Monday, August 03, 2015

`The Poetry Recital Chortle'

I have never been to a satisfactory poetry reading. Not one has failed to embarrass or bore me. Poets invariably get in the way of their poems. There’s the plummy-voiced Richard Burton, the tortured James Dean mumbler, the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart. Bad poets long not to be writers but actors or politicians – that is, famous and influential. A reader this weekend sent me a video of a contemporary American poet reading, and I deleted it at 2:12. In theory, good readings are possible. I’ve heard recordings of Eliot and Yvor Winters that sounded like the work of intelligent grownups. Dylan Thomas was insufferable, on the page and on vinyl. The poem is about the words on the page, not the words in the poet’s mouth, despite all the arguments for poetry as an oral art. Maybe for Homer but not for W.S. Merwin. I don’t want my concentration on the words interrupted, unless, of course, it’s a lousy poem. In an interview from earlier this year, Geoffrey Hill nails it nicely: 

“I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively. To be blunt, I can’t really stand that.”

Sunday, August 02, 2015

`Inviolable, Strong, Immutable, and Vivid'

I know a man who fell in love with Natasha Rostov. Even he was aware his love was unrequited, though that knowledge did little to relieve the intensity of his infatuation. With time, his passion eased but I’m certain the lingering memory aches when he thinks of the novel in which she dwells. Zbigniew Herbert plays with this conceit, approaching it from another angle and turning it into a meditation on the power of imagination and the way it may be mistaken for fraud. He wrote the prose fable “Voice” in 1981, the year of Solidarity-led strikes and imposition of martial law in his native Poland. 

In Herbert’s tale, the poet Francesco Petrarca – Petrarch – receives a letter from a former schoolmate, Guido Noia, telling him their “unforgettable preceptress,” Donna Novella, has died. “She always spoke from behind a curtain because her extraordinary beauty—it was universally claimed—might distract the attention of her audience.” Before burial, her body was wrapped in a black cloth and arranged on a bier in the Church of Santo Lorenzo. A “scoundrel” entered the church and reveals Donna Novello’s face is scarred and pock-marked, her skin “swarthy like the skin of a common peasant woman.” She is bald. 

In his reply to Guido, Petrarch says he has no memory of Donna Novello: “The idea that I loved her, dear Guido, is the work of your fantasy.” Petrarch reminds his friend that he hated the study of law, that he “lost irretrievably seven precious years of my youth.” (Herbert studied law at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and received a Master of Law degree. He never practiced law.) Petrarch adds that he just received a codex containing, amidst much trash, a copy of the Bucolics: 

“He did not return to reading Virgil. He was seized by panic, by a horror that destroyed all thought and feeling. Guido’s letter was an attack, yet another attack on the sacred secret of his soul.” 

Herbert tells us Petrarch has only ever loved one woman – not Laura, his famed fiction, but Donna Novello. “He had invented Laura in Avignon and never met any young lady of that name, which lent itself like no other to erotic wordplay.” He even had a “Sienese master” in Avignon paint a portrait of Laura. “A real voice was united to an invented name and figure,” Herbert writes. “Laura became a shield covering Petrarch’s singular, defenseless love. The rest was just a matter of poetry.” Other writers question the existence of Laura but Petrarch defends her reality with ferocity. Even Boccaccio argues Laura “should be understood allegorically.” Herbert’s narrator parenthetically notes: “(the human passion for destroying all that is beautiful and pure is truly fathomless).” In a 2004 review of recent Petrarch translations, Eric Ormsby considers Laura’s reality: 

“Is Laura, his great poetic subject, a real woman or a phantom of the poet’s brain? Is she merely the personification of love in a particular form, a Platonic simulacrum of some transcendent archetype? Is she the breathing embodiment of all his ambition and striving? Or is she, as seems more likely, all of these, and none of these, at once? We are no longer at ease in addressing—let alone falling in love with—archetypes; nowadays, any poet foolhardy enough to install his beloved on a Platonic pedestal would be more liable to see stars than perfected eidolons.”

And the loss, of course, is ours. Herbert resolves nothing. His story/essay is worthy of Borges: 

 “So we have strayed onto tricky ground riddled with uncertain circumstantial evidence and indiscreet inferences,” Herbert writes. “A criminological-literary method that strives to determine incontrovertibly the place, time, and victim of the crime of love, a pettifogging investigation into the reliability of the witnesses for the prosecution and defense, both aim to announce triumphantly that Laura never existed. Laced with smug nihilism, it is all pedantically arid and futile.” 

