montréal in 1994. McGrath translates the revised edition published this year by Éditions du Noroît of Montreal. Norm told me: “It is worthy of attention.” Seldom have poems in translation so quickly won me over. Melançon addresses the reader like a trusted friend, without flattery. In the final lines of the book’s final poem, “Leave-Taking,” he writes:

“If you in turn have recognized yourself,
friend unknown to me, in a single verse,
my efforts were not wasted. Otherwise,
forget these pages that are nothing to you.” 

Melançon is a grateful poet, freely acknowledging his debts to precursors. More than most writers today, he recognizes himself as working in a literary tradition or, rather, traditions. Melançon draws generously on French- and English-language (and Spanish, and Greek) forebears and contemporaries, and is free of Canadian clannishness. In the poem quoted above, he includes a moving passage about his poetic debts: 

“One never writes alone. I’ve borrowed
from Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop,
from Borges, Cavafy and du Bellay,
from Saint-Denys Garneau, from Herrick, Grey [Thomas Gray?],
Johnston, Larkin, Jean-Aubert Loranger,
from Robert Marteau, Malherbe and Petrarch,
Jacques Réda, Virgil and Théophile,
And from others, too, whom I don’t forget,
Friends known and unknown, close and distant,
In whom I came to know myself while seeking
What meaning this adventure might assume,
This longing to persist in one’s being, which has
No explanation apart from the desire
To not wait quietly and leave
This dark world without uttering a peep.” 

With “One never writes alone,” Melançon brushes aside “Make-it-new” fetishism, the modern obsession with originality. A writer who repudiates the past, the lessons of those who honored the tradition before him, is the truest provincial. “Letter to George Johnston,” addressed to the English-language Canadian poet (1913-2004), is a fan letter to a friend and another example of Melançon’s solidarity with other “worthy” friends and fellow-poets. He apologizes for the quality of his English, asks for forgiveness from “the shades of Addison and Thoreau,” while trying to translate Johnston’s poems into French. To Johnston, “in whom Langland and Herrick live again,” he says: 

“I’m writing to tell you how much I admire
Your poetry, how fond I am of you,
In a letter in verse, in the manner
Of Pope, Boileau and du Bellay.” 

Poets are a jealous, inbred bunch, and any sign of generosity and collegiality deserves commendation. To use a word perhaps irredeemably debased in recent years, Melançon carries on a conversation with poets, poetry, Montreal, French and English, and most commendably with readers. In “The Reader,” Melançon writes of a woodcut (probably this one) by Félix Edouard Vallotton (1865-1925), the French-Swiss artist. The poem concludes: 

“The books alone emerge
out of the blackness poured
from a Japanese printmaker’s inkstand.
The man’s hand pulls out the book
In which he’ll soon lose himself
In the warmth of his lamp, the silence.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

`I Would Rattle His Pedestal'

“Decided to give William Carlos Williams one more chance out of simple Christian charity. Reread half a dozen of his doctor stories, and no, I can live very well without W.C.W. They are slapdash and carelessly wrought. I would rattle his pedestal.”

I would as well. Most writers today are overrated but few as extravagantly so as Williams. He reminds me of the musical illiterate who sits at the keyboard plinking, without a thought for others in the room. His influence has inspired thousands of tin ears to imitate his anorexic lines in poems and prose.

For me, the sentiment quoted above reads like an echo of a twenty-three-year-old conversation. It comes from Diary (Yale University Press, 2011) by Richard Selzer, the retired surgeon and professor at Yale. In 1992, I interviewed him by telephone when he published a memoir, Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age. Troy, N.Y., where Selzer was born in 1928, is just up the Hudson River from Albany. I worked as a reporter for that city’s newspaper, and read the book as local history. Selzer’s father was a general practitioner in Troy. The only thing I remember from the memoir is Selzer’s description of the contents of the senior Dr. Selzer’s medical bag: worthless. The effectiveness of medical science in the first half of the twentieth century was more wishful than real.

A few weeks later, Selzer came to a small town outside Troy to give a reading from his new book. I got there early and we took a walk. I brought up the topic of doctor-writers – Keats, Sir William Osler, Chekhov, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Walker Percy – and I recall two of his judgments. In brief: Sir Thomas Browne, good. William Carlos Williams, bad. At least on this matter we were copasetic.

I’m skimming Selzer’s Diary. Unless one is already smitten with the author, one reads diaries, journals and collections of letters in search of small dazzlements or points of irritation. With a middling writer, expectations are low. Selzer’s mind and prose are not that interesting, and like most published diaries, his is a vanity project. He is a little too impressed with his own insights, but does tell a good story about surgically removing Robert Penn Warren’s gallbladder and a stone from his bile duct in 1954.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

`Discoveries that Demand Expression'

The only thing better than a prolific good writer, is a costive bad one. We should count our blessings for every time Norman Mailer didn’t publish a book. On the other hand, Evelyn Waugh turned out peerless prose at an industrial clip. One could easily spend a month reading nothing but Waugh without fear of the supply running dry. My current Waugh-binge has included Decline and Fall, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, his life of Ronald Knox and occasional dips into Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. That last collection, in which Waugh the novelist is joined by Waugh the scrambling freelance journalist and reviewer, reacquainted me with “Literary Style in England and America,” an essay he published in Books on Trial in 1955:

“Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash.”

