Sunday, June 26, 2016

`Creative of Essential Beauty'

Most outdoor advertising remains invisible until something reminds us of its existence. Leopold Bloom sold ad space for a living and took a professional interest in the billboards and signs he passed in Dublin, including a pitch for a Zionist colony. John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin documented billboards in fiction, as did Walker Evans in photographs (often with ironic intent). Philip Larkin in “Essential Beauty,” a poem he completed on this date, June 26, in 1962, calls billboards “these sharply-pictured groves / Of how life should be.” Anyone who thinks about billboards comments on their dual nature – the physical objects along the highway and the idealized reality they depict. Billboards, Larkin writes, “Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares / They dominate outdoors.” Larkin insisted he was not writing as a social critic, and denied satirical intent. In his notes to the poem in The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes a letter Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” to his friend Harry Chambers:

“. . . it is not meant to be a satire on advertisements: to me they appear as something like the platonic forms, infinitely vulgarised, but none the less `essential’ to our view of the world.”

Complaining about billboards and advertising in general is at least as clichéd and tiresome as the images and copy that make up the ads. One of the pleasures of watching old movies is reading the billboards and signs visible during location shooting. The once invisible comes into focus, especially when the movie is lousy. For my newspaper I covered the filming of William Kennedy's Ironweed in Albany, N.Y. One brief scene shot in nearby Cohoes, a former mill town at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, included in the background a billboard for the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, which came out in 1938, the year in which Ironweed is set. The sign was more vibrantly colorful than anything in wintertime Cohoes in 1987. Burnett goes on to quote something Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” in 1964, the year the poem appeared in The Whitsun Weddings:

“Most of us would agree that we don’t, nowadays, believe in poetic diction or poetic subject-matter. All the same I think there are certain received opinions still very much operative which the poet flouts at his peril. Take advertisements, for instance -- like most people, I have always lived in towns, and am constantly seeing enormous pictorial billboards. When I was young, I condemned them as ugly and corrupting – that is the `poetic’ attitude. Later I learned to ignore them. Recently I’ve grown quite fond of them: they seem to me beautiful and in an odd way sad, like infinitely debased Platonic essences. Now this is quite the wrong attitude: unfortunately, it was the only one that produced a poem.”

The progression of Larkin’s reactions to outdoor advertising sounds familiar. Youth gets in a lather about the “ugly and corrupting,” and most everything else. Mature adults accept them as part of the landscape. Adults a little more mature – among them, perhaps, a few poets – find something in billboards to admire and enjoy, if only their low-rent surrealism: “High above the gutter / A silver knife sinks into golden butter, / A glass of milk stands in a meadow.” According to Burnett, Larkin neither confirmed nor denied his poem’s title alluded to John Keats’ letter to Benjamin Bailey, written Nov. 22, 1817:

“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

`One Cannot Abolish'

Iago muses on the mutability of Othello and, by extension, all men: “The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.” In his 1826 essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt weaves this beautiful sentence into his prose. Listen to the slowly building crescendo:

“Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. `That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida;’ and love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.”

Hazlitt speaks as an insider, not theoretically, and had much practical experience with hating and inconstancy. Former enthusiasms turn overnight as “bitter as coloquintida.”  In a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon written in 1818, John Keats describes Hazlitt as “your only good damner, and if ever I am damn’d—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” Few haters have written so well, but Hazlitt was never merely a hater, and his hating was never ideological or aimed at such groups as Jews, blacks or the Irish. With him it was a matter of temperament and often fueled, as is still the case today, by politics. Like most writers, Hazlitt was a political naïf who generated more heat than light. “On the Pleasure of Hating” might be read as a case of unwitting, unrecognized autobiography.

