Saturday, August 19, 2017

`So They're All Tough Guys'

“Takes getting used to, three foxed S-O-B’s
Whose best lines run across the page like scars
Carved in the tree of us healing crookedly
Over the dead foliage of who we are.”

In real life, “foxed S-O-B’s” are not my type but I’m a sucker for them in print. Our author plays with “foxed.” In books it means the brownish-yellow stains left by time on the page. And beer turned sour is said to be foxed, and a drunk is foxed. Wyatt Prunty’s trio can’t be read without leaving a reasonably indelible mark. How many writers stick in memory, if not whole verbatim lines then phrases or vivid impressions? “Extravagant Love” showed up among the new poems in Wyatt Prunty’s Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). His three were newly dead – J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin in 1985, Howard Nemerov in 1991. Each, especially Cunningham and Larkin, was intolerant of cant, the lubrication of our lives, and of the lazily sentimental. Each played the role of lie-detector and truth-teller. Prunty refers to Larkin’s “The Old Fools,” with its indictment of the old with their “air of baffled absence.”

In an interview Prunty gave William Baer, published in The Formalist in 2001, he says of the poets named in “Extravagant Love”: “Those writers used an acid bath to distill their subjects and get down to what’s essential and truthful. They wanted each of their poems to hold up in the way that Howard [Nemerov] describes in `Lion & Honeycomb’ when he says:

“Just for the sake of getting something right
Once in a while, something that could stand
On its own flat feet to keep out windy time . . .”

Nemerov’s poet aspires to leave behind “words that would / Enter the silence and be there as a light.” All three of Prunty’s poets did it more than once. He goes on in the interview:

“Cunningham did it with an economy of wit. Howard would shock you not only with wit, but also with harsh statements, humor, and all kinds of other things, to shake up sentiment and the reader’s expectations. As for Larkin, he often seems so scathing and contemptuous, but in fact, I think he’s actually quite compassionate about the people he’s discussing, but he’s absolutely determined not to be sentimental in any way. So they’re all tough guys, and they all applied a tough, intellectual rigor to their subjects that often seems a kind of harshness towards others. But I think it was a conscious aesthetic method they used to avoid sentimentality, not an indication of disdain for their subjects.”

J.V. Cunningham’s fifteen-poem sequence To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964) is subtitled A Sequence of Short Poems. It forms elliptical narrative which he elsewhere distills like this: “A traveler drives west; he falls in love; he comes home.” It’s probably the best verse he ever wrote, and begins like this:

“I drive Westward. Tumble and loco weed
Persist. And in the vacancies of need,
The leisure of desire, whirlwinds a face
As luminous as love, lost as this place.”

The operative phrase is “vacancies of need.” Cunningham fashions a westbound film noir travelogue, as in the sixth poem:

“It was in Vegas. Celibate and able
I left the silver dollars on the table
And tried the show. The black-out, baggy pants,
Of course, and then this answer to romance:
Her ass twitching as if it had the fits,
Her gold crotch grinding, her athletic tits,
One clock, the other counter clockwise twirling.
It was enough to stop a man from girling.”

The speaker, back home in the East, concludes the sequence with this:

“Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination—some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its own best interests
And in the interests of life.”

The sequence chronicles, for adults, the journey of a middle-aged man. This is what Prunty means by “an economy of wit.”

Friday, August 18, 2017

`Scarcely Readable by Women'

“Despite his accesses of feverish emotionalism, the face that he showed for the most part to the world was humorous and cynical, the face of a man who was both well aware of, and perhaps capitalized, his oddity, with a sardonic smile wrinkling his hollow consumptive cheeks.”

Pardon the surfeit of adjectives. The author is Peter Quennell, writing about Laurence Sterne in Four Portraits: Studies of the Eighteenth Century (the other three being Boswell, Gibbon and Wilkes), published in 1945. Sterne’s stance is a familiar one. The jolly-good-fellow mask is useful, especially when fitted with the sardonic smile option. Like Keats and Chekhov, Sterne spent much of his life dying of consumption. The composition of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), begun at a late-blooming age of forty-six, transformed Sterne’s life. Soon after the early volumes were published and became bestsellers, Sterne was the toast of society, a sought-after and very amusing guest. Quennell describes Sterne’s discovery of his gift for language and story:

“Once he had begun, it was as if he were transcribing or remembering pages he had already written; and indeed there was little in the subject-matter of the book he had to fetch from outside, since it was the progress of his own mind and the history or legends of his own family that he was recording upon paper.”

