Tuesday, March 03, 2015

`The Carnival Would Soon Be Gone'

Circuses I dislike – the tedium of trapeze artists, too many brass instruments, the creepy gaiety of clowns, tawdry performers in dirty costumes waiting to enter the ring. As a boy with my grandfather (a Mason whose lodge, the Al Sirat Grotto, sponsored the circus in Cleveland) I was simultaneously bored and disgusted, a pairing of emotions that helped prepare me for a career in journalism. I remember sitting in the bleachers near the backstage entrance and watching a man in tights throw back his head and take a long pull from a bottle. Ever since, I’ve tried to avoid scenes of enforced fun. As Dr. Johnson observed: “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” 

But I like county fairs and carnivals. Sherwood Anderson called the former a “pagan outbreak,” and I enjoy the livestock, crafts and cuisine. The freak shows of my youth (“Alive, livin’ and breathin’!”) have disappeared, replaced by tattooed crowds roaming the midway. Carnivals, sort of low-rent county fairs, fill church parking lots with rides and games. Unlike circuses, fairs and carnivals encourage mobility. Bored? Move along. How exciting and disreputable a traveling carnival must have seemed to small town Americans even a century ago. It would have been an annual, much-anticipated event in that pre-Youtube era. Clive James in “The Carnival” (Angels Over Elsinore, 2008) understands its arrival and departure as a life-metaphor: 

“The carnival, the carnival. You grieve,
Knowing the day must come when it will leave.
But that was why her silver slippers shone--
Because the carnival would soon be gone.” 

Dr. Johnson nails a comparable thought, familiar to all grownups, in The Rambler #71: “The pleasure of expecting enjoyment is often greater than that of obtaining it, and the completion of almost every wish is found a disappointment.”

Monday, March 02, 2015

`Dust, Dust, Dust'

“. . . cemeteries are for me like bookshops; I find it difficult to resist the temptation to enter them and linger awhile.” 

It was April or early May, and the snow was going or gone. A low wall of fieldstones surrounded the cemetery in Schoharie County, N.Y. The epitaphs on the earliest markers had been erased by time and acid rain, and some were tilted by the freeze-buckled earth. The lambs carved on the stones of children were worn headless. The grass, mostly red and white clover, hadn’t yet been mowed and was thick with phlox. Birds sang and the air was fresh. Life felt bountiful in the presence of so many dead. 

“. . . I find it strange that some hurry past cemeteries either without a second look or even with a shudder. Meditation on the transience of life, intermittent rather than continuous and rejuvenating rather than paralysing, is important for achieving equanimity. And there is no better aid to such meditation, I find, than a good graveyard.” 

Like Theodore Dalrymple in And Death Shall Have His Dominion” (a good allusion to a lousy poem), I seek out cemeteries; in particular, the remote, rural, often untended sort, though a sprawling urban cemetery, vast enough to have neighborhoods and thoroughfares, offers pleasures of another sort. Isaac Bashevis Singer reverses the cemetery-as-city metaphor in the final lines of his story “Neighbors” (A Crown of Feather and Other Stories, 1973): 

“From time to time I looked out the window. The snow descended sparsely, peacefully, as if in contemplation of its own falling. The short day neared its end. The desolate park became a cemetery. The buildings on Central Park South towered like headstones. The sun was setting on Riverside Drive, and the water of the reservoir reflected a burning wick. The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: `Dust, dust, dust.’ The singsong penetrated my bones together with the warmth. It repeated a truth as old as the world, as profound as sleep.” 

Dalrymple visits Père-Lachaise, a cemetery at least as interesting as a good museum or bookshop. He notes some of the celebrity graves – Balzac, Delacroix, Wilde – not to mention Colette, Apollinaire and Borrah Minevitch -- But reminds us: “. . . most of the tombs in Père-Lachaise, as in every other cemetery, are of people who led ordinary lives.” George Eliot honored such people, people like you and me, in her goodbye to Dorothea Brooke, in the final paragraph of Middlemarch:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Sunday, March 01, 2015

`Black March I Call Him'

Because it’s one long tease, at least in the North, March is the longest month. A thaw would arrive late in February and you could smell the earth, a rich mineral rot, for the first time since October. If the thaw lasted into the following month, you might start believing spring had arrived and comfort yourself with thoughts of imminent sunshine and greenery. Then by mid-March a blizzard would hit, sometimes on St. Patrick’s Day, and you’d be shoveling out the driveway within days of the vernal equinox.

In brief, March was a lesson in life, the end of apprenticeship, time to think about sowing and reaping, and preparing for next turn of the seasons. Basil Bunting grudgingly praised Stevie Smith’s poems as “little stuff, but honestly done, worked on.” He got it two-thirds right. “Little” is patronizing and wrong. Smith refused overweening significance, self-important philosophizing. She was no Robert Lowell and never pretended to be. Hers was the seriousness of an intelligent child. “Black March” is a late poem, first published posthumously in Scorpion and Other Poems (1972), in a mode of mock-Imagism:     

“Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.”