I thought of Hazlitt’s great essay when reading “The Problem with Hate Speech” by the Canadian poet and polemicist David Solway. I once asked the late David Myers what he thought of Solway’s work, and David described it as “fulsome,” without further elaboration. Solway gets a little overheated but his thinking is usually clear and his prose, when resisting stridency, is forceful and tart. Like Hazlitt, Solway accepts hate as a basic component of our human nature. Hate in the abstract is not essentially evil. Not to hate pedophilia and Nazism is to be morally stunted. Everyone hates on occasion. Solway writes: 

“The feeling of hatred is a human attribute as basic as love; it is an emotion that cannot be vaporized out of existence, and which the human mind can subtly manipulate to pass off as a form of love, in the way that an Inquisitor could burn a human being at the stake into order to cauterize his soul for his own eternal benefit. But neither hate nor love nor their various mutations are reified entities; they are ingrained constituents of the human psyche. One can introspect and adjust, but one cannot abolish.”

The most precious of all freedoms is the freedom to be left alone. The Inquisitors of “hate speech,” moralizing busybodies, live a contradiction they will never recognize. As Solway puts it: “Those who seek to criminalize `hate speech’ obviously hate those whom they wish to fine, imprison or destroy.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

`He Will Soon Find Himself Left Alone'

Is friendship possible between two people who share only scraps of each other’s language? Isn’t language at the heart of identity, and doesn’t friendship imply a lowering of the guard, a taking of chances, a mingling of one’s self with another? I ask myself: Could I befriend a person who was deaf, dumb and blind? To say no is not to denigrate such a person, but how much would I, someone who revels in the written and spoken word, be willing to sacrifice for the sake of friendship? I have no abstract answers, only an unlikely friendship.

The custodian in our building is thirteen years my junior, married and has three kids. I’ve exchanged greetings with him five days a week for almost five years. He is Manuel, I am Señor Patrick. He was born in Mexico and is a little fuzzy about how long he has lived in the U.S. He has a second job, working evenings for a catering service. He impresses me as tidy and hard-working. He does all the customary tasks – emptying waste baskets, dusting, buffing the floor of the main corridor – but periodically asks if he can vacuum the carpet in my office. I know this is not a mandatory part of his routine, but I eat lunch at my desk and the floor gets crunchy. I, too, you see, am tidy, and appreciate his attentions. When working, Manuel customarily wears earphones. Several years ago I asked what he listened to, and he handed them to me, I put them on and heard accordion-heavy conjunto. “Flaco Jimenez?” I asked, and got lucky. It’s not music I know well but it’s happy music and I enjoy it. I told him about La Pistola y El Corazón by Los Lobos and he ordered the digital version.

So what, besides music, do we talk about with his ragged English and my threadbare Spanish (which always amuses him)? There’s a smattering of gossip but mostly it’s kids and the weather – eternal topics, conversational lubricants, not to be derided, the stuff I would talk about with any native English speaker I might see regularly but briefly. In Houston, the weather is a remarkably fecund subject, with extremes of Biblical proportions. Manuel came from a very dry place, and stands in awe of rain. Our talk about the weather is more nuanced and amusing than many conversations I have with nominally more educated or sophisticated people. Dr. Johnson did not lightly dismiss the topic. In The Rambler #99 he writes:

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

Note the non-satirical tone. Talk of the weather is a form of dance, elegant and comforting, a subject we all know intimately. Its drama is ours. Johnson knew friendship and its mortal importance. Boswell reports him saying: “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”

Thursday, June 23, 2016

`Endlessly Wrapping Up Bottles of Peruna'

Out of innate rambunctiousness and professional necessity, H.L. Mencken was an enormously prolific writer. Unexpectedly for one so industrious and wedded to the deadline, a high proportion of his published work is worthy of at least one reading, and some deserves periodic therapeutic rereadings across a lifetime. Foremost among the latter is The Days Trilogy. The single work I read most often, dozens of times since I first encountered it more than thirty years ago, is “Suite Américaine,” first published in Prejudices: Third Series (1922), and available in the first volume of the Library of America’s two Prejudices collections.

