Monday, May 29, 2017

`That Swing: Poems, 2008-2016'

My review of That Swing: Poems, 2008–2016 by X.J. Kennedy is published today in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

`What Changes All, Now Changes Me'

Not forgotten; never known. One could devote a life to reading such writers without wasting his time. Time is the cruelest critic, and readers conform to a narrow path. One of my favorite anthologies of any sort is Horace in English, edited by D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes, and published by Penguin in 1996. Even well-known names among the translators will surprise casual readers – John Quincey Adams, Tennyson, Kipling. But more intriguing are the mystery guests. Why have I never read the English poet K.W. Gransden (1925-1998)? He translated Virgil and devoted books to Donne, Forster, Angus Wilson and Tudor verse satire. Here is his loose and very personal “After Ode I.34,” subtitled “A Funny Thing Happened . . .”:

“I, master of philosophy,
Ex-adept of an idiot’s creed,
Lax and infrequent churchgoer,
Am now compelled to turn again
By something that I cannot read:
Thunder in blue skies, and no rain!
Whatever can so freak the weather
Must be the god of earth and sea
And hell and heaven, I now concede.
Jehovah, Paradox or Luck
Pulls down the proud. Promotes the meek:
What changes all, now changes me.”

Reality humbles. No one is immune to its mandates. Gransden Christianizes the Roman. Go here to read John Conington’s duller, more literal translation of Ode I.34, and then read David Ferry’s (Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, 1999):

“Sparing and but perfunctory in my devotions,
Going my own way, wandering in my learned
Well-considered folly, now I must turn about

“And change my course, and sail for home and safety,
Jupiter, whose thunder and whose lightning
Require the clouds, just now, this minute, drove

“His thundering chariot and his thundering horses
Right straight across a perfectly cloudless sky,
Unsettling streams and shaking the heavy ground

“All the way down to the river Styx and out
To the end of the earth beyond Taenarus’ seat,
Where Atlas holds up the sky upon his shoulders.

 “Oh yes, the god has power. Oh yes, he can
Raise up the low and bring the high things down.
Fortune’s wings rustle as the choice is made.”

Sunday, May 28, 2017

`My Book is More Interesting Than Its Man'

A.E. Housman will never rank with Cowper and Keats among the great letter writers in the language. On most occasions he is too blunt, business-like and unself-revealing to digress and frolic and amuse readers who are less than infatuated with his life and work. But readers (or skimmers, like me) of The Letters of A.E. Housman (Oxford, 2007), edited by Archie Burnett, will discover a Housman at odds with the dour caricature of repressed sexuality accepted as gospel today. Burnett’s two-volume, 1,228-page act of reclamation is peppered with the wisecracks of a very funny man. (As a scholar, Burnett seems attracted to misunderstood poets, as his edition of Larkin’s Complete Poems attests.) On Sept. 27, 1921, Housman writes to his publisher Grant Richards, who is about to bring out the ironically mistitled Last Poems:

“Tell him that the wish to include a glimpse of my personality in a literary article is low, unworthy, and American. Tell him that some men are more interesting than their books but my book is more interesting than its man.”

The ever-resourceful Burnett, who detects allusions where others nod, notes the echo of Dr. Johnson’s "The Plan of the English Dictionary": “my book is more learned than its author.” Another friend of Housman’s was Dr. Percy Withers, a physician and writer who after Housman death published A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman (Burnett calls it “sympathetic but somewhat baffled”). In a June 12, 1922 letter, Housman thanks Withers’ wife for the jar of marmalade she had given him, and adds of a photograph taken of him a month earlier: “The photograph is not quite true to my own notion of my gentleness and sweetness of nature, but neither perhaps is my external appearance.” The sentence is a perfectly tuned instrument of ironic self-awareness.

