Tuesday, September 02, 2014

`To Multiply His Experience'

Last week, a neighbor who grew up in our neighborhood told me how he and his brother more than half a century ago discovered Indian relicts, pottery shards and spear points, when a house down the block was being built. Digging the foundation had exposed the treasures. His boyish excitement returned—the thrill of uncovering something old and alien, something he had otherwise seen only in the movies, of finding things unknown and perhaps of little interest to others: “We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find.” 

That’s not my neighbor speaking. That’s Guy Davenport, another hunter-gatherer, recalling his adventures as a boy in South Carolina looking for arrowheads with his family. The experience, as recounted in his greatest essay, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), was formative: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Guy shows up often in my life, one measure of his lasting influence as a teacher even among those of us who never sat in his classroom. He taught us to be, as Keats put it, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We make connections, yes, and hear the harmonies, but never assume we have everything, or anything, figured out.apable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason

James Gibbons has written a fine tribute to Davenport in the guise of a review of The Guy Davenport Reader (2013). In a sentence, he distills Guy’s lesson that he was more than simply a writer in the banal sense of stacking words in marketable heaps. The inimitable style is the inimitable man. Referring to the essays, Gibbons suggests their essential teasing mystery: “At their best, they offer a direct road into the heart of his sensibility: omnivorous, alert to unsuspected revelations, but also committed to devoting sustained attention to whatever is under his gaze.” Such qualities are always in short supply, even among writers, for whom they ought to be, in partnership with language, the tools of the trade. Knowledge, not “information” (our age’s substitute), is everywhere if we choose to remain receptive. A life incurious is a great poverty. Though he taught for forty years and was as bookish and well-read as any man I’ve met, we’re never tempted to pigeonhole him as an “academic” writer, a clock-punching drudge.  Guy writes of Wittgenstein: “He read, like all inquisitive men, to multiply his experience.”

Gibbons says, judiciously, “We should hold on to Davenport because he seems to be receding from us.” In a literary culture rooted in novelty and begging for the Zeitgeist’s stamp of approval, his work calls for word-of-mouth endorsement not from critics or academics but common readers. As he writes of himself as a boy in “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996): “And then I made the discovery that what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.”

Monday, September 01, 2014

`The Point of Style'

My fourteen-year-old’s barber recommended gel for his newly short hair. It comes packaged in a tube like glue. He’s freshly aware of such things, much given to mirrors and his reflection in windows. “Just checking,” he says. “Style, Dad.” I paid for the haircut and the goop, which reminds me of a product from my adolescence – Butch Wax (sounds like a lesbian bar) – and signed the slip. As usual, my signature is unrecognizable even to me. Since I was younger than my son is today I have wanted elegant handwriting but settle for chicken scratch. The barber, who smells heavily of cigarette smoke, though we have never seen her smoking, says, a little tartly, I think, “That’s your name?” I bite my tongue and console myself with Howard Nemerov’s “Writing”: “Still, the point of style / is character.”

Sunday, August 31, 2014

`Giving Elegance to Trifles'

“The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem; to excite love we must impart pleasure, and to raise esteem we must discover abilities.”

When did I last receive a letter? I mean “letter” in the conventional, almost extinct sense of a sheet of paper, handwritten or typed, with a message composed in complete sentences, folded, sealed in an envelope, stamped, addressed and mailed – a significant investment of time, energy and thoughtfulness our literate forebears took for granted. The closest surviving descendant of this non-machine-generated ideal is the birthday card, a second-best, ghost-written surrogate. This would have appalled Samuel Johnson, author of the passage above in The Rambler #152, published on this date, Aug. 31, in 1751. Johnson continues:
“Pleasure will generally be given as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond; and words ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things.”
There was, in other words, an art to letter writing, prescribed in part by an unwritten code of manners (“Dear,” “Sincerely,” “P.S.”), a mingling of formality and affection, and a willingness to select the correct words and polish them. Cousin to such a letter is the flow of familiar conversation. Or the rare, well-written, thoughtful email, such as I received Friday from Helen Pinkerton. She writes, in part:
“In your blog for August 11 on Louise Bogan I like the way that you show your gift not only finding exceptional passages of criticism in older writers but adding your own perceptions about the passages in question. I admire and enjoy your way of writing what is really the equivalent of a very short literary essay. You, yourself, are pretty strong on `much in little.’” 

