Monday, March 30, 2015

`Willingness to Hear'

Susan Glickman, a Canadian writer new to me, describes opinions as “the fast food of the pseudo-intelligentsia,” but doesn’t go quite far enough. Opinion is no longer the Big Mac exclusively of the nattering classes. Everyone seems to be spouting off with little provocation, and because nothing euthanizes true conversation faster than rabidly expressed opinions, good talk, if not extinct, is on the endangered-species list. Much noise, little thought. One strives to be indulgent and polite, but when a stranger’s opening gambit is “You know what I think?”, the only honorable reply is “No, and I don't care.” Glickman writes: 

“Opinions give me the heebie-jeebies, and opinions seem to be, increasingly, what people expect writers to have. And I don’t mean opinions about books, which are, after all, one’s business if one is a writer. I mean opinions about daily life, or politics, or the environment; the kind of opinions people seem compelled to share with each other on talk shows and editorial pages . . .” 

Most opinions are driven not by wit, or a desire to elucidate or amuse, but by that dirty little boy on the inside who scrawls on the bathroom wall. Glickman, whose post was shared with me by a reader in Toronto, puts it nicely: “I found myself wondering why people always find it so hard to say, `I don’t know.’  Why are we more ashamed of not being able to express an opinion than of expressing a stupid one?” Because the ego, even more than nature, abhors a vacuum. A confession of ignorance is more shaming than a dignified silence. In his essay on conversation, The Rambler #188, Dr. Johnson puts it like this: “The modest man satisfies himself with peaceful silence, which all his companions are candid enough to consider as proceeding not from inability to speak, but willingness to hear.” 

Johnson’s observation reminds me of a variation on an old joke: What do hemorrhoids and opinions have in common?  Sooner or later, every asshole gets one.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

`Transform Me to a Piece of Cheese'

The aproned clerk removed the towel from the cutting board and revealed six wedges of cheese. They looked innocent enough, and only one was varicosed with blue. My youngest son is a budding trencherman but his tastes in cheese are conventional. No, not Velveeta, but grocery cheddar and Swiss define the boundaries of his palate. He is twelve, and old enough for his father to introduce him to some of the world’s still-legal pleasures.

My boss had recommended Houston Dairymaids, the city’s only cheese shop, located in a mostly Mexican neighborhood. Eighty percent of their business is dealing wholesale to restaurants, the clerk informed me, but their retail outlet is designed to inspire loyalty among Houston’s caseophiles. They greet customers with an orientation session, consisting of six cheeses and a brief lecture on each. I immediately had my eye on the Stilton, a product of Vermont, but David said no dice. We settled on two raw-milk cheeses: Granbury Gold, a Texas creation from cow’s milk, and a faultless San Andreas of sheep’s milk, made in California. We sampled olives and various exotic and expensive crackers (I should have brought Tupperware), passed on the wine, and added two pretzel buns to the take. 

G.K. Chesterton was wrong when he declared: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” The Canadian furniture-maker James McIntyre (1827-1906) built a poetic career based on the celebration of coagulated milk protein. Among his effusions is “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing over 7,000 Pounds.” Less circumscribed in subject matter than McIntyre was Shakespeare. The word shows up thirteen times in the plays, often modified by “toasted.” Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor gets one of the best: “Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he / transform me to a piece of cheese.”

Saturday, March 28, 2015

`The Last Sounds He Heard'

One of modernity’s minor horrors: the car alarm. Some twenty years ago, while helping a friend move from her apartment in Albany, N.Y., I leaned against a car parked near the rental truck, and my touch set off a blast of hysterical ambulance shrieks. I jumped like one of Galvani’s frogs, expecting my first heart attack. The car in question was no prize – a Toyota of the same model and year I was driving, but with a drabber paint job. Who would bother stealing such a crate? That was my introduction to a new expression of vanity. Ned Rorem shares my aversion. In Lies: A Diary 1986-1999 (Counterpoint, 2000), the first volume I have read of his many-volumed diary, is an entry dated March 23, 1997. Rorem imagines a peculiarly modern urban indignity: 

“The last sounds he heard as he lay dying were the throb-throb of the garbage truck down in the street, and the mindless unstoppable screech of a car alarm set off by the truck’s vibration.” 

A composer’s vision of hell. One year and twenty-six pages later, on March 27, 1998, he writes: 

“A dream as complex as all of Tolstoy transpires in a millisecond, into which the harm of car alarms intrudes and wakens you. I’ve not had a good night’s sleep in thirty years. The astronaut dreams he is walking on the moon.” 

And another dream-like torment, on April 10, 1995: 

“In the dead of night the phone rings, but no one’s there. Then rings again, while car alarms clang incessantly throughout our puritan city.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

`You're Not Those, Are You?"

