Sunday, February 19, 2017

`Things One Must Not Leave Undone'

Today we are in Austin to watch my oldest son run his first marathon. Few settings could be more alien but I’m curious to see how Josh will run 26 miles, 385 yards. He’s twenty-nine, and started running only a year ago, but is gifted with an ironclad work ethic. If he does something, he does it. No skimping, no half-measures, no distractions. I wish I had been like that at twenty-nine. The run in Austin reminds me of a poem by Guy Davenport -- “At Marathon” (Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980, 1986) -- just as Josh reminds me of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.:

“Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?”

Moore visited Greece in 1962 with her Bryn Mawr classmates Frances and Norvelle Browne. She stopped at Marathon. Davenport would admire the reverence of such a gesture. He refers in his final line to Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” in which she says “how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality, / this is eternity.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

`A Genteelish Toothpick Case'

In 1782, William Cowper published his first book, cumbersomely titled Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. In a letter to his stalwart friend, the Rev. William Unwin, written on April Fool’s Day, Cowper thanks him for publicizing the publication: “I could not have found a better trumpeter.” When not insane, Cowper was the most wittily gracious of men. He never says “thank you” when a more baroque expression of gratitude is handy. Two sentences later, and extending the musical metaphor, Cowper writes:

“Methinks I see you with the long tube at your mouth, proclaiming to your numerous connections my poetical merits and at proper intervals levelling it at Olney, and pouring into my ear the welcome sound of their approbation. I need not encourage you to proceed, your breath will never fail in such a cause; and thus encouraged, I myself perhaps may proceed also, and when the versifying fit returns produce another volume.”

Cowper was a fragile soul. His sense of self-worth was brittle at best. Writers tend to be children when it comes to wanting attention and approval. Cowper thanks Unwin for recognizing this need. He goes on to feign indifference to Edward Thurlow of the Inner Temple, who had become Lord Chancellor in 1778. Thurlow has said nothing about Cowper’s book. He feels unjustly snubbed, calling it a “mortification” -- but pretends otherwise. Cowper writes:
 
“. . . Mr. Newton tells me that my book is likely to run, spread, and prosper; that the grave cannot help smiling, and the gay are struck with the truth of it; and that it is likely to find its way into [King George III’s] hands . . . Now, if the King should fall in love with my muse, and with you for her sake, such an event would make us ample amends for the Chancellor's indifference, and you might be the first divine that ever reached a mitre, from the shoulders of a poet.”

Cowper launches into the obligatory writer’s rant, leavened with humor, against reviewers: “[They] are such fiery Socinians that they have less charity for a man of my avowed principles than a Portuguese for a Jew.” Spend a few hours unwrapping those metaphors. Cowper’s on a roll. He suggests to Unwin that each of them write a book and have the other review it (which, of course, is how book reviewing has always worked). More shenanigans follow, and a garden update, but my favorite part of Cowper’s letter is the coda, the post scriptum not preceded by a P.S.:

“If your short stay in town will afford you an opportunity, I should be glad if you would buy me a genteelish toothpick case. I shall not think half a guinea too much for it; only it must be one that will not easily break. If second-hand, perhaps it may be the better.”

Cowper was a man of modest needs, but with a taste for accessorizing. Elsewhere, he asked for a stock-buckle, a new hat (“not a round slouch, which I abhor, but a smart well-cocked fashionable affair”) and a cuckoo clock (a penchant he shared with Wordsworth).  

Friday, February 17, 2017

`The Horrible Sanity of the Institution'

Where would I have been without libraries? Scarcely literate. I never had a lot of money as a kid. My parents lived through the Great Depression and were tight. I learned early not to be a spendthrift (or miser). To this day I know a twinge in my gut when I shell out cash for a book. Online purchases make the pain abstract, so I remind myself to be strong. The other day, after much internal debate, I ordered the fat (624 pages) critical edition of Basil Bunting’s Poems recently published by Faber & Faber. While I was on the web site, mouse in hand, I almost ordered C.H. Sisson’s translation of the Divine Comedy, which I read last year – thanks to the library – and Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems, another library loan, but I was strong, at least until book-hunger strikes again.

Later this month we’ll observe the centenary of Anthony Burgess, a writer who stirs in me mixed reactions. I met him once, in April 1971, at Bowling Green State University. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman and Burgess, at fifty-five, was approaching the zenith of his fame. Less than a year later Stanley Kubrick would release A Clockwork Orange, his botched adaptation of Burgess’ 1962 novel. He read from his upcoming novel, M/F, and I was star-struck. I still admire Burgess’ industriousness, his learning and linguistic verve. I read Earthly Powers (1980) several years ago and enjoyed it. I’ve read little that he published after that, but he was an old-fashioned bookman, a solid nut-and-bolts professional. In person he was charming in an Irish sort of way, a gifted talker and literary raconteur. In Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (1968), Burgess collects the essay “What’s All This Fuss about Libraries?” He doesn’t like them. They are “monstrously unnecessary.” He writes:

“I’ve never been able to think of a library as a thing to be used, nibbled or eaten piecemeal. A library encloses, and any one of its items seeks to possess the brain that approaches it: the things are alive and malevolent.”