That such a compliment is delivered in careful, measured prose, not in today’s more overheated, formulaic fashion – the verbal equivalent of the vulgar “High five!” – lends it an earned quality. Helen respects language and other people. It’s no coincidence that she noticed a typo I had missed in the same post. Johnson says in the same Rambler essay:
“As much of life must be passed in affairs considerable only by their frequent occurrence, and much of the pleasure which our condition allows, must be produced by giving elegance to trifles, it is necessary to learn how to become little without becoming mean, to maintain the necessary intercourse of civility, and fill up the vacuities of actions by agreeable appearances. It had, therefore, been of advantage, if such of our writers as have excelled in the art of decorating insignificance, had supplied us with a few sallies of innocent gaiety, effusions of honest tenderness, or exclamations of unimportant hurry.”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

`Blorting and Blorting Through the Hours'

Perhaps the least Larkin-esque word ever used by Larkin in a poem: blort. It looks like a typo for blurt or a cartoon sound effect. The OED doesn’t recognize it. Its closest possible cognate in that dictionary is blore, a verb meaning “to cry, cry out, weep; of animals, to bleat, bray, bellow.” In “Faith Healing” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964), Larkin writes of the women seeking the touch of the faith healer: “…and such joy arrives / Their thick tongues blort.” In that context, I’ve always assumed it meant to make an unintelligible animal sound rather than to be humanly articulate. It carries a hint of sexuality and perhaps is meant to suggest glossolalia or speaking in tongues. In a letter to Anthony Thwaite written in 1960, Larkin says: 

“…blort is intended: it is I think a variation of blore which is a dialect word meaning to bellow (like an animal). I am rather alarmed not to find blort in the dictionary, but D.H. Lawrence uses it somewhere, and I certainly don’t mean blurt, which has a quite different meaning to my mind.”  

Five years later in a letter to Judie Johnson, Larkin says of the word: “It means a thick heifer-like bellowing. I don’t know where I found it—one of Lawrence’s dialect poems I believe.” The editor of The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett, does our homework and locates the word in a laughably ridiculous poem by Lawrence, “Tortoise Shout”: “I remember the heifer in her heat, blorting and blorting through the hours, persistent and irrepressible.” 

Thirty years ago, another reporter and I at an Indiana newspaper played a mildly subversive game. We challenged each other to work obscure, preferably sexually suggestive words into our copy. He covered city government and my beat was courts, so our use of exotic lingo was conspicuous even to narcoleptic copy editors. The rules were simple: Use only real words and use them correctly. I recall only one of them: fream. The OED gives “to roar, rage, growl: spec. of a boar,” with a hint of the sound said animal makes while in rut. The pun on “bore” was irresistible. I used “freamed” as a synonym for the ubiquitous “said” when quoting a judge renowned for the flatulence of his pronouncements from the bench. An editor caught it, asked me if it was a typo for “creamed,” and deleted it. There’s a metaphysical realm reserved for words that exist only briefly and amusingly, and then are gone.

Friday, August 29, 2014

`The Depth of Unchecked Evil'

Thanks to Cynthia Haven we have Helen Pinkerton’s thoughts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Helen’s reactions to the novel recall my own: 

“I finished it recently and found it possibly the greatest novel I have ever read. He creates a world – actually, two worlds, the Russian and the German – of believable human characters, who try to live worthy lives under a totalitarian government that is structured to destroy their humanity by bringing out the worst in each of them. Chapter after chapter unfolds individual dramas, wherein moral choices are made that are lived with and often died by.” 

Earlier this month Helen wrote in an email: 

“I have been reading the novel through in the last few months. I am very near the end, where Victor Schtrum is about to find out what will happen to him for his `mistakes.’ Grossman’s portraits of human and inhuman persons living in a totalitarian state are extraordinarily authentic and moving. I have to say that it is one of the finest novels I have ever read. I read War and Peace when I was in my teens, so I don’t remember it very well. But my impression is that Grossman’s novel is more important to me, because the events that are his subject took place in my life-time and his insights into the moral dilemmas and tragic choices of Russians, Germans, Tartars, Ukrainians, and the one Italian priest help me to understand the importance of knowing what happened to the human soul in those terrible years in order to understand the depth of unchecked evil in our contemporary and future society, world-wide.”

