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.”

Monday, May 22, 2017

`And Still Make Us Wish for More'

Janet Flanner (1892-1978), The New Yorker’s longtime correspondent in Paris who used the penname Genêt, is a negligible writer. She was prolific and covered many of the twentieth-century’s biggest stories, but never transcended the limits of journalism. Hers was not an interesting mind, and her books have documentary, not literary, worth. In 1980, the composer and music critic Virgil Thomson wrote a retrospective review of eight of them for The New York Review of Books, which has been collected in The State of Music & Other Writings (Library of America, 2016). Thomas was a friend of Flanner’s and is tactful in his judgments. But near the conclusion of his review he makes an interesting attempt to distinguish literature from other sorts of writing:

“Was that writing literature? She hoped and rather thought it might be. If literature is something you can read several times and still keep your mind on, then for me Janet Flanner is exactly that. So I keep her books around me. But if they are literature, what is their species? Poetry they are not, nor fiction nor formal history nor, after the war freed her from wisecracks, was she a professional humorist, though her Midwestern ways [Flanner was born in Indiana] with common sense and with debunking the proud made her cousin to Mark Twain and to George Ade.”

You can sense Thomson’s quandary. He wishes to be loyal to a recently dead acquaintance, but his critical rigor won’t quite permit it. Flanner has nothing in common with Twain and Ade but the English language and a Midwestern birth. I recall her prose as plodding, tuned to fashion and nothing like the work of her fellow New Yorker staffers, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. Thomson tries again:

“The format of her own writing is closer, I think, to an English model. Let us call her a diarist. Columnist won’t do; she was personally too reticent for that. Let us think of her perhaps with Samuel Pepys, who could go on and on about London, and still make us wish for more.”

That’s not the Pepys I remember, nor the Flanner. Loyalty ranks high among the virtues, except in criticism.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

`Something to Outlive Him'

I see from my note at the front that I bought Anthony Kerrigan’s translation of Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations (1912) on Jan. 16, 1975. I had recently started working as a clerk in Kay’s Books in Cleveland, and had already stockpiled stacks of books I wanted to buy, stowing them under the counter on the second floor. The occult connections among the books we read often remain obscure. Somehow, I associate my awareness of Unamuno’s books with Beckett and Kierkegaard, whose work I had read fairly thoroughly. I then knew little of Spain’s literature beyond Cervantes, and I came to him by way of Smollett and Sterne. Unamuno is utterly unlike the author of Don Quixote, and I would not have known enough to characterize either writer as “quintessentially Spanish.” Unamuno I recognized as a true man of letters, gifted in the writing of novels and philosophy. I had already read his Shandean novel Mist (1914).

Clive James has prompted me to read The Tragic Sense of Life again. I was looking for something else in Cultural Amnesia (2007) when I noticed the chapter he devotes to Unamuno. James’ method is interesting. Each chapter bears the name of some contributor to culture, whether Miles Davis or Josef Goebbels, but that serves merely as the spark. These are not potted biographies. Some chapters hardly mention their nominal subjects, and proceed to follow whatever hobbyhorse James chooses to ride. The Unamuno chapter begins with a brief outline of Unamuno’s life, emphasizing the spiritual crisis he suffered in 1897 and his troubles with Franco’s regime. The key sentence: “His mental independence, however, was incurable.” That alone makes Unamuno a rare and very attractive sort of writer.

James next digresses on the subject of reviewing books. His career advice recalls Cyril Connolly’s. About the man of letters he writes: “His main asset is to be well read, but if he spends too much time reading secondary books only for the sake of reviewing them, he will be adding to his initial stock of useful erudition. Worse, he will be adding much that is useless.” And this:

“Anyone faced with the deadly task of first reading, then writing about, a book he would not ordinarily have read in the first place, is brutally reminded of what he was really born to do: read books that can be felt, from page to page, to do nothing for his wallet but everything for the spirit.”

James endorse underlinings and annotations. “Unamuno’s pages cry out to be defaced.” True enough. “At his potent best he could put the aphorisms one after the other like the wagons of an American freight train stretching from one prairie railhead to the next.” Here’s an example from Chap. III, “The Hunger for Immortality,” in The Tragic Sense of Life:

“If a man tells you that he writes, paints, sculpts, or sings for his own amusement, and at the same time makes his work public, then he lies: he lies if he puts his signature to his writing, painting, sculpture or song. He is intent, at the very least, on leaving some shadow of his spirit behind, something to outlive him.”