The French title is tartly ironic as the material in Mencken’s three-page suite is homely and utterly American, though he may have been echoing the title of Dvorak’s 1895 composition. The suite consists of three sections (“Aspiration,” “Virtue,” “Eminence”) of sentence fragments, each a snapshot from American life, connected by ellipses. Here are the opening passages from “Aspiration”:

“Police sergeants praying humbly to God that Jews will start poker-rooms on their posts, and so enable them to educate their eldest sons for holy orders. . . . Newspaper reporters resolving firmly to work hard, keep sober and be polite to the city editor, and so be rewarded with jobs as copy-readers. . . . College professors in one-building universities on the prairie, still hoping, at the age of sixty, to get their whimsical essays into the Atlantic Monthly. . . . Car-conductors on lonely suburban lines, trying desperately to save up $500 and start a Ford garage. . . . Pastors of one-horse little churches in decadent villages, who, whenever they drink two cups of coffee at supper, dream all night that they have been elected bishops. . . .”

The writing is a marvel of tone. Mencken balances his customary satire with something like empathy. His theme is the vanity of human wishes. One thinks: How paltry are the things we desire. Even the clergy gets less than a thrashing. Only a lover of American life, however critical, could get the details so right. This is from “Virtue”:

“Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna. . . . Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks. . . . Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World. . . . Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they’ll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach. . . . Ticket-choppers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. . . . Family doctors in poor neighborhoods, faithfully relying upon the therapeutics taught in their Eclectic Medical College in 1884. . . . . Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of  insects. . . .”

The details of Americana here are fascinating. Take “Peruna.” This was a well-known Prohibition-era “tonic” manufactured in Texas, which contained eighteen percent grain alcohol. “Eminence” is another gently savage look at the vanity of ordinary Americans:

“The first child named after the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding. . . . The old lady in Wahoo, Neb., who has read the Bible 38 times. . . . The boss who controls the Italian, Czecho-Slovak and Polish votes in Youngstown, O. . . . The professor of chemistry, Greek, rhetoric and piano at the Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Tex. . . . The boy who sells 225 copies of the Saturday Evening Post every week in Cheyenne, Wyo. . . . The youngest murderer awaiting hanging in Chicago. . . . The leading dramatic critic of Pittsburgh. . . . The night watchman in Penn Yan, N.Y., who once shook hands with Chester A. Arthur. . . . The Lithuanian woman in Bluefield, W.Va., who has had five sets of triplets. . . .”

Some of this is very funny and very sad. The particulars recall Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and even a pulpier writer like James M. Cain. Mencken’s attitude should not be confused with Thoreau’s, who was utterly contemptuous of his neighbors. And please note the grand time Mencken is having. He revels in all this vulgarity and tawdry human striving after respectability and prestige. Without it, he would be out of a job. In another piece collected in Prejudices: Third Series, “On Being an American,” Mencken gives away the game:

“It is my contention that . . . there is no country on the face of the earth wherein a man roughly constituted as I am – a man of my general weaknesses, vanities, appetites, prejudices, and aversions – can be so happy, or even one-half so happy, as he can be in these free and independent states. Going further, I lay down the proposition that it is a sheer physical impossibility for such a man to live in These States and not be happy – that it is as impossible to him as it would be to a schoolboy to weep over the burning down of his school-house.”

[A reader writes of Peruna: "Manufactured in Ohio, I believe. Its Texas connection is the mascot of SMU. And it pre-dated prohibition. Unless you were German and manufactured your own hooch during Prohibition. It was a remedy for this affliction."]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

`The Little Moment of Good Humor was Over'

For a few, suffering and loss bring wisdom, often cold wisdom, which offers only cold comfort to those who suffer. The twentieth century was a vast machine for destroying human beings, and the twenty-first doesn't look like much of an improvement. Here is an anecdote told by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) in the first volume of her memoirs, Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970):

“Not long ago, as I was traveling in an overcrowded bus, an old woman pushed up against me and I found my arm was bearing the whole weight of her body. `That must be killing you,’ she said suddenly. `No,’ I replied, `we’re as tough as the devil.’ `As tough as the devil?’ she said, and laughed. Somebody nearby also laughingly repeated the phrase, and soon the whole bus was saying it after us. But then the bus stopped and everybody started to push toward the exit, jostling each other in the usual way. The little moment of good humor was over.”

