Tuesday, April 25, 2017

`Or Any Other Reason Why'

First, the title grabbed me: A Tankard of Ale. Then the subtitle rewarded my curiosity:  An Anthology of Drinking Songs. The anthologist is Theodore Maynard (1880-1956), an English-born Roman Catholic apologist, follower of G. K. Chesterton and longtime resident of the United States. His collection was published by Erskine Macdonald, Ltd., London, in 1919, the year the Volstead Act became law in the U.S. Maynard expresses his thoughts on the subject in the first sentence of his introduction: “With the advent of the social reformer the very word `beer’ seems to have taken on a sinister sound, and is as much tabooed in polite society as the word `trousers’ was once said to have been.” Macdonald claims “conviviality is a lost art” and that his book is “rather intended for tapsters than for antiquaries.”

Most of the poets in Maynard’s anthology are unfamiliar to me. His first selection is “Reasons for Drinking” by Henry Aldrich (1647-1710):

“If all be true that I do think,
There are five reasons we should drink:
Good wine, a friend, or being dry,
Or lest we should be by and by,
Or any other reason why.”

This works because it replicates a drinker’s logic, and because the lines come with a built-in melody. You can sing them. Henry Carey (c. 1687-1743) embodies generosity of spirit in “With an Honest Old Friend”:

“I envy no mortal though ever so great,
Nor scorn I a wretch for his lowly estate;
But what I abhor and esteem as a curse,
Is poorness of spirit, not poorness of purse.”

Maynard obviously associates drinking not with DT’s and moral turpitude but with celebration of life. In a gather-ye-rosebuds vein is “Drinking Commended” by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642):

“Come, let the State stay,
And drink away,
There is no business above it:
It warms the cold brain,
Makes us speak in high strain.
He’s a fool that does not approve it.

“The Macedon youth,
Left behind him this truth.
That nothing is done with much thinking;
He drank and he fought,
Till he had what he sought:
The world was his own by good drinking.”

And here is the gather-ye-rosebuds man himself, Robert Herrick (1591-1641):

“Come sit we by the fireside,
And roundly drink we here;
Till that we see our cheeks ale-dyed
And noses tann’d with beer.”

In his introduction, Maynard disparages “intemperate teetotalism” and captures the sour spirit of Prohibition’s boosters: “the earnest face of the Puritan, whose pale disgust is like a skeleton at his feet.” He declares: “Perfect social reform casteth out conviviality.” Maynard’s thinking has a political subtext, particularly welcome in our age of micro-regulation and social engineering: “The political mind, which can only find a complex solution (which by the way never does solve) for what it euphemistically terms the `drink problem,’ always misses what is direct and effective.” To which Maynard appends these anonymous lines:

“Damn their eyes if ever they tries
To rob a poor man of his beer—
For I likes a drop of good beer.”

For those of us who drank our share (and more), and no longer indulge, Maynard’s anthology is a consolation prize, a reminder of good times and bad behavior. My incapacity is no reason to spoil your party.

Monday, April 24, 2017

`Do Not Over-Broider Things'

“Words as plain as hen-birds’ wings
Do not lie,
Do not over-broider things --
Are too shy.”

A chicken wing has eight bones and three sorts of feathers. To call it plain may be misleading. Only in death – that is, in the kitchen or at table -- is the complexity and elegance uncovered. It’s a part of the chicken I never cared for (I’m a breast man, so to speak). The bones of all birds are the envy of structural engineers. “Over-broider” appears nowhere else in the language. “Broider,” an echo of our “embroider,” is now in linguistic hibernation. The OED gives “to ornament with needle-work.” Larkin’s meaning is clear, and states an ideal. Such words are every honest writer’s aspiration.

“Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense
Yet remain.”

Another ideal. One would like to think of our best thoughts as those that survive, tested against reality, like stones polished in a rock tumbler. Larkin uses the more familiar image of coins worn smooth by time and use. Their worth remains unchanged.