Smith would die in March, on the seventh, in 1971, at age sixty-eight.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

`Continuity of Parts'

A self-critical friend passes along a poem by a well-known poet that he finds “as opaque as a brick wall,” and wonders if I can turn opacity into transparence. My friend is a smart, well-read fellow, and it’s probably unnecessary to note that the poem in question is written in one of two dominant contemporary modes of verse: in this case, pretentious gibberish, with many lacunae and no continuity, rather than Dick-and-Jane sincerity. It’s less a poem (arguably, it’s not a poem at all) than a poetic gesture, intended by its author as a sign of club membership, like a secret handshake among poets. The implication is, if you don’t get it, you don’t belong. The stuff is easy to write, attested to by the writer’s bloated corpus, and impossible to read. Dr. Johnson had the final word on this species of fraud: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” On this date, Feb. 28, in 1790, William Cowper writes to his cousin, John Johnson, an aspiring poet: 

“Only remember, that in writing, perspicuity is always more than half the battle: the want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it.” 

Except graduate students. Perspicuity is a fine word and a fine quality in writing. As Sir Thomas Browne puts it in “Of Crystal” in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72): “Continuity of parts is the cause of perspicuity.” That leaves out Emerson and most of his descendants.

Friday, February 27, 2015

`The Maker of Immaculate Slapstick'

A reader who can also read my musical tastes brightened a dark afternoon with a choice selection from the Collected Works of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “That’s Ain’t Right” from Stormy Weather (1943). Waller is one of those rare artists—Louis Armstrong, P.G. Wodehouse and Fred Astaire are others—who dispense joy without compromising their art. They give pleasure without shame. They revel in their job – entertaining us. Philip Larkin said Waller “was in the laughter business as much as the jazz business,” and we love him for it. Larkin quotes Armstrong “Every time someone mentions Fats Waller's name, why, you can see grins on all the faces.” That’s what you would have seen in my office Thursday afternoon. 

In his first collection, No Continuing City (1969), the Irish poet Michael Longley included a suite of poems with a title adapted from Yeats, “Words for Jazz Perhaps”: “Elegy for Fats Waller,” “Bud Freeman in Belfast,” “To Bessie Smith” and “To Bix Beiderbecke.” The sequence is dedicated to Solly Lipsitz, the late trumpet player, music critic and record shop owner in Belfast. Here’s Longley’s Waller poem: 

“Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day,
Happy with so many notes at his beck
And call, he sits there taking it away,
The maker of immaculate slapstick. 

“With music and with such precise rampage
Across the deserts of the blues a trail
He blazes, towards the one true mirage,
Enormous on a nimble-footed camel
And almost refusing to be his age. 

“He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,
At the still centre of his loud dominion—

It’s not a great poem but it captures and celebrates Waller’s spirit. Jazz has inspired thousands of poems, most of them not worth reading to the final line. Like poetry, jazz attracts camp followers for whom the music is the password to the Hipster Room, where the Cool People live. Longley does something else. He honors Waller by adopting his tone of good humor tempered with brains. In a brief essay he wrote for The Guardian in 2011, Longley writes: “Fats must be one of the most musical human beings ever to have lived. I sense a dark, unsettling challenge behind the twinkle. Seamlessly he combines sunniness and subversion, and can be very complicated indeed.” In the poem, he nicely dubs Waller the “maker of immaculate slapstick,” a description that might apply with equal justice to Buster Keaton. 

In “Light from Two Windows,” a portrait of Longley painted by Jeffery Morgan, you’ll find a picture of Keaton hanging on the wall and another of Waller on the book about Charles Ives in the foreground. Look closely and you’ll see other traces of Longley’s interests – a picture of Billie Holiday, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Illiad, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944 by Lucjan Dobroszycki, books about Hokusai and Brancusi. Longley, born in 1939, includes “Old Poets” (“for Anne Stevenson”) in Snow Water (2004): 

“Old poets regurgitate
Pellets of chewed-up paper
Packed with shrew tails, frog bones,
Beetle wings, wisdom.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Q & A

And now for the good clean fun of a parlor game. Terry Teachout answers a list of bookish questions first addressed to David Brooks by the New York Times Book Review. I’m elbowing my way into the interview just behind Terry, whose answers sometimes overlap mine: 

What books are now on your night stand?
Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra (Penguin Classics, 2014), documenting one of literature’s great love stories; Swift: Poetical Works (Oxford Standard Authors Series, 1967); Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). 

And what’s the last truly great book you read?
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958). 

Who is your favorite novelist ever? And your favorite who’s writing today?
Neither question elicits a reflexive answer, partly because “novelist” (like “novel”) is so elusive a category. Is Swift a novelist? Dr. Johnson? Pushed, I would say Henry James to the first and “I don’t know” to the second (though, like Terry, I like the author of A House for Mr. Biswas). 