Some would be offended by the old woman’s clumsiness and make a scene. Mandelstam had endured too much – her husband’s murder, decades of internal exile in the Soviet Union -- to indulge such sensitivities. And who is the referent to the “we” in “we’re as tough as the devil”? Human beings? Russians? Survivors of communism? Such moments of unprompted camaraderie are rare and fleeting.

Mandelstam was no paragon of forgiveness and saintly humility. Joseph Brodsky writes in his memoir, collected in Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986): “She was terribly opinionated, categorical, cranky, disagreeable, idiosyncratic; many of her ideas were half-baked or developed on the basis of hearsay.” My impression of Mandelstam, based largely on Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (1973), was of a fearless woman who stood up to an evil empire. That was not always the case, says Carl R. Proffer in his essay devoted to her in The Widows of Russia and Other Writings (Ardis, 1987):

“Among N.M.’s specific fears was one that we found paradoxical, although she was not the only intellectual who expressed it. She was afraid of the people, the narod. The first time she said this, I asked her what she meant. She just pushed the curtain open, pointed outside and said, `There, them.’ She meant the ordinary people of Russia. All she had suffered through made her think that given the right signal, the bloodlust of the people could be turned loose again, and any passerby might be capable of destroying her  and those like her—Jewish and intellectual.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

`Valuable Because Strictly Incomparable'

An outsider sometimes sees things close to home that leave us blind. C.H. Sisson’s literary culture was deep and wide. He translated Virgil and Catullus, Dante and Racine. His debt to French thinkers – Montesquieu, Péguy, Maurras – was profound. We might call him a pan-European writer if he were not so indelibly English and had he paid more attention to the great Russians. But except for his Modernist models, Eliot and Pound, Sisson devoted little critical attention to the literature of the United States. One suspects not ignorance or snobbery but indifference. Like most writers, Sisson was most attracted to what he could use. He devoted more print to Ford Madox Ford than to James Joyce, a preference that seems increasingly right.

In “Some Reflections on American Poetry” (The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, 1978), an essay he published in 1978 in Parnassus, the American poetry journal, Sisson took a rare look at his American cousins. His early reading sounds similar to our own: Poe, Longfellow, Whitman, Emerson, Whittier. A sorry lineup, except for some of Longfellow, but Sisson expresses qualified admiration for Poe – for “To Helen” and “The City in the Sea” -- as some of us did when we were young:

“[They] are unlike anything to be found elsewhere in the English language, for the technical novelty . . . and the piercing quality which is the joint force and full result of it all. One has to swallow hard at certain phrases, even in this handful of poems, but the degree of addiction which they can give carries one over theses and one is left with something which is valuable because strictly incomparable.”

I knew the Poe addiction when I was eleven or twelve, and once recited “The Bells” in class from memory. With puberty I came to my senses, at least in regard to Poe. Today his stories and verse appear clunky and rancid, and I couldn’t reread them on a bet. Sisson concludes that his indifference to most of the nineteenth-century Americans was a result of their time, not their place:

“The lack of impact on me of most American poets of the nineteenth century needs no special apology. I cannot say that either Tennyson or Browning ever made themselves at home in my mind, or at any time took on the look of essentiality. I have never been an academic and happily have not had to read very far in poets who do not interest me.”

That’s an expression of gratitude I share, but Sisson is just warming up. Next in the docket is Whitman, a poet I persisted in admiring well into adulthood. His poems are spottily interesting, usually at the level of phrase or line (Randall Jarrell called his revisionary essay “Some Lines from Whitman”), and I admire the way he volunteered to nurse Union soldiers during the Civil War, but Whitman spawned the line of Big Babies who litter American literature (Roethke, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the rest). Here’s Sisson:

“One can see that this loud, untidy writer demands a place somewhere. He is a sinister portent of worse to come. But loudness and untidiness were not what one felt needed encouraging, and one was better employed among the elegancies, and less mouthy livelinesses, of earlier centuries.”