“Weeds are not supposed to grow
But by degrees
Some achieve a flower, although
No one sees.”

Some of the prettiest flowers – including my favorite, G.K. Chesterton’s dandelion – are weeds in anybody’s book. But “weed” is among the most ambiguous nouns in the language. I once discovered a small rural cemetery in upstate New York, a plot of perhaps four-hundred square feet surrounded by a low wall of field stones. The four or five markers were submerged in a sea of blooming phlox.

“Modesties” appeared in Philip Larkin’s self-published XX Poems in 1951. His biographer, James Booth, calls it a “concise manifesto for a poetry of reticence and sincerity,” but he may be over-broidering. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

`I Alone Shall Never Know'

Saturday was the 103rd birthday of C.H. Sisson, the poet who has been my happiest literary discovery of the new century. My only regret is not having known his work years earlier and followed the growth of an old man as a new poet. He died in 2003 at age 89. His working assumption, never revised, can be bluntly stated: rhythm is “the essence of poetry.” Several times he cites the French writer Charles Maurras: “Reason may convince, but it is rhythm that persuades.” Here is “Finale,” the last new poem in Sisson’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1998):

“Nothing means anything now:
I am alone
-- My mind a vacant space,
My heart of stone.

“A tuneless thing I am,
A broken lyre.
I cannot even boast
A flameless fire.

“There is the work I did
-- Paper and ink --
I have no part in it:
There is no link

“Between the man who wrote
-- And more, was once alive,
And this relic for whom
The end does not arrive.

"Although the life has gone
There is no corpse to show:
When others find it, I
Alone shall never know.”

In his review of A C.H. Sisson Reader (Carcanet, 2014), Vidyan Ravinthiran isn’t shy about expressing his reservations regarding Sisson’s poetry and politics. But he recognizes that Sisson is not a monolith. His work is evidence of a pleasingly complicated sensibility, ever resistant to instant understanding and paraphrase. Ravinthiran writes:   

“Although he wouldn’t be impressed by my leap from literary form to politics`the world is changing fast, and not even formal rhyme-schemes will save us from this,’ quips Sissonit does seem to me that the conservative poets belief, like that of Edmund Burke, in the slow organic growth of an irresistible culture, sits oddly, if at all, with his more periodic, oblique, fractured verse.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

`This Thing We Call Literature'

My review of Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature appears today in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

`Crumminess and Evil and Disorder'

My first objection to nihilism is that it suggests a lack of gratitude. It’s bad manners. I knew a reporter who drank herself to death, quite literally. She was younger than me, smart and attractive, a fellow Midwesterner exiled in the Northeast. She possessed the journalist’s essential gifts of energy, curiosity and thoughtful skepticism. Her writing was passable but her reporting – eliciting information from intractable sources, human and otherwise – was a work of art. Working, she was happy, or at least purposeful. The rest of her life was impossible.

One evening in the newsroom she told me, calmly and apropos of nothing, that she believed in nothing. She sounded surprised, not desperate, as though reaching an unexpected conclusion. My instinct was the conventional one of offering consolation: “You’re so talented.” “You have friends who care about you.” And so on. I knew how empty the words sounded because I had heard them before.

I left for another job. She stayed, and was soon let go for the obvious reasons. For middle-class drunks, often the last thing to go is the job. One’s supply must be maintained. She died in her apartment, alone. I go months without thinking about her, as we do with people we never knew well but who left an impression and now are gone. I thought of her this time because I was rereading Richard Wilbur’s Paris Review interview and came upon these deeply unfashionable thoughts:

“To put it simply, I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that is my attitude. My feeling is that when you discover order and goodness in the world, it is not something you are imposing—it is something that is likely really to be there, whatever crumminess and evil and disorder there may also be. I don't take disorder or meaninglessness to be the basic character of things. I don't know where I get my information, but that is how I feel.”

Friday, April 21, 2017

`An Insensibility and Heaviness Upon Me'

“My thoughts have been clouded with sensuality, and, except that from the beginning of this year I have in some measure for born [forborne] excess of Strong Drink my appetites have predominated over my reason.”