To Richards on Nov. 30, 1922, Housman writes: “Mr Vickers can have what he wants, and any of his countrymen. I am told that Americans are human beings, though appearances are against them.” And here, to Richards again, on Jan. 23, 1923, my favorite: “I suppose the Braille people [The National Institute for the Blind] may do Last Poems as they did the other book. The blind want cheering up.”  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

`There Is Only One Subject'

Years ago I regularly read Carl T. Rowan’s syndicated newspaper column, but he died in 2000 and his name hadn’t entered my head in years – a familiar fate for journalists. In memory I associate him with a sober, commonsensical understanding of the world. He was no grandstander or provocateur, nor was he a masterful stylist. You read Rowen for his slightly dull and reassuring sense of reasonableness. This week I unexpectedly came upon his name in Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002) by Richard Rodriguez, who tells us the first book by a black writer he read was Rowan’s Go South to Sorrow (1957). He found it shelved in his fifth-grade classroom.

“And as I read,” Rodriguez writes, “I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge that others were not, are not, comforted. Carl Rowan at my age was not comforted. The sensation was pleasurable.”

Rodriguez recalls the sensation of reading Rowan with a vividness some readers will recognize. He remembers the quality of sunlight on that Saturday morning in January, and the bond of understanding formed with a man he would never meet. In Brown, Rodriguez has recently learned of Rowan’s death, which prompts him to write:

“It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present . . . I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.”

Some readers are blessed with a remarkable capacity for imaginative projection. Most children have it but soon lose it. They can become the Other, briefly, and the lucky ones retain and cherish the experience. Another black writer, Ralph Ellison, performed a comparable sort of magic on me with Invisible Man, when I first read it at age seventeen. Slowly, less dramatically (probably due to age), I’m developing a similar respectful empathy for Rodriguez and his work. This marvelous passage, which gives us plenty to ponder, follows two pages after the one cited above:

“Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: `Ports have names they call the sea.’ Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

`This Object of My Rage'

The earliest recorded use of “Boswell” as an eponym dates from 1858, when Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table declares in a very American spirit: “Every man his own Boswell.” The next usage, according to the OED, is likewise Holmesian: “‘I think that I had better go, Holmes.’ ‘Not a bit, Doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell.’” (“A Scandal in Bohemia,” 1892) Finally, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh’s chum, writes in her 1932 novel Christmas Pudding: “I never thought of biography, but of course that’s the very thing for me . . . May I be your Boswell, darling?” More recently, and not cited by the OED, Stanley Elkin titled his first novel Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964).

In most of these allusions (the Elkin is ambiguous) “Boswell” is neutral or admiring. It suggests a devoted chronicler, a gifted amanuensis. The OED also has entries for Boswellian and Boswellism. The latter is the work of Thomas Macaulay, whose famous pan of Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson appeared in 1831. It’s not intended kindly: “That propensity which, for want of a better name, we will venture to christen Boswellism.” Macaulay was just getting warmed up:

“Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all. He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect. Johnson described him as a fellow who had missed his only chance of immortality by not having been alive when the Dunciad was written. [Topham] Beauclerk used his name as a proverbial expression for a bore. He was the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame.”

Macaulay’s Boswell is a freak of nature, an idiot savant of biography. Macaulay had a little-known precursor who also judged Boswell a literary parasite. Her name was Elizabeth Moody (1737-1814) and she was a minor English poet and critic. Among her poems is “Dr. Johnson’s Ghost,” published in 1786, two years after Johnson’s death, five years before Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. The poem is occasioned by the publication in 1785 of Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which Moody deems a purely mercenary act of self-aggrandizement on Boswell’s part. She has Johnson’s ghost say to Boswell:

“`Behold,’ he cried, ` perfidious man,
This object of my rage:
Bethink thee of the sordid plan
That formed this venal page.

“`Was it to make this base record
That you my friendship sought;
Thus to retain each vagrant word,
Each undigested thought?’”