I have never felt this way. There’s nowhere I’m happier or more at home than in a library; more, even, than in a bookstore. I still feel that little-boy tingle of greed and incipient satiation as I walk through the front door. Libraries suggest Borgesian universality. Thanks to Dewey or the Library of Congress, I can act on any bookish whim, find any volume I want, even if it means filling out an interlibrary loan request. The internet, invented by Borges, makes book location and acquisition even more effortless. But Burgess partially redeems himself:

“I prefer my library at home—and I mean a library, not just bookshelves in the sitting-room. I've bought these books, or, if they’re review copies, neglected to sell them: they can be ravished, defaced, spent pagemeal in the privy, arranged in disorder, lost and found again, used. But there ought not to be too many of them: that way, the shelves mount to the ceiling, library steps have to be imported, a simple classification system begs to be given a trial. Soon you start filling gaps, hungering after completeness, throwing out tattered paperbacks, judging things you once loved unworthy. That way madness lies, or rather the horrible sanity of the institution.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

`No Matter How Few Seemed to Notice'

Whether barbershop anecdote or a story by Chekhov, the brief narrative is best suited to the lives of loners, “isolatoes” (Melville’s word), drifters and others never quite at home. In theory, one could tell a good story about a Congressman (come to think of it, Ward Just did), but the lives of the obscure and forgotten, and those on the margin (not necessarily in the social-justice sense), seem best adapted to short, tightly focused accounts. A novel would stretch and pad and thus dilute the essentials. Novels are social; stories, personal. Frank O’Connor in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1963), says short stories, unlike novels, are characterized by “an intense awareness of human loneliness.” Or at least aloneness.

Before he wrote poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson tried his hand at prose fiction, and even chose a title for a possible collection of these pieces: Scattered Lives. (That might have served Joyce instead of Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson instead of Winesburg, Ohio.) They were never published and only fragments survive. Robinson turned to poetry without giving up narrative, and 1896 self-published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before.  In “Calverly’s” (The Town Down the River, 1910), Robinson recycles the title of his abandoned fiction collection: 

“No fame delays oblivion
For them, but something yet survives:
A record written fair, could we
But read the book of scattered lives.”

The title refers to a tavern in New York City, and Robinson memorializes his drinking companions who have died. Throughout his verse, he strives to preserve the memory of those for whom “no fame delays oblivion.” Robinson is one of the great storytellers in our literature. Everyone knows the stories of “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.” “Mr. Flood’s Party” (Collected Poems, 1920) was famous in its day but less so now. Eben Flood has walked into town to buy a jug. He’s an old man who lives alone. He pauses in the dark, places the jug on the ground, “With trembling care, knowing that most things break,” and talks to himself. Flood addresses Flood:       

“`Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’”

Critics have dragged in the Rubáiyát (“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou”) and La Chanson de Roland to explicate a poem about a drunk falling off the wagon. We’re witnessing what’s known in recovery parlance as a “slip,” and potentially a fatal one, given Flood’s advanced age. The self-addressed monologue is histrionic and typical of alcoholics, who like to dramatize their psychodramas. Flood sings, as many of us have, when primed with whiskey. Who are we to condemn a superannuated drunk who lives alone for taking a drink?

“He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.”

What might Robinson have made of his story if he had told it in prose? Verse was the preferable option. Scott Donaldson writes in the introduction to his Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007):

“Usually he took for his subjects those who had failed in life and love. He wrote about the derelict and downtrodden, the old and bereft. Who wanted to read about successful aldermen, anyway? Those who led `scattered lives’ interested him, not least because for a long time he thought of himself as one of them. Recognition came late to Robinson. He spent two decades struggling  to get his poems published, surviving on the edge of poverty. Drink and depression dogged his days, yet he was sustained by a persistent belief in his calling—that he had been put on the earth to write poems. It was the only thing he could do, and he meant to do it, no matter how few seemed to notice.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

`It Pains a Man When ’t Is Kept Close'

I wish I had known Sir John Suckling’s poem, sometimes called “Love’s Offence”, when I was young and too easily infatuated. It might have served as prophylaxis for the more delicate sentiments:

“If when Don Cupids dart
Doth wound a heart,
    we hide our grief
    and shun relief;
The smart increaseth on that score;
For wounds unsearcht but ranckle more.”

On this day after St. Valentine’s Day, obligatory card and candy consumed, it’s good to take a refresher course in the booby traps of love. It’s not all nectar and ambrosia. Suckling suggests we suck it up – a wounded heart, that is – and put a lid on it. No Swain, no gain, as the boys say down at the gym. The Cavalier poet goes on:

“Then if we whine, look pale,
And tell our tale,
    men are in pain
    for us again;
So, neither speaking doth become
The Lovers state, nor being dumb.

Suckling discourages both “sharing,” as moderns would call it, and also shutting up. So what’s a lover to do?

“When this I do descry,
Then thus think I,
    love is the fart
    of every heart:
It pains a man when ’t is kept close,
And others doth offend, when ’t is let loose.”