Herbert suggests we not seek Laura, that we respectfully leave her alone: “May she lie in the alabaster tomb of three hundred sonnets.” Petrarch only became Petrarch when he abandoned writing about Donna Novello and wrote of his love for the possibly non-existent Laura, who then became real. After the poet’s death, Herbert concludes, “Laura would be inviolable, strong, immutable, and vivid as Penelope, Dido, Isolde, and Beatrice” – and Natasha Rostov. 

[“Voice,” as translated by Alissa Valles, can be found in The Collected Prose 1948-1998 (2010). An earlier translation by John and Bogdna Carpenter was published in 1987 in Parnassus (vol. 14, no.1) and collected in Parnassus: Twenty Years of Poetry in Review (ed. Herbert Leibowitz, University of Michigan Press, 1994).]

Saturday, August 01, 2015

`Methodical Reading'

Like Shakespeare, Herman Melville was a book-suffused writer. He read largely in order to write, a quality that belies his one-time reputation as a composer of South Sea romances and yarn-spinner for children. During his visit to London in 1849, the year he published Redburn and Mardi, and was gestating Moby-Dick, Melville kept a record of the books he acquired. On his list is popular gothic junk like Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto and Vathek, but also Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Sir Thomas Browne, Shakespeare, Charles Lamb and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. (See Melville’s Journals, eds. Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth, Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1989). In a journal entry dated Dec. 16, 1849, Melville notes:

“We had some coffee, music, dancing & after an agreeable evening I came away at 11 o’clock, & walking to The Cock near Temple Bar drank a glass of Stout & home & to bed, after reading a few chapters in Tristam [sic] Shandy, which I had never yet read.”

In a note on this passage, the Journals editors report Melville “must have read deeper into the work in coming months, for its influence on Moby-Dick has often been noted . . . And is unmistakable in the last paragraph of Chapter 26.”

The editors further note that the narrator of Melville’s story “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” (1853) is reading Tristram Shandy, and attempts to tell his creditor “a fine joke about my Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman!” Nor was Melville above literary tourism while in London. On Nov. 16, 1849, he meets a friend at the Mitre Tavern, off Fleet Street, “the place where Dr Johnson used to dine.” There he sees the portrait bust of Johnson modeled from life by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823). Melville continues:

“Had a `stewed rump steak’—very fine, & bread & cheese, & ale (of course). Then upstairs & smoked a cigar. Cosy, & comfortable place enough. No cursed white walls. Stopped in at the `Dr Johnson Tavern’ over the way & drank a glass of ale. Bust of him there, also. Go to the place thro’ a court, where the Dr used to live. Some rivalry between the two places. The last the darkest.”

In our day, writers seem to read little beyond the work of their contemporaries, and usually not even the best among them – one explanation for why much current writing seems flat and parochial, as though born into an intellectual and literary vacuum. In his two-volume biography of Melville, Hershel Parker discusses his deep reading of various poets (Dante, Spenser, Milton) in 1860, when Melville was turning away from prose to write poetry. Melville called it “methodical reading.” Parker writes: “Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake,” but rather, “his evident purpose in reading epics of Western civilization was to learn how to write great poetry in his own time.”

Melville, the most bookish of writers and thus an education for attentive readers, was born on this date, Aug. 1, in 1819, and died on Sept. 28, 1891, at age seventy-two. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

`As Big, Perhaps, as Four Oxen'

Handicapping literary reputations is a mug’s game but if I were calculating John Updike’s odds, I’d bet on a handful of his stories, reviews and poems – especially the poems. Leave the novels alone, as readers and critics seldom did during his lifetime. Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), was a collection of poems, and he published seven more. In his review of Collected Poems 1953-1993, Tom Disch acknowledged an obvious truth, one he knew from hard experience: “Updike enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist that his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible.” Disch went on to celebrate unfashionable dedication to form: “It is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity.” The same is true of Disch, whose poetry easily eclipses his fiction. Theirs is a poetry of wit. In his Collected Poems, Updike distinguishes between poetry and light verse, and prints them separately. In his preface he formulates the difference:

“My principle of segregation has been that a poem derives from the real (the real, the substantial) world and light verse from the man-made world of information—books, newspapers, words, signs. If a set of lines brought back to me something I actually saw or felt, it was not light verse. If it took its spark from language and stylized signifiers, it was.”

Take “The Menagerie at Versailles in 1775,” from his second book of verse, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963). Updike rightly classifies it as light verse, though an earlier generation might have judged it an act of avant-garde audacity. In his notes, Updike describes it as a "found poem" drawn from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the passage for Oct. 22, 1775. Boswell quotes prose notes kept by Johnson when visiting the French court’s zoo. Updike lineates the prose and revises the punctuation. Otherwise, it’s Johnson verbatim. There’s a poignancy to the passage that Updike may or may not have been aware of. Here’s Johnson:  

“Rhinoceros, the horn broken and pared away, which, I suppose, will grow; the basis, I think, four inches across; the skin folds like loose cloth doubled over his body; and cross his hips; a vast animal, though young; as big, perhaps, as four oxen.”