`Filled With Very Little'

“We may suspect that the author wrote them for himself, and didn’t know that he was tracing for others the image of a solitary and lucid man, conscious of the singular mystery of each moment.” 

Back to aphorisms. This is Borges writing of the Italian-born Argentine aphorist Antonio Porchia (1886-1968). Private writing of a literary nature made public is rare, especially in recent centuries. Writers are forever preening and customarily write to be read. Most could not and would not write without the assurance of readers. We sometimes sense Pascal is writing in a personal vacuum, and Robert Walser, but even Kafka has his eye on the future. Porchia is an odd case. He published a single book, Voces, starting with a private edition in 1943, which he tinkered with for the rest of his life. Think of it as a terse Leaves of Grass. Ultimately, Porchia published some six-hundred aphorisms and nothing else. He is routinely called a poet but writes brief bits of prose. A selection in French came out in 1949. W.S. Merwin published the first English version of Voices in 1969, with Copper Canyon Press putting out an updated edition in 2003. Porchia is one of literature’s solitaries, a modest autodidact of the word. In his 1969 note, Merwin says of Porchia, “the aphorisms themselves are not, in his view, compositions of his own so much as emanations which he has heard and set down.” 

There is a sense not of misanthropy in Porchia but monastic austerity, minus a deity. Merwin tells us Porchia’s father had been a priest in Italy, but abandoned his calling. His recurrent themes are solitude and suffering, but without self-pity. His thinking is stark and modest, qualities reflected in his choice of forms. Each aphorism is a small illumination. He has no dogma to preach and follows no system of thought. In this, he is like another European transplanted to Argentina, Witold Gombrowicz. Sometimes, Porchia has a Chestertonian taste for paradox: “A large heart can be filled with very little.” He channels Kafka: “When one does not love the impossible, one does not love anything.” And Heraclitus: “Everything that changes, where it changes, leaves behind it an abyss.” 

One of the effects of reading a body of aphorisms is to further condense one’s thoughts and words. Novels and histories start to seem ungainly, like corpulent children. But one also becomes aware of the risks in thinking and writing aphoristically, the temptation to slip into portentousness, like pundits, street preachers and other crackpots. Bad aphorisms are too pleased with themselves, like comics who laugh at their own jokes. One also starts seeing aphorisms everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Rereading Auden on Shakespeare (ed. Arthur Kirsch, 2001), I found this in the lecture on Richard II: “Richard has few feelings, but he enjoys those situations that should produce feelings.” Porchia writes: “A child shows his toy, a man hides his.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

`It's a Very Solitary Instrument'

If this blog has accomplished anything worthwhile in eight and a half years, it is to keep alive the names and works of good writers half-lost to oblivion. There’s no fairness to literary reputation. Mediocrities thrive, worthies fade. The only true act of criticism is to read a writer attentively and share your pleasure or displeasure with another, whether in a high-toned journal or over breakfast. Chief among the writers I’ve championed for the most selfish of reasons, undiluted enjoyment, are two American poets, L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) and Herbert Morris (1928-2001). At a website called Spoken Web I found a recording of a reading Sissman gave at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1972, seven years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and four years before his death. The sound of his voice was new to me, deeper and somehow more richly American than I had imagined. A Detroit native, Sissman speaks with Midwestern flatness mitigated by a hint of Harvard. His voice is strong, betraying no cancer or its treatment. He talks like a polite and almost pedantic wiseguy, interrupting and revising himself frequently, a quality we find in his poems. 

Of the first poem he reads, “Mouth Organ Tunes, The American Lost-and-Found,” Sissman says he tried to capture “the terminal flatness and grain-ness of American life, United States life, and the attempts to alleviate this barrenness by all sorts of temporizing accommodations, going to Howard Johnson’s on a Sunday, or having a kinky party in New York to show off one’s new paintings or celebrating the death of a genuine antique American and New Englander and looking at the house that he lived in and so on.” 