In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson cited that final stanza in his entry for fart, which he defined rather delicately as “wind from behind.” J. Geils articulated Suckling’s insight for contemporary sensibilities.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

`What You Hear Is a New Voice'

Without peeking online, read the following stanza and make an educated guess as to its author:

“My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.”

The speaker is a forthright realist but no stranger to nostalgia. He’s old enough to have a past and to weigh its bitterness and charms. The meter recalls a ballad, which primes us for a story, not a lyrical revelation. Our author knows something and wants to share it. Already he has told us sadness precedes and perhaps follows pleasure, which is how we have come to understand Abraham Lincoln, the melancholy president and poet. That he is a masterful writer of prose is old news. In “Lincoln, the Literary Genius” (later retitled “Lincoln the Writer”), originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 for the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Jacques Barzun reminds us:

“The qualities of Lincoln's literary art--precision, vernacular ease, rhythmical virtuosity, and elegance—may at a century’s remove seem alien to our tastes. Certainly we vehemently promote their opposites: our sensibility cherishes the indistinct. Yet if we consider one continuing strain in our tradition, we cannot without perverseness question the relevance to the present generation of Lincoln’s literary art. His example, plainly, helped to break the monopoly of the dealers in literary plush.”

“My Childhood Home I See Again” is hardly plush-free, but its verses, if more conventional than Lincoln’s prose, are moving and revealing of the man. The editors of the Collected Works (nine volumes, Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955) date the completion of the poem to Feb. 25, 1846. Two years earlier, Lincoln had campaigned in southwestern Indiana for the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. Lincoln hadn’t visited his childhood home, where his mother and sister were buried, in fifteen years. One day before finishing the poem, Lincoln sent a copy of his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Mortality,” to Andrew Johnston, a Quincy, Ill., attorney. At Lincoln’s request, in May 1847, Johnston anonymously published several of Lincoln’s poems, including the first two cantos of “My Childhood Home I See Again,” in the Quincy Whig.

In a letter to Johnston, Lincoln described southern Indiana “as unpoetical as any spot on the earth; but still seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry; though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question.” Lincoln devotes the second part of his poem to a pure “murder ballad” story. He was present when a childhood friend, Matthew Gentry, tried to murder his parents. He was judged insane and confined to an institution. Lincoln tells Johnston that when he visited his childhood home in 1844, Gentry “was still lingering in this wretched condition.” Lincoln, whose favorite poets were Shakespeare, Pope, Burns and Byron, crafts a self-revealing melodrama:

“And when at length, tho’ drear and long,
Time smoothed thy fiercer woes,
How plaintively thy mournful song
Upon the still night rose.

“I’ve heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
Far distant, sweet, and lone--
The funeral dirge, it ever seemed
Of reason dead and gone.”

Like Dr. Johnson, Lincoln lived in fear of madness. The book to read on this subject is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (2005). Lincoln never completed his poems. He wrote two additional stanzas, perhaps the start of a third canto, and then abandoned it:

“And now away to seek some scene
Less painful than the last—
With less of horror mingled in
The present and the past.

“The very spot where grew the bread
That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
And feel I’m part of thee!”

The final stanza reads like a thrown-together, obligatory wrap-up. It’s a shame but Lincoln had more pressing matters. Barzun suggests we read Lincoln as though he were a new writer unfamiliar to us: 

“Pretend that you know none of the persons and incidents, nothing of the way the story embedded in these pages comes out. Your aim is to see a life unfold and to descry the character of the man in his own words, written, most of them, not to be published, but to be privately read and felt. If you are at all sensitive to words and to the breath that blows through them, you will soon be aware that what you hear is a new voice.”  

Monday, February 13, 2017

`Mouldering in the Archive'

Another blogger wrote a little guiltily to confess she could never “get” the work of Ivan Turgenev. I eased her mind a bit by admitting that the Russian had always left me chilled if not cold. When I was young and easily swayed by fashion and reputation, I assumed the failing was mine. Henry James called him “adorable.” Sherwood Anderson claimed A Sportsman’s Notebook as a decisive influence on Winesburg, Ohio, and Nabokov savored the purple patches he found in the same book, though his final judgment in On RussianLiterature (1980) was more dismissive:

“Incidentally, Turgenev, as most writers of his time, is far too explicit, leaving nothing to the reader's intuition; suggesting and then ponderously explaining what the suggestion was. The labored epilogues of his novels and long short stories are painfully artificial, the author doing his best to satisfy fully the reader's curiosity regarding the respective destinies of the characters in a manner that can hardly be called artistic.”

That confirms my experience as a reader. Over-explicitness is always annoying in a writer. It implies a condescending lack of trust in the reader’s abilities, an assumption that the reader is too dim to fend for himself. I’ve just found an unexpected source who backs me up on this. Here is Chekhov in Yalta on this date, Feb. 13, in 1902, writing to his wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhova:

“I’ve been reading Turgenev. Only one eighth or one tenth of what he wrote will survive; in twenty-five to thirty-five years’ time all the rest will be mouldering in the archive.”

[See Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin, 2004.]