Tuesday, May 26, 2015

`Enough Delusion for Ambition'

“Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.” 

Hope, when not slogan or pipe dream, is easily confused with momentum. Sometimes it is momentum – keep doing today what worked passably well yesterday and probably will tomorrow. Growing up means shedding expectations and learning to live without guarantees. This is prudence, not pessimism. “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” In one of his “Pocket-Size Poems” (Collected Poems, 1998), written in the early nineteen-eighties, C.H. Sisson writes: 

“When I thought what I could do
Fifty years ago, I knew
There must be something I'd do well,
What it was I could not tell;
I had not done it, that was clear.
Nor have I now. How can there be
Ignorance enough left to me
For hope to feed on, when there isn't
Enough delusion for ambition?” 

The two prose passages quoted above are from Dr. Johnson’s The Idler #58, published on this date, May 26, in 1759. It is the wisest assessment I know of pleasure, happiness and merriment, and their rightful place in the human scheme.

Monday, May 25, 2015

`Shitcan the Imagination'

Given the grudging scraps of information he shared, which never amounted to discrete “war stories” with a beginning, middle and end, my father’s experience in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II might as well have been a war movie I saw long ago and hardly remember. I know he served from 1942, the year he turned twenty-one, to 1946, four years before he married my mother, though I don’t know if he was drafted or enlisted. He was stationed in North Africa, though I’m not certain in what country, and in France, though I don’t know if he ever visited Paris. I don’t know how close he came to combat. In the few photos I’ve seen, he’s dressed in clean fatigues and still had hair. On those rare occasions he spoke of his time in the service, I sensed nostalgia for his pre-wife, pre-kids youth, mingled with a G.I.’s resentment at Army blundering and the stupid, imperious ways of the brass. 

We went to a lot of war movies together and faithfully watched Combat! on television (7:30 p.m. Tuesdays), but his only comments were limited to pointing out errors of detail in uniforms, weapons and tactics. He loved Patton. I wish I knew more about the daily life of one American enlisted man, who was discharged a Tech. Sgt. As a boy I was probably looking for a hero. Today, I just want details. Writing of a later war in “A Letter to My Infant Son” (Deeply Dug In, 2003), R.L. Barth says: “There are few glorious stories in this war.” He writes: 

 “War is not the story
That you would have me tell you, as I heard it.
And what is courage? Too many things, it seems:
Carelessness, fatalism, or an impulse.
Yet it is none of these. True courage is
Hidden in unexpected terms and places:
In performing simple duties day by day;
In sometimes saying `no’ when necessary;
In, most of all, refusing to despair.
Even suppose a man is brave one time—
Is truly brave, I mean—will he be brave
A second time? In other ways? Perhaps.” 

The Vietnam War spawned little readable poetry. Barth’s is an exception. Here is his “Lessons of War”: 

“Hump extra rounds, frags, canteen, or long ration,
But always shitcan the imagination.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

`To Florida with a Guy Named Sean'

“How shall a new Attempter learn
Of different Spirits to discern,
And how distinguish which is which,
The Poet’s vein, or scribbling Itch?
Then hear an old experienced Sinner
Instructing thus a young Beginner.” 

So writes Jonathan Swift in “On Poetry: a Rhapsody,” a poem nearly three centuries old that reads like this morning’s assessment of the “poetry scene.” Not poetry but the wish to be thought of as a poet spawns armies of fakers and frauds. Never has our need for a Swift or Pope been more dire. As Swift reminds us: “All Human Race wou’d fain be wits, / And Millions miss, for one that hits.” My own “new Attempter” is my youngest son, David, age twelve, who titles his self-published inaugural collection Anecdotal Fantasy from a Skeptical Mind. He dedicates it to three of his friends and “to Patrick, who likes good poetry.” Here is my favorite, untitled, from the eight poems in the collection (all spelling, grammar, metrics, punctuation, rhymes and humor sic): 

“Has it ever crossed your mind
If you went to the North Pole, what would you find?
Santa has a bit of a gut
And turned into a first-class nut
Watching Seinfeld and the Brady Bunch
Eating his corn nuts, crunch crunch crunch.
The reindeer never take a day off
The light is going out in Rudolph
They lost their old friend Dancer
After a hard battle with cancer.
Mrs. Claus is long gone
She ran away to Florida with a guy named Sean
The elves are the saddest sight
Just looking at them fills you with fright
For when more and more kids begged for toys
Elves were made in the lab to please the girls and the boys
Things went very, very bad
And the elves went very, very mad
The workshop turned into Lord of the Flies
So if you ask for a fur coat
You might have some reindeer hides
So I beg and plead with my heart in my voice
Skipping Christmas would be a good choice!” 

Let’s give Swift the final word: “Be mindful when Invention fails, / To scratch your head, and bite your nails.”

