Thursday, October 20, 2016

`As Mild and Unemphatic as a Schwa'

Consider these lines from George Herbert’s “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?” And this from Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Voice”: “Melting melodious words to lutes of amber.” Each pleases the mouth and ear. Each is a pleasure to say aloud and to hear, and pleasure is among the chief reasons we read. Herrick could have written “She sings real good,” and no one would have listened. Citing these lines by Herbert and Herrick, Anthony Hecht writes: “When I consult my own ear, I can claim that certain lines have come, over the years, to be cherished largely for the quality of their music.” The observation comes from the chapter titled “Poetry and Music” in On the Laws of the Poetic Arts (Princeton University Press, 1995), a book that started life at the National Gallery of Art as the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for 1992. Hecht begins this section with a dash of witty common sense:

“It must surely have been someone French who remarked that the most beautiful words in the English language are `cellar door.’ What, one is disposed to wonder, would be the choice of a Swede or an Indonesian? Each language has its own music; or, more properly, its own varieties of music, for at one time or another the following more or less incommensurate poets have all been held up as model practitioners of the musical component in poetry.”

Hecht assembles an unlikely and incompatible parade of nominees: Swinburne, Poe, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Keats, Spender, Milton and Tennyson. This suggests that what we mean by “musical” in poetry is an amorphous notion. Likewise, one reader might swoon to Swinburne’s lines while another falls asleep. Easier to identity without training or critical rigor is the unmusical, the flat, flaccid, toneless and grindingly conversational that dominates poetry today; in short, prose. Hecht makes a useful distinction:

“Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical forms and formalities) and speech as it as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people. The problem presented by these alternatives ought to be evident; song and the artifices of formality lead in the direction of the artificial, the insincere, the passionless and servile mimicry of established formulas. But speech as a goal leads to chat, to formless rant and ungovernable prolixity.”

Critics have caricatured Hecht as a robotic formalist. The charge is laughable and baseless. He never proceeded as though form = poetic quality. In the passage just quoted Hecht acknowledges the risks implicit in empty formalism, but implies that writing good poems without form is possible but extraordinarily difficult. Hecht never published a poem, even when young, without some redeeming gesture of wit or musicality. By the time he reached poetic maturity, in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, he was an American master, a peer of Dickinson, Robinson, Eliot and Frost. Listen to the music and thought in these lines, a time-lapse view of evolution, from what I judge Hecht’s finest poem, “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977):
“Whole eras, seemingly without event,
Now scud the glassy pool processionally
Until one day, misty, uncalendared,
As mild and unemphatic as a schwa,
Vascular tissue, conduit filaments
Learn how to feed the outposts of that small
Emerald principate. Now there are roots,
The filmy gills of toadstools, crested fern,
Quillworts, and foxtail mosses, and at last
Snapweed, loment, trillium, grass, herb Robert.

Hecht was born in 1923 and died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

`A Weight on the Heart'

Last week I met a painter in New Hampshire who had set up his easel beside a river, though his back faced the water and he was painting the row of maples that paralleled the nearby road. It was mid-morning on a clear autumn day. The yellow leaves, when I looked at them more carefully, were not merely yellow but white and green and almost silver as they shimmered in the breeze. “I’m painting light, really,” he said. His canvas was small, about the size and shape of a license plate, and he worked in oils. The trunk of the closest maple was on the right side of the canvas. The middle was a muted patchwork of yellow, white, green and pale yellow-gray simulating silver but not at all metallic. In isolation this central part of the painting looked like an abstraction or the birth of a galaxy.

I asked him to name some of the painters he most enjoyed, and he mentioned Willard Metcalf, who painted Early October, and John Singer Sargent. I asked if he liked Fairfield Porter, one of my favorite painters, and he said, “Oh, yes. You know him?” He seemed surprised. “Painting light is the most difficult thing,” he said, “but it is also the most beautiful.” He spoke with great seriousness and precision, editing each word before he pronounced it. He never stopped painting but became more talkative. For years he had worked for a marketing firm, until he retired early and started painting fulltime. “I hate ugliness. It exists, but I hate art that celebrates it.” He gave me his business card. On it is a detail from a larger painting showing a branch heavy with red apples against a blue sky, like the one that morning. I thanked him for his time, and he thanked me and said, “There’s really no need to emphasize the ugly, is there?”