The eighteenth century was a bruising, unforgiving time to be a writer. Reviews of various sorts – written, spoken, hurled – were often gleefully savage. The ghost accuses Boswell of perfidy, avariciousness and rapaciousness – a felony indictment in Moody’s reckoning. In the final line, in a Poe-esque pre-echo, Boswell is condemned to a future in which he “wrote never more.” Boswell had his everlasting revenge in 1791.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

`Orneriness Downright Bracing'

I was introduced to the novels of Tobias Smollett by a professor hopelessly in love with the humor of the English eighteenth century, a happy malady she passed on to me. I remember her standing in front of the class reading aloud from The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and laughing so hard she coughed and sputtered and wiped her eyes until she could compose herself and resume reading. Her sense of humor was the sort that used to be described as ribald. The hardest I ever saw her laugh was during an end-of-the-academic-year party held in a banquet room above a bar. Another student asked if we ever learn the first name of Mrs. Waters in Fielding’s Tom Jones.  I said, “Ethel,” and the professor howled and dripped.

The edition of Roderick Random we used in class was the 1964 Signet paperback with an afterword by John Barth, whose eighteenth-century pastiche The Sot-Weed Factor had been published in 1960. I recently found a chewed-up copy of this edition, paid my twenty-five cents and wallowed in nostalgia for a novel I haven’t read in forty-five years. Barth gets it right:

“The novel’s humor is mainly of the bedroom-and-chamberpot variety, running especially to more or less sadistic and unimaginative practical jokes. Money and sex Roderick values—enough, at least, to fawn, bribe, intrigue, smuggle, seduce, deceive, dissemble, and defraud to have them—but what he really gets his kicks from is revenge.”

That, in short, is the plot of every Smollett novel. Don’t open Roderick Random expecting Virginia Woolf. Smollett writes brilliantly (few novels move so fast) but, as Barth says, one should be prepared for his “antisentimental candor.” Barth writes that “if one has had a bellyful of Erich Fromm and J.D. Salinger [whose books seem more dated than Smollett’s], one may find Roderick Random’s orneriness downright bracing.” Smollett is one of literature’s virtuosos of complaint. Now I’m rereading The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), an epistolary novel in which one of the letter-writers, Matthew Bramble, is Smollett’s stand-in and gets most of the best lines. Here is a taste of Bramble’s extended set-piece on the horrors of London:

“If I would drink water, I must quaff the mawkish contents of an open aqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement, or swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster. Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons used in mechanics and manufactures, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men, and mixed with the scourings of all the washtubs, kennels, and common sewers, within the bills of mortality.”

Smollett echoes Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” (1710):

“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

`I Felt No Little Elation'

“He received me very courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth.”

That final adjective has a long, elastic history. Today uncouth suggests coarse, crude, ill-mannered, loutish. In Beowulf it meant “unfamiliar, unaccustomed, strange” (OED). By the eighteenth century the word had morphed into “awkward and uncultured in appearance or manners.” Both meanings apply as Boswell uses it to describe Dr. Johnson. The occasion, on May 24, 1763, is Bowell’s first visit to Johnson’s living quarters. Eight days earlier occurred the momentous first meeting of future biographer and subject at the bookshop of Thomas Davies. Boswell was twenty-two; Johnson, fifty-three. In his Life, Boswell observes of that first visit:

“His Chambers were on the first floor of No. 1, Inner-Temple-lane, and I entered them with an impression given me by the Reverend Dr. Blair, of Edinburgh, who had been introduced to him not long before, and described his having ‘found the Giant in his den;’ an expression, which, when I came to be pretty well acquainted with Johnson, I repeated to him, and he was diverted at this picturesque account of himself.”

Often, Johnson was likened, even by friends and admirers, to some extra-human creature, a giant or beast. In his Life, on May 17, 1775, Boswell writes: “Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’” The disparity of body and mind confounds us. An intelligent man ought to look intelligent, but Johnson resembled a shrewd grizzly bear. Boswell nicely captures the dissonance:

“His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.”

We shouldn’t confuse Johnson’s dishabille with the messy affectations of a hipster.  He had other things, not bohemian provocation, on his mind. Johnson’s manners, in fact, were superb, when he wished them to be. He was a true democrat in the moral and social sense, without snobbery or pretensions in a resolutely class-ridden society. In that first meeting he speaks to Boswell of his friend Christopher Smart, the mad poet, and reveals some of his own fears:

“‘Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.’”