Saturday, May 23, 2015

`The Nightingales Are Asleep'

A friend has memorized “It Is,” a poem by C.H. Sisson in Anchises (1976):

“It is extraordinary how old age
Creeps on one
First it is not believed, even noticed
Then one notices symptoms but says nothing:
At the last nothing is what one says.”

Half a life we spend immune to age, and the other half denying its inevitability. Sisson’s choice of “symptoms” is precise if we think of aging as disease, as though a cure were possible (or desirable). At forty I got bifocals and a diagnosis of hypertension. Now, more than twenty years later, the little aches and incapacities accumulate, and I count myself fortunate. Our exploration of this strange new country – age – is unprecedented, or so it seems to us. Sisson’s poem is a dispatch from a scout reporting the lay of the land ahead. My friend writes:

“Strange, how a line will stick in a man’s head. In a poem titled `The Clouds,’ Sisson says that `Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.’ The poem ends with a stanza of one line: `The nightingales are asleep.’ The line says more than I can express.”

Here is “The Clouds,” also from Anchises:

“Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.
First the river came, it was not in that.
Then I noticed the sun, falling over the hay-fields,
Behind the mist — or cloud was it? an obscurity —
Plunge westwards.

“Fell evening, dragon, Tarasque,
Coming out of yourself, Phoenix,
Self-burning corn, smoke under your thatches:
No mean day must follow.

“The nightingales are asleep.”

The repetition of “nothing” (also in "It Is") reminds me of the basic text on aging, King Lear, where Shakespeare uses the word twenty-nine times, more than in any other play. In the first scene of the first act, the king says to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

`All the Niceties of Melodious Speech'

Sometimes mocking laughter is the most devastating critical weapon:

“I’d rather spend a drizzly weekend in Brixton
Numbering the raindrops on the windowpanes
Than listen to a reading by Anne Sexton.
I’d rather be trapped in a lift with Jeremy Paxton
Than suffer the maudlin refrains
Of Annie’s theatrics but still, I salute her granny,
Stowed as she must be in some columbarium cranny
Deaf to the ranting of her garrulous grandchild.”

Rhyme always helps, one of many reasons free verse is seldom funny or memorable. I had to look up Jeremy Paxton – a newly dead millionaire who nicely complements a poet, suicide and sister in tedium. Strictly speaking, Sexton was not a poet, one of the points Eric Ormsby makes wittily in his new poem, “Apology for Grandmothers.” The epigraph is taken from The Outnumbered Poet (Gallery Books, 2013), the collected prose of the late Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll: “`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?’ W.H. Auden supposedly sputtered after a poetry reading.” “Heckled” is probably closer than “sputtered.” In his life of the poet, Auden (1995), Richard Davenport-Hart reports the act of spontaneous criticism took place during the first Poetry International, held in London in 1967:

“`Anne Sexton read an acutely embarrassing poem about her attempted suicide and losing her baby [Auden said].’ Auden’s displeasure with Sexton was manifest. `While she was reading one of her dreadful confessional pieces, Anne Sexton was audibly heckled from the stage by Auden [quoting Charles Osborne, the organizer of the event]. Wystan was rude to her because he found her poems boring (`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton’s grandmother?’) and because she read them for about twice as long as we had asked her to.’ Backstage afterwards, he reduced her to tears.”

I can’t speak to Auden’s state of mind but one can readily forgive his lapse in etiquette. It must have been a dreary event: On stage with Sexton were Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Spender – world-class gasbags all. But Ormsby has other concerns. His poem is an act of affirmative action for grandmothers, perhaps the most potentially sentimental of poetic subjects. Especially he celebrates their speech:

“Language is where our grandmothers began.
Their antiquated natterings gave us
The courage of words; their dribbled
Yet exact articulations,
ever growing dimmer as they aged,
instilled in us some hope of fluency.”

Ormsby traces his joy in playing with language to growing up in his grandmother’s house in Florida. In a splendid memoir, “The Place of Shakespeare in a House of Pain” (collected in Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation, 2001), he writes:

“I grew up in the 1950s in Coral Gables, near Miami, in my grandmother's house, where, with her heavy furniture, her drapes that obstructed the fierce light of the sun, her antimacassars, and her bone china, she had created a late-Victorian oasis in a subtropical climate.”

In addition to grandmothers, Ormsby celebrates Shakespeare and the power of language and literature to enrich lives:  

“. . . she and her several sisters read and learned Shakespeare by heart, not only to become cultured and well-read but also to learn how to live. Shakespeare taught them thrift as well as eloquence; what they knew of love they had gleaned from his pages, and what they already knew of hatred they found confirmed and given utterance in his verses. He taught them to be circumspect, honorable, and dignified. He tutored them in the protocols of mourning and courtship. He was their master in all the niceties of melodious speech.”