Waugh is no Yellow Book aesthete. He thought James Joyce was insane, and in “Literary Style” says the Irishman was “possessed by style. His later work lost all faculty of communication, so intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic did it become, so obsessed by euphony and nuance” – as good an encapsulation of Finnegans Wake as I know. In contrast to the ingrown mutations of late Joyce, Waugh says the “necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.”

Lucidity in Waugh’s estimation doesn’t mean Dick-and-Jane flatness. Several years ago I tried to read a novel by the noir cult-favorite David Goodis. Every sentence seemed stamped out with the same subject-verb-object cookie cutter. Goodis plodded along in four-four like a drummer on the nod. Was he intelligible? Sure, but so is the phone book. Waugh clarifies:

“Henry James is the most lucid of writers, but not the simplest. The simplest statements in law and philosophy are usually those which, in application, require the greatest weight of commentary and provoke the longest debate. A great deal of what is most worth saying must always remain unintelligible to most readers. The test of lucidity is whether the statement can be read as meaning anything other than what it intends.”

Elegance has a dubious reputation among readers and critics. The just-the-facts crowd deems elegant writing effete, elitist and probably intended to conceal its absence of substance. Not Waugh:

“Elegance is the quality in a work of art which imparts direct pleasure; again not universal pleasure. There is a huge, envious world to whom elegance is positively offensive. English is incomparably the richest of languages, dead or living. One can devote one’s life to learning it and die without achieving mastery. No two words are identical in meaning, sound and connotation. The majority of English speakers muddle through with a minute vocabulary.”

About individuality, the third of his prerequisites for true style, Waugh is succinct: “It is the hand-writing, the tone of voice, that makes a work recognizable as being by a particular artist.” Most of Waugh’s prose readily meets that criterion. “Style,” he says, “is what makes a work memorable and unmistakable.” He cites Max Beerbohm and Ronald Knox as exemplars of style, saying, “[Knox’s] Enthusiasm should be recognized as the greatest work of literary art of the century,” a sentiment I wouldn’t get into a fight over. As to novelists with “intensely personal and beautiful styles,” Waugh names Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. For some reason, while I admire and enjoy the others, I’ve always found Greene almost unreadable. Waugh concludes his essay like this, probably writing in an autobiographical mode:

“In youth high spirits carry one over a book or two. The world is full of discoveries that demand expression. Later a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at the desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

`Who Without Reserve Can Dare'

A kindling impulse seized the host
Inspired by heaven’s elastic air;
Their hearts outran their General's plan,
Though Grant commanded there--
Grant, who without reserve can dare;
And, `Well, go on and do your will,’
He said, and measured the mountain then:
So master-riders fling the rein--
But you must know your men.”

This is Herman Melville on the hero of the day, Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant, in “Chattanooga (November 1863),” collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The Battle of Chattanooga started on this date, Nov. 23, in 1863. Around 1:30 p.m., 14,000 Union troops advanced on six-hundred Confederate defenders, launching an engagement that lasted less than three days. Union casualties numbered 5,824; Confederate, 6,667, and probably higher. Grant decisively routed Gen. Braxton Bragg,  and Confederate morale was shaken. Read the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885) for an almost cinematic account of the battle: 

“I watched their progress with intense interest. The fire along the rebel line was terrific. Cannon and musket balls filled the air: but the damage done was in small proportion to the ammunition expended. The pursuit continued until the crest was reached, and soon our men were seen climbing over the Confederate barriers at different points in front of both Sheridan’s and Wood’s divisions.” 

Grant, no braggart, writes in a Dec. 5, 1863 letter to J. Russell Jones: “An Army never was whipped so badly as Bragg was. So far as any opposition the enemy could make I could have marched to Atlanta or any other place in the Confederacy. But I was obliged to rescue [Gen. Ambrose] Burnside.” 