I knew Yiddish was rich in words to describe the infinitely fine gradations of human foolishness, from the long-domesticated schlemiel and shlimazel through shmendrik, yutz, shnook and draykop. Those are merely the synonyms for fool known to one non-Jewish American. But foolishness is pan-human and generously distributed. No group or language has a lock on it. Consider the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009), the first thesaurus to arrange words by meaning in the order of their first recorded usage. Last year, the linguist David Crystal published Words in Time and Place, a sampler drawn from the Thesaurus and arranged according to fifteen themes, including “From dizzy to numpty: Words for a Fool.” Crystal gives ninety-three examples, and notes they do not include the OED’s forty words in the “weak intellect” category and more than two-hundred under “blockhead.” He writes in his introduction to the category: 

“The most creative period for `fool’-words was the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which introduced almost half the words in this chapter’s list. The least . . . was the `polite’ eighteenth century, which provides only two examples — a dip which can’t be entirely explained by limited lexicographical coverage of that period. Things pick up again in the nineteenth century, with novelists reflecting everyday usage and journalists reporting it, and this continues in the twentieth century. . .” 

The first word in Crystal’s list is dizzy, a direct borrow from Old English. It’s a noun, not an adjective, and simply means “fool.” What follows is a selection from Crystal's list arranged chronologically and chosen because they amuse me: God’s ape, saddle-goose, hoddypeak, goff, ninnyhammer, plume of feathers, gowk, fooliaminy, dosser-head, hulver-head, Jack Adams, mud, suck-egg, wump, B.F. (for Bloody Fool), gobdaw and schmoll (“thought to be from Yiddish shmol, `narrow’”). Mysteriously, Crystal omits three of my favorite entries in the English taxonomy of fools. In The Bank Dick (1940), that other great linguist, W.C. Fields, in the role of Egbert Sousé ("accent grave over the e"), says to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (played by Grady Sutton): “Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl. You’re not those, are you?” 

[Be sure to consult Crystal’s book if only for the chapter devoted to synonyms for drunk, including reeling ripe, owl-eyed, suckey, muckibus, blootered, elephant trunk (Cockney rhyming slang), spiflicated, swacked, stocious, tired and emotional, and rat-arsed. Disappointingly, no shit-faced.]

Thursday, March 26, 2015

`Teach Us Prose Writers How to Write'

“If it were up to me, no one would be allowed to write prose without having read—and preferably also tried writing—a certain amount of poetry. Beyond the pleasure it gives, it teaches you how to husband your words, how to make them say things more lapidarily and graphically, and, above all, how to make them sing.” 

Like many benignly misguided young men, John Simon aspired to be a poet. According to his introduction to Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Ivan R. Dee, 2001), he penned his first verse at age six, in German, and continued in other languages as he acquired them – Hungarian, Serbian, French and English. He published only those in English, in the Paris Review and other journals in the nineteen-fifties, but never as a book. In English, Simon became a critic, one of the smartest, funniest and most entertaining around. Simon was usually good in his own right, especially when writing about movies, but also in contrast to the other name-brand film critic of the time, Pauline Kael, whose taste was deplorable, whose prose was a mess and who has been beatified by admirers since her death. Simon continues in his introduction to Dreamers of Dreams: 

“It may sound presumptuous, or even preposterous, to assert that there can be music in the review of some humdrum movie or run-of-the-mill play. But if you choose your words lovingly, pay attention to rhythm and cadence, know how to use simile and metaphor—not to mention other tropes—you can enrich and enliven your prose. What you write may still be hogwash, but at least it will be attractive hogwash.” 

As befits a polyglot, Simon, who will turn ninety in May, writes in Dreamers of Dreams about Rilke, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Celan, but he also covers Oscar Wilde and E.R. Dodds as poets, the art of translation, James Merrill and the banalities of the so-called New York School (Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler). He includes a review of Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters (1993) that is a model of effective quotation, and concludes of that poet: “He is witty about everything, including himself, whom he never tires of lampooning. A curmudgeon, then, but an oddly likable one. . .Griping about the world, deriding others, depreciating himself, or just telling about daily doings and dawdlings, he is never deserted by humor.” 

In his introduction, Simon devotes five and a half of its nine pages to a brief, informal anthology of work by little-known poets he has admired. Most of the names were new to me: Humbert Wolfe, Harold Monro, John Pudney, A.S.J.Tessimond and Edward N. Horn. The last was American, the others English. Horn is the most obscure and in some ways the most intriguing of these poets, and Simon says he was “as unknown as it is possible to be.” His only publication was “a slender, privately printed volume drolly entitled Poems for Small Apartments” (1941). Horn was “a businessman whom I once met at the house of a high school friend whose relative he was.” Two of his poems appeared in the July 1940 issue of Poetry, and Simon includes two of Horn’s “untitled miniatures.” Here is the first: 

“In the tub we soak our skin
And drowse and meditate within. 

“The mirror clouds, the vapors rise,
We view our toes with sad surprise; 

“The toes that mother kissed and counted,
The since neglected and unwanted.” 

