Monday, September 25, 2017

`You Really Should Read Herbert'

I’ve known the name Breyten Breytenbach for a long time but never pursued it, content to leave it in a folder labeled “South Africa: Afrikaner: anti-apartheid.” Now he is the recipient of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award. Normally, prizes are worthy only of being ignored. Exhibit A: the Nobel Prize for Literature, a shameful annual burlesque. But I’ll give a second look at an honor that bears the Polish poet’s name. In his interview with the prize-givers, Breytenbach sounds like a serious fellow:

“It would be wonderful if someone were to say – you know, let’s forget about the masks, the games, we’re all in this terrible thing called life, which is the only boat we know about. I don't know where we are going, I don’t know what the destination is, I don’t even know which port we sailed from, not sure there will be a place we will actually arrive at . . . let us share some experience of that.”

That might be Herbert himself, who always spoke as a Pole, of course, as a veteran of the worst the twentieth century could dish out (Nazism, Communism), but also as a human being, as a typical representative of our species (something every great writer does). His poems and essays are about and for us – a rare gift among writers today.

Last week I interviewed a graduate student from South Africa, a brilliant kid who grew up speaking Afrikaans and only later, in grade school, learned English. He is one of those preternaturally articulate people who take little or no pride in being articulate, and think of it merely as a form of respect we owe to others and ourselves. He spoke without “likes” or “ums” or “you knows,” and without euphemism. He talked without self-pity about the burden of being South African, and how his country lives with an ugly past, as all of us must. Here is how Breytenbach has come to understand his own past and his country’s, when the formerly oppressed become the next generation of oppressors (this, too, is typically human):

“It’s a little bit like Victor Serge, and a little later in his life Aleksander Wat – you never lose the essential reasons why you feel a deep sense of fraternity with people, but you hate the immediate appearance of corruption that comes with the acquisition of power. The stultification, the crystallisation of privilege, this elitism that comes with it, as if they are the legitimate spokespeople of this sense of fraternity.”

Breytenbach reminded me of my debt to Polish writers – Conrad, Kapuściński, Schulz, Gombrowicz, Szymborska, Miłosz and, of course, Herbert (from one foreigner’s point of view, the greatest of them all). Breytenbach, who may have met Herbert at a poetry festival in the nineteen-sixties, says: “It is like a password among poets, people who have a real passion for poetry, always ask: ‘Have you read Herbert? You should really read Herbert.’”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

`Getting Old Is Very Instructive'

No one is obligated to remain unchanging or consistent in his tastes. Evolution across time in what we prefer to eat, read or listen to is inevitable. If, in late middle age, we subsist on a diet of SpaghettiOs, Isaac Asimov or The Doors, something about us is backward and stunted. We have not put away childish things. In a sixty-four-year-old, the teenager ought to be no more than a memory, and not necessarily a happy one. 

In 2000, a professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Shawn Halliday, wrote to Anthony Hecht, asking if he would contribute to a collection of essays on American writers and popular music. Hecht’s reply dates him. Born in 1923, his first musical love was Bach (“after an infantile infatuation with Tchaikovsky”). Only later, through a friend, did he discover what he calls “dixieland” (not a musical but a marketing term). He means traditional jazz, naming Armstrong, Bechet, Morton and Waller, among others. He belatedly enjoyed some of Benny Goodman, but there’s no mention of bop or anything that followed. Tatum is the most recent non-“trad” jazz musician he admits to liking (an excellent choice, of course). He goes on to remember “Desert Island Discs” and its American counterparts, which prompts Hecht to wonder what constitutes “a very select group of works . . . [that] prove durable.” On this date, Sept. 24, in 2000 (The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, 2013), he writes:

“Getting old is very instructive in such matters. I used to feel confident in my choices of Shakespeare plays, for example. But time has taught me that my views of the Shakespeare canon have altered over the years, and I have learned to detect treasures where formerly I had overlooked or under-appreciated them.”