In The Civil War World of Herman Melville (1997), Stanton Garner deduces that Melville met Grant the following year in Virginia. He cites a note the poet wrote to accompany “Chattanooga (November 1863),” in which he refers to an unnamed “visitor” discussing the battle with the Union commander: “General Grant, at Culpepper, a few weeks prior to crossing the Rapidan for the Wilderness, expressed to a visitor his impression of the impulse and the spectacle: Said he: `I never saw any thing like it:’ language which seems curiously undertoned, considering its application; but from the taciturn Commander it was equivalent to a superlative or hyperbole from the talkative.” Garner also quotes the brief memoir Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, wrote about her husband: “Herman went to Virginia with Allan [Melville’s brother] in April 1864 Visited  [sic] various battlefields & called on Gen. Grant.”                                                     

To a reader, it’s reassuring to know that two of America’s greatest writers should have met, however briefly or distractedly. In “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Melville writes of Grant: “Like a loaded mortar he is still: / Meekness and grimness meet in him-- / The silent General.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

`Not Only Important But Also Beautiful'

George Santayana was born in Madrid on Dec. 16, 1863. In November 1949, as his eighty-sixth birthday approached, a wealthy cousin of Mark Twain’s, Cyril Coniston
Clemens (1902-1999), wrote to the philosopher in Rome, saying he and his friends wished to send Santayana a birthday gift. The old man’s response is a model of gracious demurral followed by a change of heart and polite acceptance – all in less than three-hundred words. On this date, Nov. 22, in 1949, Santayana writes: 

“You and your friends are very kind to wish to celebrate my 86th birthday by sending me something. I receive regularly parcels and of course money from America, but apart from cryptic modern poetry, or books by cranks, asking for a word of endorsement to figure on the dust-jacket of their first work, I receive little that is beautiful; nor have I any place in which to put any object of any value.” 

This was true. Santayana spent the final decade of his life living at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary in Rome, cared for by the Irish sisters. He lived with admirable simplicity, as his former student at Harvard, Wallace Stevens, noted: “The beds, the books, the chair, the moving nuns, / The candle as it evades the sight, these are / The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome.” Santayana shifts gears. He tells Clemens he almost ordered the first volume of a “monumental history of Thomas Jefferson" (probably Jefferson the Virginian, the first of six volumes by Dumas Malone), but changed his mind because his reading is “casual” -- Lucretius, Ovid, Catullus and a few other Romans. “But Latin poets are not the characteristic things to ask for from Missouri [Clemens lived in St. Louis].” So, Santayana reverses his earlier refusal of a gift and asks for the Jefferson volume because it “would certainly open a new scene to me that is not only important but also beautiful.” He adds: “Or send me anything small that you may prefer. I say small, because I have only one small room of my own; and even my books have overflowed into the adjoining public reception room.” 

Santayana closes with “grateful regards.” Epistolary elegance is rare (as are epistles, today). Accompanied by wit and gratitude, it is nearly nonexistent. And the spectacle of the Spaniard living in Italy who never became an American citizen accepting a book about Jefferson from a cousin of Mark Twain is satisfyingly all-American.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

`The Rest Could Be Left Out'

Perhaps the model for today’s “public intellectual,” hard-wired to the Zeitgeist and hair-triggered with opinions, is H.G. Wells. He dabbled in utopia and eugenics, wrote science-fiction novels and once said of Joseph Stalin, with whom he shook hands in 1934 (the year of the start of the Great Purge, following the murder of Sergey Kirov): “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest.” Wells believed in progress and World Government. I had read The Time Machine and his other “scientific romances” by the time I read John Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” (1961). David Kern, Updike’s stand-in, is thirteen and has also read The Time Machine. David’s encounter with Wells’ The Outline of History, first published in two volumes in 1920, shocks him and sets off a crisis of faith:

“. . . before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.”

Updike nicely captures the condescension and contempt associated with the dull, earnest scientism of any era. I remembered the early Updike story while reading Broadcast Minds (Sheed & Ward, 1932) by Ronald Knox, the Roman Catholic priest, Bible translator and author of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950). Knox took his title from the credence people put in the chief medium of his day, radio: “the habit of taking over, from self-constituted mentors, a ready-made, standardized philosophy of life, instead of constructing, with however imperfect materials, a philosophy of life for oneself.” In his chapter “The Omniscientists,” he anatomizes those who establish a pet thesis, withhold conflicting evidence, and then “serve up the whole to us as the best conclusions of modern research, disarming all opposition by appealing to the sacred name of science.” Among his targets are Wells, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Gerald Heard, the Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens of their day.

Knox traces the rise of “omniscience” in his day to the publication of The Outline of History. Wells, he says, is “a man who could turn his hand to anything, who, by his uncanny literary gift, could make any sort of improbability seem probable, in the manner of Jules Verne. Knox might be referring to Wells’ sci-fi novels and stories, or to almost anything he ever wrote. About his Outline of History he writes:

“But we had not pictured him as a historian. And then the book came out, and we realized that his treatment of his subject did not really need any knowledge of history, beyond the 1066 and All That standard; the rest could be left out.”

Conceding that Wells is “readable,” Knox adds: “It was a phantasia, history as Mr Wells wanted us to see it, with materials drawn from so wide a range of sources that, look where he would, he could always find some point of view, some opinion, which favoured his own thesis.”