Saturday, May 20, 2017

`To Preserve Something that Seems Important'

One of the joys of forgetfulness is unexpectedly remembering something previously erased from memory. In a forgotten notebook from 1994 I found the notes I made while reading Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (University of Arkansas Press, 1990). I remembered reading the book but few specifics about its contents, just a general sense of agreement with Steele’s thesis and admiration for so much learning gently and entertainingly deployed. Then I found this transcribed passage from Page 294, the last page in the volume:

“What is most essential to human life and to its continuance remains a love of nature, an enthusiasm for justice, a readiness of good humor, a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy, an interest in our past, a hope for our future and above all, a desire that others should have the opportunity and encouragement to share in those qualities. An art of measured speech nourishes these qualities in a way no other pursuit can.”

On one level, Steele is talking about himself. In him I sense a natural-born celebrator – not naïve but never distracted by the world’s imperfections. He’s no whiner and he seldom sours. The passage reminds me, in its gratitude and good sense, of this rhapsody in Charles Lamb’s essay “New Year’s Eve”:

“I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer.”

I might quibble with what’s missing from Steele’s list, obvious things – family, friends, books – but maybe they are subsumed under what’s already there. Especially I appreciate “a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy.” I could make a catalogue of the people I know who are immune to that gift. What a marvel: a happy writer. When an interviewer asked Steele, “What do you enjoy most about being a poet?” he replied:

“I suppose writing. That might seem a redundant or obvious answer, but I enjoy writing. I enjoy the process of trying to give something that has arrested me, or something that I love, stability and, I hope, lasting shape. Much of what I write about is written out of a desire to preserve something that seems important, an idea or an image or an experience.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

`Often It Is a Versified Sneer'

I wish I had read this a long time ago: “In writing epigrams, most poets gain control over their natural tendency to blab,” which is followed by this sentence: “Besides, an epigram permits them to get a gripe off their chests.” As bloat proliferates, short forms look more attractive as a corrective to congenital logorrhea. The author is X.J. Kennedy in “Gists, Piths, and Poison-Pills: The Art of the Epigram” (An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, 2002).

I’m no epigrammist – no poet at all – but the lesson is useful and has applications in everything we write, prose or verse. Even bloggers, a gassy, sentimental bunch, can learn to be ruthless with words. Concision encourages logic and wit and discourages blather. Here is A.E. Housman (More Poems, 1936) on the Boer War:     

“Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.”

Epigrams often come barbed in their final line. They resemble jokes more than sonnets, and permit no flab. Here is “Avant-garde” by John Frederick Nims (The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2002), in which the sentiment is admirable but the punch line is at once heavy-handed and diffuse:

“`A dead tradition! Hollow shell!
Outworn, outmoded—time it fell.
Let’s make it new. Rebel! Rebel!’
Said cancer-cell to cancer-cell.”

The master of the epigram in English is J.V. Cunningham. Kennedy elsewhere says of him, “you had to respect a man of his sour integrity,” a quality almost unique to Cunningham, at least since the death of Walter Savage Landor. Here is his “Epigram 23” from the sequence "Epigrams: A Journal" (The Judge is Fury, 1947):  

“Dark thoughts are my companions. I have wined
With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find
Love is my enemy, dispassionate hate
Is my redemption though it come too late,
Though I come to it with a broken head
In the cat-house of the dishevelled dead.”

Ours is an age of euphemism and its demented cousin, obscenity. Both modes lie. No wonder readers find Cunningham inhospitable. The harshness of his truth is corrosive. Let Kennedy defend the epigram and, by implication, Cunningham, its most agile practitioner:

“The epigram is brief, closely packed, and single-minded in making its point. Often it is a versified sneer. From that definition, you might think it a mere nasty little bug, deserving only to be stepped on. In fact, some poetry editors hold that view. They are the kind who prefer godawfully serious poems, and mistake length in poetry for importance. Yet when it clicks, an epigram in verse can be memorable, funny—even beautiful, to anyone who can relish the deft placing of words inside tight space.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

`A Dog with a Reddish Coat'

Tuesday evening after dinner, I sat on the couch by the front window, reading, when I noticed a stranger walking down the street. The oddly misshapen head and face were unmistakable. The pit bull paused to urinate on one of our rosemary plants and, when finished, kicked up a storm of dirt and pine needles. He ambled off with the abstracted air of a child working hard not to appear lost.