In my case, Shakespeare is the perfect example of the mutability of taste. On first reading him, I embraced the tragedies. Next, with some reluctance, the history plays, followed, grudgingly, by the comedies. That scheme remains only partially in place. When I want to read Shakespeare, I customarily return to the plays I have already most often read – King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, et. al. Less so, Hamlet. But I sprinkle in Measure for Measure, Cymbeline and others more sparingly. High school almost ruined Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, but now I love the history plays.

With music the story is even more complicated. In the eighties I owned a recording of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, performed on vinyl (flimsy, Soviet bloc vinyl) by a Czech orchestra. For several years I played it obsessively but I probably haven’t heard the piece in twenty-five years. At the same time I owned a couple of Philip Glass records, though I can’t remember actually listening to them. I’m usually fairly immune to the shifting pressures of fashion, so why did I buy them? I can’t remember. As I’ve gotten older, traditional country music has become more important, but I remain loyal to my early loves, blues and jazz. Today I can’t get enough of Erroll Garner but almost never listen to John Coltrane, once an obsession.

If we could plot across a lifetime the ebbing and flowing of our interests and tastes, we might have in front of us a more interesting autobiography than any mere recitation of facts.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

`His Page Is Always Luminous'

“Johnson’s main criterion for judging the worth of a writer is: Does the writer have a knowledge of the heart, by which he means the passions that animate man?”

It’s a good point Stephen Miller makes in an essay published in the Winter 1999 issue of The Sewanee Review, “Why Read Samuel Johnson?” In his “Life of Addison,” Johnson says: “He had read with critical eyes the important volume of human life, and knew the heart of man from the depths of stratagem to the surface of affectation.” It’s a metaphor that comes naturally to Johnson: Man is a book to be read and understood. The wise writer – Addison, for instance – has made a study of humanity. He perceives the subtexts and isn’t taken in by the amusing cover. We come to trust a wise writer even when his life off the page is dubious or repellent. Think of Evelyn Waugh.  

Along with Johnson’s “main criterion” goes another, comparably rare quality: the ability to write clearly, vividly and forcefully. (Again, Waugh, the finest prose writer of the last century, comes to mind.) When writers are indifferent to their medium, even attentive readers will give up on them. Here is Johnson on Addison:

“His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous [Waugh], but never blazes in unexpected splendour.”

From a credulous writer, one for whom theory displaces knowledge, we can expect only silliness. As Miller writes, “Johnson’s best writing still holds its power because it reveals a profound understanding of the perplexity of man’s contending passions.” On this date, Sept. 23, in 1758, Johnson takes on one of his favorite subjects, friendship in The Idler #23:

“The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal.—Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

`Attention to the Minutiae of Life and Manners'

A capsule job description for any writer worthy of being read: “Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.” Avoid the heady stuff that invites pomposity. Stick to life as lived, not life as cerebrated. Ford writes about Christopher Tietjens, not geopolitics. The Golden Bowl recounts human selfishness and deceit, not the capitalist patriarchy. Larkin articulated it in his defense of Barbara Pym and her novels:

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.”

The source of the sentence quoted at the top is James Boswell, speaking of Dr. Johnson on this date, Sept. 22, in 1777. As usual, Boswell is baiting his friend, this time regarding a Mrs. Macaulay. Elsewhere in the Life, Johnson dismisses her as “a great republican,” a defender of “the levelling doctrine,” like one of today’s “inequality” obsessives. Johnson resists Boswell’s efforts to instigate a debate between him and Macaulay, and says, prudently, “. . . no man has a right to engage two people in a dispute by which their passions may be inflamed, and they may part with bitter resentment against each other.”

Johnson goes on to complain of a mutual acquaintance who “keeps a bad table.” We all know the type – chintzy when it comes to supplying guests with food and drink. Sensibly, Johnson says, “`every body loves to have things which please the palate put in their way, without trouble or preparation.’ Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.”