What are your reading habits–do you prefer electronic or print? Do you write in your books? Keep them or give away?
Strictly print. Only occasionally do I vandalize books. Instead, I insert notes to mark noteworthy passages. I keep most of the good stuff, especially the books I might reread or at least consult. The rest I give away or sell.
What’s your favorite genre to read?
Is “well-written” a genre? It’s the only one worth paying attention to. “Genre” is usually a polite way to say crap. Like Terry, I’m a happy rereader of Wodehouse and Stark. 

What’s your favorite book about the newspaper business?
Again, I like Terry’s choice, but let me add The Press, A.J. Liebling’s collected press criticism. And let me qualify that by noting it’s probably the Liebling title I read least often. When I do, it’s for lines like this: “Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments.” 

What do you consider to be the best book about American politics ever written?
Witness (1952) by Whittaker Chambers. 

And what’s your favorite book by a political columnist?
I don’t have one. 

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?
Greedy. I favored field guides and biographies. A little later, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among his characters, David Innes and Abner Perry. 

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981) by Guy Davenport. 

If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would be it be, and why?
Dr. Johnson. The only other writer I can think of whose life and work vie for dominance in formulating my esteem would be Charles Lamb. I love Proust but I doubt we would have much to say to each other (though his English, fortunately, was better than my French). 

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Johnson, Lamb, Italo Svevo. The last because he was a great writer, mordantly funny, had learned English from James Joyce and knew something about the real world (business, marriage, children). 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’ve never felt that I was “supposed to like” any book. All of them are available OTC, no prescription required. About the time I reached draft age, I started permitting myself the luxury of not finishing lousy books, except when I was being paid to do so. Their number probably exceeds those I’ve read all the way through, which only makes sense. The mediocre in any art form always exceeds the excellent or even the passably good. 

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?
A fat, sympathetic biography of Yvor Winters. 

Who would you want to write your life story?
I’m laughing. 

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. 

What do you plan to read next?
Joseph Epstein’s Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). And I know nothing about sports.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

`It Is Rowing Without a Port'

“Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought.” 

My middle son, a boarding school ninth-grader in Ontario, recently flew home for a long weekend. It was an almost-last-minute decision, and thus doubly pleasurable because hardly anticipated. When I reflect on those four days, the moment I recall with greatest pleasure is when the four of us were seated around the kitchen table putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the state of Texas. When they were young, the boys and I spent hours – days, in the aggregate – assembling puzzles. I can flatter myself and attribute their gifts for patience and pattern recognition to those puzzle-making sessions, but in fact they were merely an excuse for togetherness and teamwork, the satisfaction of a project completed collaboratively – and competitively. Of course, we had to watch Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 puzzle-building epic, Me and My Pal. At the start of my son’s visit, could I have anticipated the fond memory something so mundane as making a jigsaw puzzle would give me? Of course not. 

The passage quoted at the top is the first sentence of Dr. Johnson’s Idler essay #58, published May 26, 1759. The second is “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” Vast, multi-billion-dollar industries are built on the assumption that pleasure can be packaged, planned for and purchased, like an insurance policy against dullness and care, and Johnson will have none of it: “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” Pleasure – I like “gladness,” which handily rhymes with “sadness” – takes us by surprise. In the Rev. James V. Schall’s “On Merriment,” his gloss on Johnson’s essay at the University Bookman, the Jesuit writes: 

“We must set out to do what causes joy, namely, what is right, what is true. We even pursue our vices for the good that is in them, distorted as it may be. Joy is a result, not a direct object, of right choice. It is true that we all prefer to be joyful rather than sad. But it is most likely that, if we set out to be joyful and not rightly to do the work at hand, we will end up sad.” 

Who is grimmer than a Las Vegas-bound fun-seeker, face fixed in a hideous rictus of dedicated fun? I’m not knocking slot machines and cocktails. I just wonder about those who pursue such a formula “end up sad.” The notion that pleasure, and the even more elusive quality of happiness, are by-products or side effects of right living, of doing the next right thing, however fumblingly, seems counter-intuitive almost to madness. Johnson suggests we adopt an attitude of suspended anticipation. He says of his hypothetical traveler, “the best is always worse than he expected.” Schall describes as “truly remarkable” Johnson’s conclusion, a reformulation of a lifelong theme: “…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.” It reminds me of a conversation reported by Boswell in the Life that amounts to the most concise condemnation I know of communism: 

“His Lordship mentioned a charitable establishment in Wales, where people are maintained, and supplied with every thing, upon the condition of their contributing the weekly produce of their labour; and he said, they grow quite torpid for want of property. Johnson: `They have no object for hope. Their condition cannot be better. It is rowing without a port.’”