The neighbors rallied. The dog wore a collar but no license or name tag, and we put him on a leash. He was friendly but not affectionate, and never made a sound. Endearingly ugly, he liked being scratched behind the ears. Someone brought him a bucket of water and he drank sparingly. We gave him two cups of our dog’s food and he inhaled it. On his back and ears were old scars, but otherwise he looked healthy and cared for. I remembered “Kashtanka,” of which Aldo Buzzi writes in “Chekhov in Sondrio” (Journey to the Land of Flies and Other Travels, 1996):

 “One of Chekhov’s best stories is about a dog with a reddish coat called Kashtanka (Chestnut), which was the name of a dog he had in his house. The cat of the house was called Fyodor Timofeyich: a name and a patronymic, as if he were an orthodox Christian—that is, Theodore, the son of a former cat, Timothy.”

Chekhov wrote “Kashtanka” in 1887, on the eve of the decade during which he would write his best stories. Simon Karlinsky calls it “Chekhov’s most popular animal story, describing a cobbler’s [actually, a carpenter’s] dog which joins a circus. It is regularly reissued to this day in illustrated editions intended for children.” An animated version of the story was produced in the Soviet Union in 1952. Karlinsky’s description is rather misleading. Kashtanka is separated from her owner by a brass band marching in the street and rescued by a clown who performs with an animal act in the circus. Kashtanka joins Fyodor Timofeyich and a trained goose, Ivan Ivanitch. Animal stories charm children but adults usually find them insufferable (consider Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web). But the narrator of “Kashtanka” is omniscient and the animals remain animals. They don’t speak and don’t understand the words of humans. With a little tinkering, a child could be substituted for Kashtanka, and the story isn’t far from the essential appeal of Dickens – lost and found. There’s a death followed by a happy ending. The story contains thoughtless, foolish characters but none is truly evil.

Neighbors posted photos of the lost pit bull on several pet and neighborhood sites. At sundown, we went inside. The woman across the street unleashed the dog and stayed with him, hoping his owners would be cruising the streets, looking for him, but no one responded to the photos and no one drove down our cul-de-sac, so she went inside.

[Chekhov wrote another dog story, “Whitebrow,” in 1895.]    

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

`A Writer and Nothing Else'

I don’t know who Jason Guriel is but I like the way he thinks, at least in “What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone”:

“Writers like [Canadian poet Bruce] Taylor know that they can extract very nearly all of the society they require from literature. They are adult enough to recognize that writing is a selfish, solitary activity, and that it’s the quality of their work, not their capacity for kibitzing, that ultimately secures a meaningful, long-term readership.”

Scratch the part about a “meaningful, long-term relationship,” but the rest stands. Guriel’s subject is the clannishness, groupthink and compulsive geniality of contemporary writers and their camp-followers. Because of them, one can no longer use the word “community” with a straight face. Speaking of words, the phenomenon Guriel diagnoses started several decades ago, around the time “lifestyle” gained currency. Today, if one wishes to try on the writer’s lifestyle, one need not write a word. Look soulful or haughty, wear the right clothes and read the right books (or at least carry them around). The late Edgar Bowers used to say that he stopped being a poet when he wasn’t writing poems – a nice rebuke to two centuries of Romantic posturing. Guriel continues the passage above:

“They [dedicated writers] might have a few literary friends or a social media account; they might not. But if writing well is their aim, they will tend to resent claims on their time. And they will tend to prize a commodity more precious than community: privacy.”

To put it more bluntly, writers have one job: writing well. The rest is dress-up night at the coffee shop. Montaigne, the writer who made literature safe for the “I,” puts it like this in “On Solitude”: “It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move: we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are within us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves.” Of course, the other side of all this egregious collegiality is the viciousness and undying envy of most writers. A room crowded with writers is a snake pit, not a community. Consider John Berryman’s one-sentence distillation of Stephen Crane:

“Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.”