Friday, April 29, 2016

`His Courage Cannot Be Overstated'

The closest I’m likely to get to London is Dr. Johnson’s poem. Besides, my London is a semi-mythical place spanning more than half a millennium of writers. As Michael McNay reports in his introduction to Hidden Treasures of London (Random House, 2015), the city’s population is estimated to have been 543,520 in 1777, the year Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Today, the city’s population exceeds 8.6 million. I’ll hold on to my bookish myth.

For a man born more than three centuries ago (and in Lichfield, not London), Johnson shows up with pleasing frequency in McNay’s book. His longest appearance is the entry devoted to his house at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street, where he lived from 1748 to 1759. In the garret at that address, Johnson assembled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). “Here he could install desks and bookcases for himself and the six copyists he hired to help him in compiling the first great English dictionary,” McNay writes. Few books rival it for sheer browsability. Long before the internet, the dictionary (which doubles as a generous book of quotations – almost 114,000 of them) offered an inexpensive way to while away the day. Johnson’s labor was heroic and probably would have broken a lesser man. In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), Peter Martin writes of the lexicographer:

“He was beset with doubts, plagued with persistent melancholia, and not entirely certain how to proceed. He was working in a vacuum, without a useful model. Nobody had done before what he wanted to do, not at any rate the way he wanted to do it. . . . His courage cannot be overstated.”

McNay makes Johnson’s house today sound rather disappointing: “. . . there is no real sense of his presence. Of his abundant eccentricities, voluble speech, affliction by violent spasms, his scorn and generosity, nothing remains.” How could there be? That’s why we have Boswell and Johnson to renew our acquaintance. As Howard Baker writes in “To Dr. Johnson” (Ode to the Sea and Other Poems, 1966): “We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

`Equal Wasters of Human Life'

“We grow tired of seeing our experience choked by the vegetation in our sentences. We opt for the pithy, the personal, and the unapologetic. For years we have had a crowd of random thoughts waiting on our doorstep, orphans or foundlings of the mind that we have not adopted: the moment of the aphorism, the epigram, the clinching quotation has come.”

No, it’s not lifted from the manifesto of a blogger (few bloggers write so well), though its author was certainly a master of short forms, in fiction and essays. This is V.S. Pritchett writing in 1979 about his old friend Gerald Brenan on the publication of the latter’s commonplace book Thoughts in a Dry Season. Pritchett relates a taste for brevity to age, not because of short-windedness but from impatience with verbosity. Time is short. No need to blather. Pritchett turned seventy-nine the year his review was published; Brenan, eighty-five. The commonplace notion is that old people are the genuine gas bags, ever saying nothing at great length. That has only occasionally been my experience. Rather, youth inclines toward motor-mouthed wordiness, which may explain the vogue for Kerouac and Bukowski among certain young readers. They mistake bulk for worth. In The Idler #85, Dr. Johnson writes:

“But such is the present state of our literature, that the ancient sage, who thought a great book a great evil, would now think the multitude of books a multitude of evils. He would consider a bulky writer who engrossed a year, and a swarm of pamphleteers who stole each an hour, as equal wasters of human life, and would make no other difference between them, than between a beast of prey and a flight of locusts.”

The “ancient sage” is Callimachus, composer of epigrams.     

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

`As If They Could Have Been Here All Along'

“When we hear a poet's voice speaking from the page, we hear it internally: The tempo, the emphasis, the feelings are synthesized in us—which is why I prefer to read a poem rather than hear it read aloud.”

When not simply dull, poetry readings are embarrassing because the poet is usually a ham unaware of the feebleness of his lines. Few read well and fewer still write well. Poets tend to get in the way of poems, so it’s best to eliminate the middleman. All in all, I’ll stick to the page, as Arthur Krystal suggests above in “Listen to the Sound It Makes” (This Thing We Call Literature, 2016). I remembered Krystal’s observation during my first reading of Compass and Clock (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2016) by David Sanders. Sanders is not a kid – the collection gathers thirty years of work -- and the voice in his poems is the opposite of callow. The tempo, to follow Krystal’s outline, is largo – thoughtful and meditative, not nervous or jumpy. The emphasis is on details, often of the natural world (not to be confused with that unholy creature “nature poetry”) and layered with memory. The “feelings?” Well, that will depend on the reader. In “Pianos,” Sanders writes:

“So much that wasn’t played,
The silence resonating like the dusk
That ushers out the fall . . .”