In the poem and in Sissman’s comments, I detect no Ginsbergian snottiness about middle-class Americans. No contempt or condescension. The first section of the poem is titled “In a Ho-Jo’s by the River,” and Sissman is celebrating a familiar fixture of the American road. The only other writer I recall who singles out Howard Johnson’s is Stanley Elkin in the first phrase of the first sentence in The Franchiser (1976): “Past the orange roof and turquoise tower…” Sissman continues: 

“Anyway the tune is called, the poem is called `Mouth Organ Tunes,” and I use the mouth organ as an instrument here to suggest the, well the mouth organ is something that can be played in a band, but is better not, it’s a very solitary instrument and to me it always conveys the loneliness of an individual against insurmountable odds.” 

Not to mention cowboys around the campfire, bluesmen and Larry Adler – an all-American instrument. The other poems Sissman reads, all found in Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978), are “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “The Birdman of Cambridge, Mass.,” “A College Room, Lowell R-34, 1945,” “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” “The Museum of Comparative Zoology,” “A  Deathplace,” “Getting On: Grave Expectations,” “The Mid-Forties: On Meeting No One in New York,” “A Comedy in Ruins” and “Cockaigne: A Dream.” 

About “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” Sissman tells the audience it was about a “shattering experience” he had in 1964 when he returned to his old neighborhood in Detroit and found “how puny it was and how destroyed it was by the passage of time.” The poem recalls Donald Justice’s disciplined excursions into nostalgia. In it he writes: “This was Jerusalem, our vivid valley. / In our dead neighborhood / Now nothing more can come to good.” Here is the poem’s final line: “My thirst for the past is easy to appease.” 

Introducing “A Deathplace,” Sissman says: “Let me get onto a poem that is now again a little bit more serious, although not ultimately so I hope. It's about being very sick at the hospital and knowing one is in good hands.” The poem, the only one Sissman reads explicitly acknowledging the cancer that was killing him, has one of his grim, memorable, witty openings: 

“Very few people know where they will die,
But I do: in a brick-faced hospital,
Divided, not unlike Caesarean Gaul,
Into three parts.” 

And here are the final four lines: 

“Then one fine day when all the smart flags flap,
A booted man in black with a peaked cap
Will call for me and troll me down the hall
And slot me into his black car. That’s all.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

`Irrespective of the Reader's Convictions'

“Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers. For this reason the aphorist who adopts a folksy style with `democratic’ diction and grammar is a cowardly and insufferable hypocrite.” 

The writer of carefully hedged aphorisms, qualified to fit every contingency, is no aphorist at all. “Wiser or more intelligent” isn’t quite right. It’s more accurate to say an aphorist weds ruthlessness to cant-free concision, gifts few writers possess in tandem (Swift did, supremely). Aphorisms are as tight and difficult to write as sestinas. They can be cold, merciless and unforgiving, and thus are ideal for delivering carefully aimed jabs of truth and puncturing pretensions. Can one imagine a politically correct aphorism? There’s nothing of self-regarding virtue in the form. An aphorist assumes truth trumps compassion and tact. Elsewhere in his foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1962), W.H. Auden says an aphorism must “convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.” 

For inclusion in their anthology, Auden and his co-editor, Louis Kronenberger, rely heavily on the long-reliable – La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Kraus, Pascal, Chesterton, Santayana and, of course, Dr. Johnson. They quote Johnson, via Boswell -- “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath” -- and in nine words he acknowledges human mendacity even in death, and forgives it. 

Aphorisms can show up anywhere. They need not be written and discretely identified as aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, apothegms or aper├žus. A reader can happen upon them in poems (as in Pope) and prose (as in Proust), where their serendipitous discovery contributes to the wallop they pack. Some writers are aphoristic with some regularity. It’s a quality, like a sense of humor, I associate with mental health. Take Stevie Smith’s “God and the Devil” from A Good Time Was Had by All (1937): 

“God and the Devil
Were talking one day
Ages and ages of years ago.
God said: Suppose
Things were fashioned this way,
Well then, so and so.
The Devil said: No,
Prove it if you can.
So God created Man
And that is how it all began.
It has continued now for many a year
And sometimes it seems more than we can bear.
But why should bowels yearn and cheeks grow pale?
We’re here to point a moral and adorn a tale.” 

If the final, aphoristic line sounds familiar, your memory is good. Smith borrows it from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and revises it for her own purposes: 

“His Fall was destin'd to a barren Strand,
A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;
He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,
To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.” 

Smith must have been exceedingly fond of the line. She used it a year earlier in her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper: 

“For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.”