When it comes to drink, pay attention to the small things, the casually phrased declarations: “in some measure” and “excess.” Ask a drunk if he has been drinking and he’s likely to say “nope” or “a little.” A lie chaser invariably follows a drink. The drinker here is Samuel Johnson, in entries from his diary dated April 21, 1764 (Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, Yale University Press, 1958). Johnson’s moral sense is persuasive because it’s rooted in experience, not high-toned priggishness. He convinces without trying. Yes, Johnson was a drinking man, at least through his middle years. As Donald Newlove, writing from life, makes clear in Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers (1981):

“Great writing about alcohol is an ocean without shoreline and I have a thick notebook of excerpts from world literature to attest to it, a sheaf of quotations to help me keep sober. One of the most stirring recoveries from excessive drinking was made by Dr. Samuel Johnson two centuries ago.”

The practice of rigorous, often daily moral inventory was a common one in the eighteenth century. A fitful churchgoer, Johnson is writing in his diary on the eve of Easter. “A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year,” he, the most scrupulous of writers, confesses, “and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.” This from the man who devoted nine years to compiling almost single-handedly A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Later the same day, Johnson spells out a list of resolutions. Three times he refers to his habitual “idleness,” a fault few of us would perceive in him. One wonders what he means here: “To provide some useful amusement for leisure time.”

Twice he mentions his wife, Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson, who died on March 17, 1752. He never remarried and never stopped grieving for her. When he writes, “I will renew my resolutions made at Tetty’s death,” it is useful to look at his diary from twelve years earlier:

“Grant me the assistance and comfort of thy Holy Spirit, that I may remember with thankfulness the blessings so long enjoyed by me in the society of my departed wife; make me so to think on her precepts and example, that I may imitate whatever was in her life acceptable in thy sight, and avoid all by which she offended Thee.”

This is Johnson the realist. Even a beloved wife is humanly flawed, and can be instructive, a moral object lesson. Near the end of his 1764 resolutions he writes:

“I perceive an insensibility and heaviness upon me. I am less than commonly oppressed with the sense of sin, and less affected with the shame of Idleness. Yet I will not despair. I will pray to God for resolution, and will endeavour to strengthen my faith in Christ by commemorating his death.”

His numbness is telling, an emotional  shutdown that resembles a reaction to trauma, a sort of “shell-shock” without war. Johnson adds: “I prayed for Tett.”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

`Where the Mind Wanders To'

The twenty children came from Poland, France, Yugoslavia, Italy and the Netherlands. They ranged in age from five to twelve. All were Jewish and had been held in Auschwitz until they were selected by Josef Mengele for transport to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Heissmeyer, a physician, wished to test a theory. He intended to prove that the injection of live tuberculosis bacilli into subjects would serve as a vaccine, a hypothesis discredited years before. Heissmeyer also believed that if he could immunize Jews, who were naturally weaker and less disease-resistant than Aryans, his theory would be further substantiated. Heissmeyer began experimenting on adult subjects in Neuengamme in June 1944. He infected some one-hundred camp inmates, observed them for a month and hanged them in preparation for their autopsies.

In spring 1945, the twenty children from Auschwitz were transferred to Neuengamme, where they were given subcutaneous injections of tubercle bacteria. All became ill. After a month, Heissmeyer, who was not a surgeon, ordered a Czech inmate surgeon to perform lymph node dissections on the children. As Patton’s Third Army advanced into Germany, the children were taken from Neuengamme to a school on Bullenhuser Damm in the Rothenburgsort district of Hamburg. On the evening of April 20, 1945, their physicians and caretakers were hanged in the former school’s basement, and then each child was injected with morphine and hanged from a hook in the wall. Some were so frail and had lost so much weight, the guards hugged and pulled down on their bodies until the nooses tightened and they asphyxiated. Their bodies were cremated the following night in Neuengamme.