Johnson continues in what Coleridge called his “bow wow manner,” but clearly he is having a good, provocative time. Unlike bores, Johnson is enjoying what a musician might call modulating his dynamics. He can speak out of genuine anger, and then slip into an ironic, self-amusing register his opponent is likely not to recognize. After all, eviscerating cranks is one of the supreme pleasures society affords us, whether or not they appreciate it. Boswell notes of his friend: “Johnson seemed to be more uniformly social, cheerful, and alert, than I had almost ever seen him. He was prompt on great occasions and on small.” In keeping with his “bow wow manner,” Johnson enters into an amusing debate over the ideal shape of a bulldog. He even throws in a stereotypically Latinate Johnsonian word and promptly translates it into plain English: “TENUITY— the thin part.” Unexpectedly, Boswell offers a moving apologia for his devotion to Johnson, “the minutiae of life and manners,” and his project:

“I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendour of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity.”

Thursday, September 21, 2017

`Human Work, Human Presence'

Houston is forever defacing itself with newness. Nothing here feels old. A bank I watched being built twelve years ago has been torn down and hauled off in a day, and the beams for a new bank are already stacked on the site. My car drowned on the first night of Hurricane Harvey. I had it towed to a mechanic’s shop, he declared it “DNR” and gave me $200. He has already sold it for parts. One day I was driving my reliable, ten-year-old car; the next, it was being cannibalized.

In “Two Books” (Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination, 1995), Adam Zagajewski praises a book of essays by one of his mentors, Zbigniew Herbert: Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985).

“Herbert speaks of old paintings with the greatest love. It is a love that extends to the entire world of objects bearing traces of human work, human presence. The stone steps into which passersby have pressed the delicate arches of erosion. The smiles of medieval angels. But also the little café in Siena, benches, homes, squares.”

Herbert’s essays are based on his visits to France and Italy from his native Poland in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Herbert is almost giddy with the history that suffuses everything he sees. “. . . his feelings about history—and historicism—are unusually tender,” Zagajewski writes. “Historical memory, and especially the loveliest component of it, which have been preserved in works of art, is something absolutely vivifying.” Here, from Herbert’s chapter titled “Siena,” is the café mentioned by Zagajewski:

“A low, sombre hallway leads into a café. Instead of doors, strings of wooden beads rattle pleasantly under my touch. The padrone greets me as if we were old school-mates. Wonderful, aromatic cappuccino pours brightness into one’s head and makes one’s limbs recover from tiredness. The padrone recounts a story with an intricate plot sprinkled with numbers. I understand little but listen with pleasure, though the tale may concern his financial ruin. However it is difficult to sense a drama beyond these childish sounds: diciotto, cinque, cinquanta, settanta.”

It’s hard to love plastic, glass and chrome – the surfaces of our world, at once disposable and permanent. Wood and stone feel welcoming. The stone steps in the oldest building on my campus, Lovett Hall, built in 1911, are warn smoothly concave by generations of students and staff, speaking not on the geological but the human scale. A colleague, Argentinian by birth, recently visited Greece for the first time. While climbing the Acropolis, she felt humbled by its age compared to anything in Buenos Aires or Houston. I remember hiking near Chambéry (birthplace of Joseph de Maistre) in the French Alps on a summer day in 1973. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to sit in the shade. On the side of the road was a small structure that resembled a bus stop made of stone. I sat, cooled off and enjoyed the view. Only later did I learn my bus stop was part of a Carolingian crypt, built, as I recall, in the ninth century.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

`Who For the Rapier Drop the Cudgell'

In 1858, Walter Savage Landor published a collection of epigrams he titled Dry Sticks, Fagoted. Please understand that fagoted (or faggoted) refers to sticks bundled or bound together for use as fuel. I remember our tenth-grade giggles over all the attention devoted to “gathering faggots” in The Return of the Native. Landor’s title is self-deprecatingly perfect. In his brief preface he writes:

“Among the Dry Sticks many are so slender that they seem to have been cut after a few years’ growth; others are knottier and more gnarled than are usually carried to market, but give out great heat and burn longer . . . . Here are light matters within; twigs, broken buds, and moss: but who, in taking up a volume, has not sometimes had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness? and who is ignorant that the lightest is the best part of many?”