From this brief sample alone you might detect a familiar echo, that mingling of nostalgia and wistful regret without sentimentality that Donald Justice made his own. Think of his suite of poems in The Sunset Maker (1987) devoted to studying piano in Miami when he was a boy in the nineteen-thirties. This is from "The Pupil": “Back then time was still harmony, not money, / And I could spend a whole week practicing for / The moment on the threshold.” One of the best poems in Compass and Clock, “Some Color,” carries an epigraph from a Justice poem, “Absences”: “It's snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.” In “Some Color,” Sanders moves from a nicely sketched “caravan that never broke camp” in Southern Ohio (“Bondoed pickup trucks abandoned”) to an internet search for “names / that I last wrote on classroom valentines,” to a flower farm near the Ohio River. The flowers will be harvested and shipped and finally planted “for their one quick season”:

“Once they’re out on the cul-de-sacs, on lawns,
Or massed under saplings that buttress municipal buildings,
And set in the dirt, treat them lovingly,
As if they could have been here all along
And belong here, as they do now, being
What and where they are so well: some color
Introduced into the indigenous green.”

As the title Compass and Clock suggests, Sanders is looking for a place and time where we might feel at home, even if only for our “one quick season.” On first reading, I recognized an unexpected affinity with “Some Color,” almost a personal memory, as though Sanders were speaking to me from among all his readers. Krystal would understand this rare and privileged experience: “A poem speaking to me from the page is private and makes itself felt as no stranger’s voice possibly could.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

`In the Guise of Poems'

Several times on each page Arthur Krystal writes something you want to remember, something you know will come in handy and qualify as what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” This slows down reading, of course, which is always a good thing, and leaves some pages almost opaque with underlinings and notes, but Krystal regularly writes things you may have thought in passing, or wish you had, but failed to articulate in words. Here, at random, is a nugget from Page 70 of his fourth collection of essays, This Thing We Call Literature (Oxford University Press, 2016): “It’s presumptuous of me to say it, but I don’t think our poets live for poetry as much as for the act of sharing their thoughts and feelings in the guise of poems.” Precisely. Most poets no longer write poetry. We know that. They make gestures that vaguely resemble poems. The problem is they continue to appropriate the name “poetry,” which only confuses the civilians. If we don’t call it “poetry,” what do we call it? Prose? Krystal identifies the problem with contemporary lineated language as “site-specific, tonal rather than dispositive.” He “miss[es] the sound it used to make.” Who cares what a poet thinks or feels? Just play the music.

Krystal is no crank. Detractors will dismiss him as “elitist” or “reactionary” but he is neither. He really loves literature. That used to be a not uncommon condition, like being able to sing in key or do the backstroke. Now it’s come to feel like having a notably trivial hobby, and this has happened in a remarkably short time. My parents were not readers and never went to college. We had few books in the house, and my taste for literature was deemed a little exotic (although, bafflingly, my mother once read Richard Yates’ excellent novel The Easter Parade). But if challenged they would have expressed respect and something like awe for book learning and the canon. Their reaction might have been reflexive and unthinking but it was genuine, an acknowledgement that our cultural inheritance, regardless of one’s familiarity with it, was worthy of preservation. Krystal writes about a lot of things in This Thing We Call Literature and he gives this reader much to think about, but for now I’ll quote this from “Listen to the Sound it Makes,” the essay cited above:

“Perhaps I’m a dinosaur who can’t make the shift from Palgrave to Pinsky—but I take no pride in it. I’m perfectly happy to be shown for a fool. But just as people can tell a good musician from a bad one, or a competent athlete from an extraordinary one, I believe I can distinguish among poets. I have a prejudice, however. While I think there are shadings or levels of skill among accomplished musicians and athletes, I feel that a poem without music is almost oxymoronic. Either you can write metrical verse or you can’t, no matter how well you express yourself. The problem is that too many people who cannot write in musical form champion others who are likewise unskilled.”

A well-read person is more likely to be good company than an illiterate. A love of books implies, but doesn’t guarantee, a sensibility of substance. The world is littered with bookish boors and monsters. Perhaps literature is merely the thing that fills the literature-shaped hole inside some of us. Or not.

Monday, April 25, 2016


It’s heretical, I know, but my musical sympathies have always been not with Billie Holiday but Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a matter of temperament, I’m sure. Holiday is always complaining about something, a quality often mistaken for the blues. There’s a woe-is-me tone of self-pity in her voice which I would hear without knowing anything about her unhappy life. I’m a sucker for the televised version of “Fine and Mellow,” and I’m always touched by her unspoken exchange of emotions with Lester Young. But Fitzgerald, in my book, does what an artist is supposed to do – create a beautiful object distinct from herself. I like her coolness, her refusal to milk emotion. She suggests without gushing, without melodrama.      

Whitney Balliett had his reservations about Fitzgerald. In the nineteen-fifties he referred to her “clear, scrubbed voice [which] often takes on a blank perfection.” In the seventies, he wrote that “a singer’s weight is to the voice what yeast is to bread. She has slimmed down and so has her voice. It has the high, bobby-sox quality of her `Tisket-a-Tasket’ days, and it made her songs, which ranged from `Satin Doll’ to `Raindrops Keep Falling,’ sound piping.” By the nineties, Balliett distinguished Fitzgerald and Holiday by calling the former “the most celebrated of female popular singers,” and the latter “the most celebrated of female American jazz singers.” I won’t enter that dog fight. I love her song books and the album with Louis Armstrong (the latter I know almost by heart). On the Ellington record, she covers Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a version topped for this listener only by the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane collaboration.