Heissmeyer returned to his home in Magdeburg in East Germany after the war and had a successful practice as a lung and tuberculosis specialist. His identity was uncovered in 1959, and in 1966 he was sentenced to life in prison. He died the following year.

The story of Heissmeyer, his colleagues and the twenty children is systematically documented in The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm: The SS Doctor and the Children by the German journalist Günther Schwarberg (trans. Erna Baber Rosenfeld and Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1984). The final words in Schwarberg’s book are the names, ages and countries of origin of the twenty children.

Inevitably, this reader thinks of Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” (The Transparent Man, 1990) and its pivotal line: “No one else knows where the mind wanders to.” The sestina recalls Aug. 5, 1942, when Polish writer-educator Janusz Korczak accompanied two-hundred children from his Jewish orphanage under Nazi guard, choosing to die with them two days later in Treblinka. The school in Hamburg where the twenty children were murdered has been renamed the Janusz Korczak School. Hecht served in the infantry company that liberated the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, an annex to Buchenwald.

April 20, 1945, the day the children were murdered, was Adolf Hitler’s fifty-sixth and final birthday.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

`Mudpies Which Endure'

Besides the overrated “pram in the hall,” the remark by Cyril Connolly I best remember is “the slow permeation of the personality by great literature.” The context -- his introduction to The Condemned Playground: Essays 1927-1944 (1946) – is worth quoting more fully. He begins by explaining the title. It refers to the English “literary scene” in the nineteen-thirties. But it also describes, Connolly tells us, Art (which he invariably capitalizes):    

“ . . . for Art is man’s noblest attempt to preserve Imagination from Time, to make unbreakable toys of the mind, mudpies which endure; and yet even the masterpieces whose permanence grants them a mystical authority over us are doomed to decay: a word slithers into oblivion, then a phrase, then an idea.”

Connolly admits that an exaggerated sense of evanescence has always plagued him. It’s a theme he would scratch at throughout his career, most famously in Enemies of Promise (1938). In the subsequent paragraph, we suspect, Connolly is writing not just generally but very personally:   

“I feel I am fighting a rearguard action, for although each generation discovers anew the value of masterpieces, generations are never quite the same and ours are in fact coming to prefer the response induced by violent stimuli -- film, radio, press -- to the slow permeation of the personality by great literature.”

The sentiment is not original, but seldom has it been expressed so winningly. Imagine Connolly on the evanescence of social media or Netflix. For him and his generation (Auden, Waugh, Anthony Powell, Orwell, Henry Green), literature was central. Connolly says the writers he most enjoys writing about are the “great, lonely, formal artists who spit in the eye of their century.” I thought about him again after learning of Jeremy Lewis’ recent death.  He was the author of Cyril Connolly: A Life (Jonathan Cape, 1997), a digressive and gossipy biography that filled in many holes for an American reader. When I was young, Connolly was more of a rumor than a writer. Lewis’ Connolly is a corpulent sponger, neurotic and very funny, gifted and self-lacerating, a writer of lapidary prose and enduring charm.

In one of his footnotes, Lewis describes a fated meeting at the memorial service for Auden. Peter Levi introduces Connolly to Philip Larkin, who says, “It’s like being asked if you’d like to meet Matthew Arnold.” Elsewhere, Larkin referred to The Condemned Playground as “my sacred book.” It’s easy to see why. Connolly can be aphoristic and tartly satirical. In “The Novel-Addict’s Cupboard” he writes: “I still do not collect books unless I think I shall enjoy reading them, but I do not expect that phase to last.” In “Distress of Plenty,” he says of Laurence Sterne’s prose style: “his beauties are lost on those who contract intellectual hay-fever from fine writing.” And he’s wise on Swift (in “New Swift Letters”):

“The misanthropy of Swift is, in fact, one side of the romantic dichotomy. No one is born a Diogenes, or enters the world complaining of a raw deal. One cannot hate humanity to that extent unless one has believed in it; one must have thought man a little lower than the angels before one can concentrate on the organs of elimination.”