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines rhinoceros as “a vast beast in the East Indies armed with a horn in his front.” You can quibble with his geography but the definition is typically pithy and common-sensical. In his notebook passage, I detect a muted sympathy for the de-horned beast. Johnson’s ungainly appearance and deportment are often remarked upon. For Europeans of the eighteenth century, a rhinoceros was a monstrous, frightening freak of nature. You’ll find none of that in Johnson’s brief account. Look at this passage in Boswell, dated May 17, 1775:

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

`I Love the Light'

Whittaker Chambers, author of the finest American autobiography, was a gloom-minded man divided against himself, serious if not exactly humorless but certainly unburdened with joie de vivre. After the Hiss trial and the publication in 1952 of Witness, Chambers and his family retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he raised cows and sheep, and continued to write. Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, and three years later Random House published Cold Friday, a collection of his articles, letters and diary entries. The title is borrowed from the name of a field on Chambers’ land. Of it he writes: “Most fields invite the world; Cold Friday confronts it.” The former communist might be describing himself.

Chambers was an urban man, a journalist at home in big cities. In the pieces devoted to life on the farm, he reveals a need for rootedness and a love of nature and agriculture, though a subdued pastoral theme is detectable in Witness. Chambers is no Thoreau, though Rebecca West, in her review of Witness (Atlantic Monthly, June 1952), described its author as “a Christian mystic of the pantheist school, a spiritual descendent of Eckhart and Boehme and Angelus Selesius.” In his diary on June 12, 1952, Chambers writes:

“Toward dawn, fighting off sleep. To rouse myself, I climbed the ridge. The woods and the opposite ridge pearled with light, the hollows between filled with shadow. Behind, the grey band of concrete state road (no cars or even a truck at that hour). I thought: Quiet the land with sleeping. This is the oldest continuity, known to man—the peace of pre-morning in the fields, within which even I, for an hour, am one of the oldest of human figures—a man watching his flocks by night.”

Chambers echoes Psalm 35:20 in the King James Bible: “For they speake not peace: but they deuise deceitfull matters against them that are quiet in the land.” He almost tries on the role of King David as a shepherd boy. In “Exercises,” a sketch written in both prose and verse, Chambers stands on a hill on his land with “a young man, cut wholly to the modern fit,” who finds the skull and bones of a groundhog. (See Richard Eberhart’s poem.) The bones elicit a characteristic Chambers meditation, as he sees in “any seeming-peaceful field a scene of incessant death struggle and murder as horrifying as a battlefield.” He continues:

“I thought, too, of the multitudinous necessity of death—the multitudes, in numbers defying the mind, who have lived, died, been killed, without leaving any memory, without trace or so much as a pathetic small skull and crumbling bones. Millions upon millions, vanished absolutely, as if they had never been at all—no smallest memento or memory; no apparent meaning. The thought of those meaningless numbers thunders like surf in the mind, and drowns our probities in the surge of energy without purpose. The point is not that God notes every sparrow that falls, but that he lets it fall—without trace. I love the light. The groundhog loved the light. The sparrow loved the light. Night falls.”

I hear Sophocles, Matthew 10:29-31 and Matthew Arnold. Chambers must be thinking of the anonymous millions already claimed by communism, with millions more to follow in subsequent decades. And remember the lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

“Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

“Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
         The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
         That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

Gray died on this date, July 30, in 1771, at the age of fifty-four.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

`Speak Again'

Words are tools but also toys. If their job is communication, their avocation is amusement. Not every writer and reader would agree. I admire George Orwell’s best essays (not the fiction) but his sense of humor is vestigial. When he says that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he’s only fractionally correct. People choose to enfeeble language out of laziness and an eagerness to sound like everyone else. Linguistic distinction (that is, precision, concision, color and music, not necessarily profanity or gibberish) is discouraged. Thus: awesome, cool and the poetry of Mary Oliver. The late D.J. Enright thought otherwise. He advises in the first stanza of “First Words, Last Chances” (Old Men and Comets, 1993): “Words you’ve never used / And have always wanted to – / Get them in quickly.” What follows is a tour-de-force of rare words teetering on the cusp of nonsense, A Clockwork Orange or Finnegans Wake. For instance:

“It fell on your head
Her old boyfriend’s framed photo –
Fearsome xoanon!”

I didn’t know that Scrabble-friendly xoanon. From the Greek for “to scrape, carve,” it means “a primitive rudely carved image or statue (originally wooden), esp. of a deity.” Apparently the ex-boyfriend is still idolized. This stanza is particularly good:

“Vox angelica
(Voicing vale or ave?)
Or vox humana?”