Sisson is brusque and disappointing when it comes to Dickinson, saying only that “she has to be read with, and judged against, Christina Rosetti, herself a writer of great unevenness.” To be kind, we might observe that all of us suffer from periodic bouts of blindness. Sisson is more encouraging when it comes to Melville, whom he calls a “minor poet – if major prose-writer.” He writes:

“. . . he manages to thrust through the imperfections of his technique a quality of liveliness, a sense that it is a real world that he is celebrating, and that he cares for the people he is celebrating – and not the idea of people, like the decadent Whitman – which produce an absolute conviction.”

Halfway through his essay, Sisson announces he is reviewing The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976), edited by Richard Ellmann. Of Lowell, Berryman, Creeley, Plath, Merwin & Co., Sisson says that “it would have made no difference to me if they had not written.” About Wallace Stevens he is deliciously unfair, calling him “one of the Great Names whose work I have never been able to stomach . . . I would go so far as to say that I think his work pernicious. He writes like a man determined to be subtle, a pseudo-Mallarmé, sometimes a decorator like that other inventor of gee-gaws, Edith Sitwell.” I enjoy this immensely because it helps assuage the guilt I feel over having never understood or enjoyed most of the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Monday, June 20, 2016

`The Prey of Spleen, Regret, Bad Jokes, Despair'

Five poems by David Middleton, never a prolific poet, appear in the Spring 2016 issue of The Sewanee Review. None is available online but Middleton’s work is worth a trip to the library and the copy machine, or even a subscription. “4 a.m.,” written “in memory of Philip Larkin,” answers the English poet’s last great poem, and one of the last great poems written by anyone, “Aubade.” Middleton’s “Schemes of Life” comes with an epigraph from Samuel Johnson: “I have resolved . . . till I am afraid to resolve again”:

“Another evening wasted in the mist
Of self-deception, sloth, his new-made list
Of good intentions numbered, ranked, and pinned
On that blank wall where good intentions end:

“To go to church well-rested, meek and blithe,
Not late for prelude, hymn, or with his tithe;
To bid farewell to beefsteaks—fatty, rare—
For tofu cakes, bean sprouts, or bleaker fare;
To banish wine and spirits, even ale
For teas that leave him sober, bored, and pale;
To write the late great poem of great old age,
Pure beauty, truth, and goodness page by page.

“Yet when, like all the rest, this scheme of life
Meets the resistant will in final strife,
Succumbing to a dark that’s always here,
He’ll face the day hung over with his fear,
Abstracted by inaction, on the brink,
The waters of oblivion his drink.”

Among the reasons Johnson remains so vivid and pertinent after three centuries is his blunt human fallibility. He is weak, as all of us are, but that knowledge torments him unremittingly. The passage Middleton quotes is from Prayers and Meditations, from an entry Johnson made on Easter Eve 1761:

“Since the Communion of last Easter I have led a life so dissipated and useless, and my terrours and perplexities have so much encreased, that I am under great depression and discouragement, yet I purpose to present myself before God to-morrow with humble hope that he will not break the bruised reed,

“Come unto me all ye that travail.

“I have resolved, I hope not presumptuously, till I am afraid to resolve again. Yet hoping in God I stedfastly purpose to lead a new life. O God, enable me, for Jesus Christ's sake.”

Middleton’s twenty-first-century updating of Johnson’s moral inventory and resolution is at once sincere and comical. Our sins are ridiculous: “beefsteaks—fatty, rare.” We resolve not to renounce sin but to adopt a heart-healthy diet. We substitute lifestyle for moral rehabilitation. Like Johnson, Middleton is no fire-breathing preacher. He is amused – and dead serious, “on that blank wall where good intentions end.” Some years ago, Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (1995), edited and published by R.L. Barth. Among the translators are Middleton, Len Krisak, John Finlay, Turner Cassity and Barth himself. On the title page is “To the Reader,” a poem by Dick Davis:

“In these few, graceful pages you will find
Translation of an untranslated mind;
A heart brought home that had aspired to be
At one with a serener clerisy—
Latin and Christian, still, unchanging, true:
And was, as it too intimately knew,
Contingent, fallen, unrelieved by prayer;
The prey of spleen, regret, bad jokes, despair.”