I’m reading the epigrams as collected in Vol. VIII of the nine-volume Works and Life of Walter Savage Landor (1876). Only one do I remember reading before:

“Around the child bend all the three
Sweet Graces: Faith, Hope, Charity.
Around the man bend other faces;
Pride, Envy, Malice, are his Graces.”

Landor can be grim-minded, and some would say cynical, so he is well-suited to the writing of epigrams. There’s little sweetness in him, or happy talk. He was hot-headed and contentious, given to tantrums. He possessed the gift of offending almost everyone he met, though Carlyle, who knew bile and crankiness when he saw it, perceived in Landor “stirring company: a proud irascible, trenchant, yet generous, veracious, and very dignified old man.” In “Old-Fashioned Verse,” Landor traces his poetic family tree:

“In verse alone I ran not wild
When I was hardly more than child,
Contented with the native lay
Of Pope or Prior, Swift or Gay,
Or Goldsmith, or that graver bard
Who led me to the lone church-yard.
Then listened I to Spenser’s strain,
Till Chaucer’s Canterbury train
Came trooping past, and carried me
In more congenial company.
Soon my soul was hurried o’er
This bright scene: the `solemn roar’
Of organ, under Milton’s hand,
Struck me mute: he bade me stand
Where none other ambled near . . .
I obey’d, with love and fear.”

In Landor: A Replevin (1958), Malcolm Elwin reports the poet first wished to call his volume of epigrams Dry Leaves, and then Dry Sticks Fagoted by the late Walter Savage Landor, though he lived for another six years after publication. For some of the poems in Dry Sticks he was sued for libel, prompting him to return to Italy for the remainder of his life. Landor could never walk away from a fight, or he walked away too late. His wit was savage and often amusing, though he knew little of moderation or tact. Here is “My Wit Scanty”:

“I have but little wit, all they
Whose brains are close and curdy say;
They relish best the broadfaced jokes
Of hearty, burly, country-folks,
And are quite certain those must judge ill
Who for the rapier drop the cudgell [sic].”
I’m reminded of another gifted writer of epigrams, R.L. Barth, whose “Don't You Know Your Poems are Hurtful?” is collected in Deeply Dug In (2003):

“Yes, ma’am. Like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

`Aye Better Than the Chilly Green of Spring'

“It is picture and no more.”

What an odd thing to say about a poem, even one written by an Imagist. In fact the observation was made by an Imagist about a sturdily non-Imagistic poem, John Keats’ “To Autumn.” You’ll find it in Amy Lowell’s two-volume biography of the poet, John Keats (1925). Lowell is quite smitten by Keats, but about the ode she writes:

“Its emotion, so far as it has any, is the mere delight of sensation received through the eyes, ears, nose, and even touch, the touch of wind and sun on an eager skin. To Autumn is an almost completely impersonal poem. The poet himself is merely an exquisitely sensitive recording medium. The charm of the poem lies in just this fact, that nothing comes between us and the day Keats wished us to see. There are no echoes, no literary images, all is clear, single, and perfectly attuned.”

One seldom encounters so blindly mistaken a reading of a poem. Lowell seems to unquestioningly accept the Romantic claptrap about inspiration. That Keats was inspired, I have no doubt. That he labored at his ode and didn’t merely transcribe it from on high is also true. On this date, Sept. 19, in 1819, Keats wrote “To Autumn,” the last and greatest of his odes. That day he had walked along the River Itchen near Winchester. Two days later, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he describes the experience:

“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.”

That is, he wrote “To Autumn.” Keats was not yet twenty-four years old, and would be dead in another seventeen months. It is his last indisputably great poem, and is in no way “impersonal.” My favorite memory from my return to the university to complete my B.A. occurred in the fall of 2002. I was doing independent study in Henry James. My professor’s office was on the third floor of a building in upstate New York, on a campus thick with red and black oaks. Most of the leaves had turned dark red. We chatted about the view and she recited the opening line of the ode, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” I joined her and promptly garbled the final two words: “fruitful mellowness.” I mentioned that Nathan Zuckerman quotes the poem in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and we resumed, limping through the rest of the poem, filling in when the other blanked on the next phrase, getting only the first stanza complete.