My brother has the good fortune to share his birthday, April 25, with Fitzgerald and with Oliver Cromwell, Walter de la Mare, Guglielmo Marconi and Earl Bostic. Happy birthday, Ken.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

`Under Cover of Delectable Wordcraft'

On this date, April 24, in 1954, Philip Larkin completed a poem he published only in 1973, in A Keepsake for a New Library, a small-circulation dedicatory volume for the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. Otherwise, “Continuing to Live” remained unpublished until 1988, three years after Larkin’s death, when Anthony Thwaite included it in Collected Poems.  Larkin deemed it “mediocre.” It is perhaps, less flamboyantly despairing than Larkin’s best, but technically it’s elegant and some of us will find it amusing. Here is Beckett (in Proust, 1930): “Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits.” Here is Larkin: Continuing to live — that is, repeat / A habit formed to get necessaries —.”

No blogger writes or thinks better than Bill Vallicella at The Maverick Philosopher. Last year, Bill read “Continuing to Live” and concluded Larkin was “a very good poet indeed,” adding, “And like most good poets, he knows enough not to send a poem on a prose errand, to borrow an apt phrase from John Ciardi. So one will look in vain for a clearly stated philosophical thesis packaged poetically.” At least we can get that out of the way. I know from my sons’ experience that teachers still assign poems, usually lousy ones, for their students to “interpret,” as though poetry were a species of cryptography. The assumption seems to be that a poem is a wordy nuisance that requires boiling down to its essence, its “meaning.” Pleasure is not only optional, it is discouraged. Bill tempers his admiration of Larkin’s poem:

“This philosopher asks: what’s the ultimate good of suggesting momentous theses with nary an attempt at justification? Of smuggling them into our minds under cover of delectable wordcraft? Poetry is a delightful adjunct to a civilized life, but philosophy rules. It would be very foolish, however, to try to convince any poet of this unless he were also a philosopher.”

We’re back to Plato. Some of our worst poets and some entire schools of poetry have tried practicing philosophy in verse. The result is predictably tiresome. No poet is obliged to provide his axioms, though axioms might be turned into poetry in the right hands. Philosophy rules? Sorry, Bill. Tell that to Horace and Shakespeare, and their readers. Thanks to Archie Burnett, editor of The Complete Poems (2012), we know Larkin completed “Continuing to Live” on April 24, 1954, the same day he began writing one of his masterpieces, “Church Going,” completed the following July. Burnett’s edition is full of such connections, and is essential to serious readers of Larkin. Burnett, for instance, traces the phrase in line seventeen of “Continuing to Live,” “the green evening,” to Book II of “Endymion”: “And like a new-born spirit did he pass / Through the green evening quiet in the sun.” This information is pleasing to know and quite useless.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

`I May Be Elsewhere'

A fellow lover of metaphors shares a few:

“Dickinson’s poetry is full of [them]. She is fond of beginning her poems with a startling metaphor: `Hope is the thing with feathers,’ `Remorse is memory awake,’ `Presentiment—is that long shadow—on the lawn / Indicative that suns go down—.’ I’ve always liked this one, the almost cavalier way she tosses it at us: `Death is a hard night and a new road.’ Aye, that it is—and more too.”

I didn’t recognize that line and had to look it up. It’s from a letter the poet wrote in October 1869 to her cousin Perez Dickinson Cowan. My friend’s memory is a little off, but here is the original: “It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.” I think of Dickinson as a metaphysical comedian, and here she is in high gnomic mode. I wonder: did her cousin find solace in her words? Cowan’s older sister, the wonderfully named Nannie Cowan Meem, had recently died, and he anticipated a joyful reunion with her in the afterlife. Dickinson writes: “You speak with so much trust of that which only trust can prove, it makes me feel away, as if my English mates spoke sudden in Italian” – not exactly a hearty endorsement of immortality.

Dickinson’s wisecrack reminds me of Chico Marx. One can admire her honesty and forthrightness – and the quality of her prose (“more Peace than Pang”) – while questioning her tact. What does she mean by “wild Night”? Probably not what we mean. The phrase for her was not new. In a poem written some eight years before the letter, Dickinson exults: “Wild nights - Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” God? Death? In a blindfold test, most of the lines quoted above from Dickinson might be mistaken for the work of Stevie Smith, another condescendingly misunderstood, death-smitten poet. Here is a typical couplet from Smith:

“If I lie down upon my bed I must be here,
But if I lie down in my grave I may be elsewhere.”