I learned what a vox humana was in 1967 from “The Intro and the Outro.” This stanza can be decrypted with a dictionary handy:

“Jalousies muffle
Criminal conversation –
Discalced and unfrocked
Ithyphallic, perforate –
A case of jactitation.”

That last word I learned from Tristram Shandy: “After much dispassionate enquiry and jactitation of the arguments on all sides,—it has been adjudged for the negative.” Such games, indulged unrelentingly, grow tiresome. Some occasions call for plain speaking and sobriety of manner. But limiting our words to one narrow frequency, as advised by the more humorless among the language police, spells tedium. Monotonal words stripped to utilitarian starkness come to signify nothing. Remember Lear’s contemptuous command to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

`Prose Is the Language of the Intellect'

Chapter 18 of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, “Baroque Prose,” opens audaciously. Highet christens the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “the age of prose” (he’s not the first to do so), and says the era’s prose is “superior in quality” to the poetry produced in the same period. Limiting our sample exclusively to poets writing in English, this is the era that gave us Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson, and that represents a mere skimming of genius. But Highet makes a compelling case:

“The reason for the superiority of baroque prose is plain, and may sound like an over-simplification; but no better has been suggested. It is that intellect predominated over emotion and imagination in the life of the time, and controlled them: prose is the language of the intellect.”

Highet identifies two general schools of prose. One he traces to the influence of Cicero; the other, to Seneca and Tacitus. The Ciceronian strain he describes as a “full, ornate, magnificent utterance in which emotion constantly swells up and is constantly ordered and disciplined by superb intellectual control.” Its critics felt that “the `big bow-wow’ style of speaking and writing was bogus.” They argued for a plainer, more “natural” handling of language. Of this second style, Highet lists seven masters in English and French: Bacon, Browne, Burton, La Bruyère, Milton, Montaigne and Pascal. Representing the first, neo-Ciceronian style he gives Addison, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Bossuet, Louis Bourdaloue, Burke, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Gibbon, Swift and Johnson. It’s pleasing to know such lists are not mutually exclusive. Readers and writers need not be partisans of either. Johnson, in fact, wrote a largely admiring life of Browne, and told Boswell that The Anatomy of Melancholy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” The names of at least half of my favorite writers, the ones whose books I return to most frequently, can be found on the two lists. Here’s Highet on Browne:

“Yet prose is not only a tool. It can also be an instrument of music. The most skillful, least monotonous, and subtlest of the baroque musicians in words was Browne, who produced his finest effects by blending simple Anglo-Saxonisms with organ-toned words from Rome.”

And here is Highet on Gibbon, whose great history he criticizes harshly, especially for its well-known antagonism to Christianity and its sometimes “monotonous” prose, but deeply admires as literature:

“Gibbon’s great range would be useless without his analytical power. He had a highly developed sense of intellectual and aesthetic structure. Through this he controlled the enormous and shapeless mass, a thousand processes and a million facts, so that they arranged themselves in large but manageable groups, seventy-one of which made up the entire work, and, uncluttered by appendixes and excursuses and annexes, formed an architectural whole of truly baroque grandeur.”

One of the signal events of my life was reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire some fifteen years ago. Finishing it left me elated and mildly depressed, the way we feel after leaving a household where one has been generously welcomed as a member of the family. Even non-readers of his history know that Gibbon said “history is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” but the Decline and Fall at the same time documents a noble achievement in human history, despite all the political savagery (which has remained steadily present in subsequent centuries). I have never found Gibbon’s sonorities “monotonous.”

As readers born into English, we have reason to be proud. Our inheritance is enormous and we come by it naturally, without effort. Is it possible to be a patriot for one’s language? Patriots secure in their gratitude don’t feel the need to loudly demean citizens of other countries or speakers of other languages. They merely celebrate (and defend) their gifts. Highet, for instance, is respectful of Dr. Johnson but not an enthusiast. He praises the non-Ciceronian stylists for the “great deal of quiet solitary thinking and reading [they did] in large libraries,” adding parenthetically, (”poor Johnson in his father’s bookshop).” Consider this from The Rambler #38, published on this date, July 28, in 1750:

“There is one reason, seldom remarked, which makes riches less desirable. Too much wealth is very frequently the occasion of poverty. He whom the wantonness of abundance has once softened, easily sinks into neglect of his affairs; and he that thinks he can afford to be negligent, is not far from being poor. He will soon be involved in perplexities, which his inexperience will render unsurmountable; he will fly for help to those whose interest it is that he should be more distressed, and will be at last torn to pieces by the vultures that always hover over fortunes in decay.”