Johnson famously adds: “. . .  I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.’” Boswell hardly believes his good fortune:

“Before we parted, he was so good as to promise to favour me with his company one evening at my lodgings; and, as I took my leave, shook me cordially by the hand. It is almost needless to add, that I felt no little elation at having now so happily established an acquaintance of which I had been so long ambitious.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

`I'd Rather Let Them Surprise Me'

The first writer I met was Max Ellison (1914-1985), a bearded Michigan poet who visited my high school in suburban Cleveland in 1969. He had just self-published a collection, The Underbark. I bought a copy for $2.50 and he signed it. Even then I recognized his poems were folksy, sub-Sandburg and not very good, but what I remember is sitting with him in the school library, just the two of us, talking. I was awed to meet a guy who had actually written a book and published it – in hard cover! I have no recollection of the substance of our conversation, except that Ellison encouraged me to write, if that’s what I wanted to do. To a directionless sixteen-year-old, he was a nice man.

I entered the state university in 1970. As an English major I met more writers – Anthony Burgess, Jerzy Kosinski, Stanley Plumly, Gary Snyder and John Hawkes. Burgess was entertaining, a raconteur; Kosinski, a drunken narcissist; Plumly and Snyder, solemn bores; Hawkes, a harsh egotist, another sort of bore. Best of all, I met the short story writer Peter Taylor, a well-mannered gentleman whose work I didn’t yet know but would later admire. I wasn’t aware of it, but the visiting writer industry was well underway on American university campuses by the early seventies. The rubber-stamp format was in place: meet with a class or two, give a public reading, collect a check – a sort of literary one-night stand.

An early variation on this formula is documented in Talks with Authors (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), edited by Charles F. Madden. In 1964, Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., sponsored a course called “American Life as Seen by Contemporary Writers” for its students and those at five historically black colleges. The class, an early precursor to “distance education,” was taught in part by telephone. On Monday, Prof. Harry T. Moore of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale would lecture to the students, introducing the writer being read in class that week at the six schools. On Wednesday, students discussed the assigned work in class with their instructors. On Friday, the author would speak informally by telephone with the students. Among the writers taking part were James T. Farrell, Karl Shapiro, Anne Sexton and Kay Boyle. Transcripts of their conversations make up most of Talks with Authors, and most are predictably dreary. Fortunately, Richard Wilbur was among the participants. He is by far the most cordial, amusing and learned, betraying not a trace of condescension to the students. His manner is commonsensical:

“I think I ought to begin by saying that I’m not a militant member of any school of poets or poetry. I don’t have any poetic theories to sell. I don’t feel any impulse to tell other poets how they ought to write; I’d rather let them surprise me. To listen to some of the critics nowadays, especially those who write for the popular magazines, you’d think the American poetry scene was a battlefield with beats and squares and intermediate types all locked in deadly combat.”

Wilbur says the best American poets have always been “independent operators—what they call wildcatting in Texas,” which describes his own practice. He goes on:

“I do, of course, have opinions on other things besides poetry. I’m for God and Lyndon Johnson and conservation and civil rights, city planning, the nationalization of the railroads, and a few other things. However, I think it’s not generally for opinions and ideas that poets are interesting. Some [deadly word] poets are intelligent men, and they are entitled to their thoughts, but abstract argument and intellectual pioneering are not the special function of a poet.”

Wilbur reads and discusses three of his poems – “Seed Leaves,” “Beasts” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” Some of the discussion by students and teachers is tiresome, but that’s not Wilbur’s fault. Poetry, good or bad, brings out the pretentiousness in a lot of people, especially those who pursue “meaning” like predators. Wilbur remains gracious:

“What poetry does with ideas is to pull them down off the plane of abstraction and submerge them in sensibility: embody them in people and things, and surround them with a proper weather of feeling—an appropriate weather of feeling—to let you know how it would feel to dwell in the presence of a certain idea—how the world would look if you had a certain idea in mind. It helps you to respond not merely with the intellect but with the whole being.”