Ormsby’s memoir, though achingly personal, is never confessional à la Sexton. His eyes gaze not on the imperial Self and its grievances but on the things of the world. In “Adages of a Grandmother” (Coastlines, 1992), he writes:

“And I, who used to blame her so,
Now rummage in my pockets for
A nickel’s worth of wisdom for my kids.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

`The Twig Has Lost Its Sap'

C.H. Sisson’s "The Pattern" is a poem of thirty stanzas of four lines each, published in 1993 by the Enitharmon Press of London as part of its Enitharmon Pamphlets series. It’s a stark and elegant little book, set in 10-point Garamond Light with a cover the color of vellum. The copy in my university library is fitted with a tacky cardboard cover, but I understand. Otherwise, it would be filed away on a restricted shelf and I would only be permitted to visit it, like an inmate in prison. This copy is number 164 of the two-hundred printed.

Expressions of futility, like suicide notes, tend to be brief. One doesn’t rhapsodize at great length the stringency of existence. “The Pattern” is as grim a statement of the vanity of human wishes as I know, yet oddly bracing because of Sisson’s immunity to the blandishments of cant:     

“The days seem long now, and life is long
Although the years hurry away to death;
No-one can daunt time; the young and strong
Are weak before it draws their dying breath.”

And that’s just the first stanza. What follows is a recapitulation of a life, womb to tomb. Sisson echoes “Aubade” by Larkin, a poet Sisson had little use for: “No calculation helps the man who dies.” Larkin writes: “This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.” In his late years, Sisson often writes in the spirit of Because I was Flesh (1964) by Edward Dahlberg: “My life was now so hopeless that I wrote a book.” Dahlberg, born in 1900, was writing about himself as a young man. Sisson’s poem first appeared in the November 1989 issue of The New Criterion. He turned seventy-five that year, and “The Pattern” is the opposite of a young man’s poem. Young men romanticize their yearning and despair. “The Pattern” is grim but free of self-pity. Another anatomist of despair, Samuel Beckett, died in December 1989, a month after publication of “The Pattern.” He’s another writer, like Larkin, we suspect Sisson would have avoided. Who is the author of this line?: “The twig has lost its sap, the word its meaning.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

`An Unassuming But Percipient Moralist'

With mingled pride and humility, Jane Austen adopted the finicky, déclassé sailor’s hobby of scrimshaw as the emblem of her art. In an 1816 letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, a would-be novelist who had misplaced a manuscript, the author of small, perfect novels writes:

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

Austen’s work, seemingly narrow of compass, is as “full of Variety & Glow” as – whose? The temptation, for rhetorical purposes, is to cite an artist of vast ambition and accomplishment, a Tolstoy or James. Permit me a U-turn as I nominate Max Beerbohm, a proudly self-identified “small writer.”  A recently published selection of his essays is rightly and without mockery or false modesty titled The Prince of Minor Writers. Like Austen, he occasionally skirted perfection. He can be at once elegant and seriously silly, but never should be confused with the campy shenanigans of, say, Ronald Firbank. Beerbohm is never cruel; merely amused. His “(two Inches wide) of Ivory” is devoted to human folly. His best work is found in the early essays, those in particular collected in And Even Now (1920). Of them, “Laughter” is my favorite. In its early pages, Beerbohm sketches his vision of a good life:

“As to what is most precious among the accessories to the world we live in, different men hold different opinions. There are people whom the sea depresses, whom mountains exhilarate. Personally, I want the sea always—some not populous edge of it for choice; and with it sunshine, and wine, and a little music.”

Often, one senses Beerbohm is dealing in a rarified form of autobiography, without the banal details. Later in the same paragraph, he writes, in a style that recalls Chesterton:

“There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been granted may happen to die in a workhouse. No matter. I will not admit that he has failed in life. Another, who has never laughed thus, may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds overhead. What then? I regard him as a failure.”

Reading Beerbohm closely is like tuning a static-free radio late at night and receiving two signals simultaneously. Neither cancels the other. One is a clear, reasonable, cultivated voice; the other betrays an irony so subtle it can be confused with silence. Beerbohm deals in nuance at the nano-scale. After Beerbohm’s death, Siegfried Sassoon delivered a radio tribute to his old friend on the BBC. The address is included in Letters to Max Beerbohm (ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, Faber and Faber, 1986). In it, Sassoon says:

“In his early essays he had posed himself somewhat as the fastidious trifler. Beau Beerbohm was the public figure he chose to adopt – and what else, one wonders, could have conformed to his artistic perfectionism? But let me warn the uninitiated – and how I envy them their initiation – against believing that his was the artificial euphuism of a dandified dilettante. For behind that studied elegance, that insistence on scrupulous refinement of utterance, was the toughest of professional experts – the brilliant and formidable dramatic critic, the sprightly but uncompromising caricaturist, the superfine story-teller, and the cumulatively accomplished essayist, who was also an unassuming but percipient moralist.”   

Beerbohm died in Rapallo, Italy, on this date, May 20, in 1956, at the age of eighty-three.