Here is the other: 

“Pussycat sits on a chair
Implacably with acid stare. 

“Those who early loved in vain
Use the cat to try again 

“And test their bruised omnipotence
Against the cat’s austere defense.” 

The second is especially good, suspended somewhere between light verse and J.V. Cunningham. One of Simon’s virtues as a critic is the generous elasticity of his tastes. Though he admits that “there are not many modern poets worth writing about at length,” he makes room for Horn in an unlikely guest list including Paul Valéry, Richard Wilbur, Eugenio Montale, Zbigniew Herbert and the “charming bard” Don Marquis. He says: “I do think poets are needed by a society to keep language adventurous, to write pithy and pregnant things that people can carry about with them without benefit of briefcases or even pockets. And perhaps also to teach us prose writers how to write.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

`To Be Somewhere Else'

Asked by an interviewer whether he ever felt “the need to be at the centre of things,” Philip Larkin replied “Oh no, I feel very much the need to be on the periphery of things.” Reflexively contrary Larkin? I suppose, but a writer (or reader) feels no need to be at the center of anything except his own closely observed little kingdom, somewhere in the provinces, never in the capital. The center, after all, cannot hold. Out here, it’s quiet, at least most of the time, unignorable distractions are fewer, and a guy has no trouble concentrating while he lets his imagination wander. One cannot write, or read, in a crowd, and things get crowded at the center. A new reader of Anecdotal Evidence in my home state of Ohio, picking up on a suggestion from L.E. Sissman, writes:  

“I have been a rereader all my life.  When I read a good book when I was 6 or 7 I immediately turned it over and started the first of many re-reads.  I still judge books by whether I think they are worth rereading.  I also have found myself out of tune with most contemporary literature and the most excited and exciting reviews in the NY Times Book Review have led me to read books that were a waste of time.” 

Spoken like a true periphery-dweller. My reader goes on to say she read “broadly” until the age of undeniable youthlessness – that is, forty -- then focused on “those authors who most impressed me.” Readerly pressures when we’re young are generally external, whether from parents, peers, teachers or critics. One wishes to appear up-to-date and make no faux pas of fashion. You also feel the need to orient yourself: Who wrote what and when? Who read whom and why? Literature takes on a narrative of its own, a vast web of connections, overt and otherwise. With time, being hip, earning the tastemaker’s seal of approval, grows tiresome. In short, you learn to read for pleasure, which is one of the reasons you started reading in the first place. By now you know what’s crap and what’s gold, and the essence of true criticism can be reduced to this gem by J.V. Cunningham: “It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.” One seeks an amenable otherness in writers, not carbon copies of pre-masticated orthodoxies. Guy Davenport says it was while reading Jules Verne, of all people, that he came to this conclusion, in “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996): 

“I had never before felt how lucky and privileged I am, not so much for being literate, a state of grace that might in different circumstances be squandered on tax forms or law books, but for being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

`The Natural Flights of the Human Mind'

For a long time, the title poem of Philip Larkin’s 1974 collection High Windows left me disappointed. The opening stanza of “High Windows” with its famously deployed “fuck” seemed unworthy of him, a cheap shot. By the early seventies, the word had gained a currency unimaginable a decade earlier. One heard it casually uttered in songs and university classrooms (by students and professors), domesticated enough to show up in Hollywood films if not yet on television. Larkin was not above bathroom or locker room humor, but in his letters I never held profanity against him. It seemed perfectly natural between him and a friend like Kingsley Amis. That’s how we talk, and surely letters (and emails) carry on conversation by other means. Likewise, the “fuck” in “This Bethe Verse” seemed precisely calibrated, le mot juste for the occasion. 

Perhaps it was the overtly sexual use of the word in “High Windows” that made it seem gratuitous and discordant. In “This Be the Verse,” “fuck” is playing its familiar, all-purpose role in modern English. I’ve lived with “High Windows” for forty years and finally have come to terms with Larkin’s use of the word. He changes the poem’s diction and tone subtly across five stanzas. At first he’s glib and colloquial. Not a word in the opening stanza would be unfamiliar to “a couple of kids” today, except possibly “diaphragm” (or “paradise”). Is this the leering of a dirty old man? Is Philip Larkin writing a poem of envy about the newly liberated youth of the nineteen-sixties? Not quite. There’s a sad knowingness in that slide between stanzas: “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” Like a ventriloquist, Larkin then puts words in the mouth of a middle-aged man envying the speaker’s younger self – words that surely were never uttered. At last, in the final stanza, the rhythm and diction grow up and take on the tone of an older, sadder observer:          

“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
 The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” 

The poem is about expectations and their delusory nature. The young are filled with hope, and should be, and who are we to take it from them? With little basis in the text, I’ve always read the final stanza as set in a church sanctuary. “High Windows” is not about sex after all. It confirms what Dr. Johnson wrote in The Rambler #2, published on this date, March 24, in 1750: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”