Several days later, in a motel room in Boston, I was reading Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side (University of California Press, 1977), a lousy title for a sometimes interesting collection of essays. The author is Robert M. Adams, who has a sense of humor despite having been an academic. In “Ideas of Ugly” he writes:

“. . . ultimate ugly is in some way global and oppressive; it doesn’t simply repeat a single element, but has a quality of infinite variation without change that lays a weight on the heart. The novels of Theodore Dreiser, Marxist political rhetoric, the landscape of northern New Jersey, souvenir shops in airports—these have the special qualities of an ugly which is at once settled into itself, varied in its particulars, yet bound to go on and on interminably.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

`This Weighing of Delights'

“The disconcerting fact may first be pointed out that if you write badly about good writing, however profound may be your convictions or emphatic your expression of them, your style has a tiresome trick (as a wit once pointed out) of whispering: `Don't listen!’ in your readers’ ears.”

The “wit” Logan Pearsall Smith coyly alludes to in “Fine Writing” (1936) is probably Smith himself. I discovered him as a footnote to Henry James, which sounds like climbing the Alps to retrieve a pebble, except that dwelling exclusively at the higher elevations makes breathing difficult. Minor writers possess gifts their betters lack. Besides, I’m not convinced any writer who gives even solitary moments of pleasure can be dismissed merely as “minor.” For those moments his impact on at least one reader is major. Who would sacrifice Max Beerbohm or O. Henry for the sake of tight-assed critical rigor? Minor does not imply dullness, a quality possessed by many major writers. There’s nothing dull about Smith’s Trivia (1902) and More Trivia (1921). Admittedly, “fine writing” carries a hothouse stench in our utilitarian age. (What is the prose counterpart of “poetaster”?) For Smith, irony is the saving grace of fine writing, not purple prose:

“. . . I should be inclined to say that an ironic way of writing is the one to which Prose is peculiarly adapted. I could instance among the ancients the irony of Plato, of Tacitus, and Lucian, and among the moderns the irony of Hamlet and of Falstaff, of Pascal, of Burton, Sterne, and Fielding, of Voltaire, of Swift, and of Gibbon, who was perhaps a greater artist than he knew.”

Smith isn’t talking about today’s cheapened, reflexive sense of irony, the lingua franca of undergraduates and second-rate comedians. He might approve of a phrase coined by Joseph Epstein when describing the work of A.J. Liebling – “worldly-ironic.” Liebling is another writer pigeonholed as “minor,” largely because he worked as a journalist, for newspapers and The New Yorker. That is, the deadline was his Muse, and he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration or a hefty advance to strike. He wrote so he could pay the rent and go on eating, which he did to glorious excess. My favorite among his books is forever changing. Usually I say Normandy Revisited (1958) or The Earl of Louisiana (1961). At the moment it’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). Take this dose of artfully muted and celebrative irony from that volume:

“It is from this weighing of delights against their cost that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period.”

If I believed in reincarnation, I would want to come back as A.J. Liebling, who wrote beautifully and wittily (“fine writing”), and knew how to enjoy himself along the way. Smith and Liebling were born on this date, Oct. 18, in 1865 and 1904, respectively.

Monday, October 17, 2016

`My Schooldays Were Filled with Wonder'

“How can we stop education from killing the sense of wonder? I was lucky: my schooldays were filled with wonder.”

[Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks, 1922-86, Imprint Academic, 2014.]

Sunday, October 16, 2016

`Write Little; Do It Well'

“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”

[Yvor Winters, “To a Young Writer,” The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, ed. R. L. Barth,  Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1999.]

Saturday, October 15, 2016

`In Hope of Illumination'

“There are two sets of readings: the trusted great texts, studied with devotion in hope of illumination, and the accident reports and fever charts of our condition, studied with revulsion for prophylactic purposes. (They are very roughly as books to articles.) The trouble in educating our young on the latter is that they become fixed on curing evils rather than achieving good.” 

[Eva Brann, Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Paul Dry Books, 2004.] 

Friday, October 14, 2016

`The Proper Business of Youth'

“To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance.

“The greater part of students are not born with abilities to construct systems, or advance knowledge; nor can have any hope beyond that of becoming intelligent hearers in the schools of art, of being able to comprehend what others discover, and to remember what others teach. Even those to whom Providence has allotted greater strength of understanding, can expect only to improve a single science. In every other part of learning, they must be content to follow opinions, which they are not able to examine; and, even in that which they claim as peculiarly their own, can seldom add more than some small particle of knowledge, to the hereditary stock devolved to them from ancient times, the collective labour of a thousand intellects.” 

[Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #121; May 14, 1751.]