Sterne understood he was in a race with death. Like oxygen-rich blood in the arteries, only the ceaseless flow of words could keep him alive. As Quennell puts it, “Sterne always heard the rush of the time-stream, carrying himself and his personages towards extinction, and made haste to pin down the impression made by one instant before it blurred into the next.” This accounts for the uncannily modern feel of Sterne’s novels (including A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy). Reading Melville, Ford, Joyce and Nabokov before Tristram Shandy had given me a more elastic sense of what a novel could be, and prepared me for reading Sterne. “His plan, therefore, was to have no plan,” Quennell tells us, which has encouraged legions of neo-Sterneans to write planlessly and tediously, unburdened with Sterne’s genius. As Tristram explains:  “. . . but, in my opinion, to write a book is for all the world like humming a song—be but in tune with yourself, madam, ’is no matter how high or how low you take it.”

Not everyone is amused. Dr. Johnson, in 1776, huffed: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” In Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), in an entry for this date, Aug. 18, in 1833, Coleridge offers a curiously mixed appraisal:

“I think highly of Sterne--that is, of the first part of Tristram Shandy: for as to the latter part about the widow Wadman, it is stupid and disgusting; and the Sentimental Journey is poor sickly stuff. There is a great deal of affectation in Sterne, to be sure; but still the characters of Trim and the two Shandies are most individual and delightful. Sterne's morals are bad, but I don't think they can do much harm to any one whom they would not find bad enough before. Besides, the oddity and erudite grimaces under which much of his dirt is hidden take away the effect for the most part; although, to be sure, the book is scarcely readable by women.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

`Literary Tastes Peculiar to Myself'

The Library of America has just published the Diaries of John Quincy Adams in two volumes. I know Adams as a learned man, well-read and curious, and if his name turned up in a trivia game I could report that he was the first U.S. president to be photographed and that he believed the president could single-handedly abolish slavery using his war powers (as the union was in danger of dissolution over the issue). I also knew Adams, like many educated men and women of his time, judged Dr. Johnson a sage or moral authority.

You can gauge a reader’s true commitment to a writer less by the number of overt citations (which may be nothing but showing off) than by unsignaled allusions. In October 1812, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Adams was in St. Petersburg as the first U.S. minister to that country. Adams expresses confidence in Napoleon’s defeat and writes: “—Or rather Providence, (such is my belief) after using him for the purposes he is destined to answer, will exhibit him like another invader of Russia, `to point a moral or adorn a tale.” The tag is from “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” and was also a favorite of Stevie Smith’s. The Diaries are peppered with such casual references.

In March 1835, Adams tells us he walks to Capitol in the afternoon. This follows his term as president (1825-1829) and comes during his time as a Congressman from Massachusetts (1830-1848). He found two volumes of Swift’s work in the Capitol library, and looked for “the passage cited in Johnson’s Dictionary under the word Executive, but could not find it – I found however several references to Hobbes’s opinions, and examined the Folio Volume of Hobbes’s Works, till 3 O’Clock when I was obliged to leave the Library, which is closed at that hour . . .”

In March 1837, Adams pays another visit to the Capitol library, where he “took up the second Volume of Matthias’s Edition of [Thomas] Gray’s works, and wandered over it till the clock struck three and warned me to depart.” He finds in Gray an analysis of Plato (“which I had no time to examine”), moves on to the poet’s letters and considers Gray’s “Ode on the Spring.” Here he pauses to make a point that will puzzle some dedicated readers: “I have literary tastes peculiar to myself, and the correctness of which I distrust, because they differ from the general voice.” He assesses his fondness for Gray:

“There is no Lyric Poet of antient [sic] or modern times, who so deeply affects my feelings as Gray – Every one of his Odes, is to me an inestimable jewel, and nothing in all Dr. Johnson’s writings is so disgusting to me, as his criticisms upon themthe progress of Poesy and the Bard are the first and second Odes that were ever written—Dryden’s Alexander’s feast, Horace’s Carmen Seculare and Collins’s Passions pari passu come after—Pindar’s Pythics are admirable and Anacreon is charming as a songster—But the progress of Poesy, is the point of the Pyramid—the first of Odes—as the Church yard is the first of Elegies—Yet I have read scarcely any thing of Gray, except the very small collection of his Poems, and these two thick Quarto’s of his works are almost all news to me—Why is it that I must reproach myself for an hour given to them as wasted time?”

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

`Well-Headed & Well-Feathered Thoughts'

I admire the art of deft portraiture, the ability to economically render appearance and character in stories, poems and nonfiction. In writers this corresponds to a gift for caricature among visual artists, like the guy at the county fair with a sketch pad and chalk, minus the Hogarthian exaggeration. I mean a fairly realistic portrait. V.S. Pritchett is a master of this, as are A.J. Liebling and Saul Bellow. I’ve come across another, unexpected example in Coleridge. Here he is in a Sept. 16, 1803 letter to his friend and patron Thomas Wedgwood:

“. . . William Hazlitt, is a thinking, observant, original man, of great power as a Painter of Character Portraits, & far more in the manner of the old Painters, than any living Artist, but the Object must be before him / he has no imaginative memory. So much for his intellectuals [roughly, mental powers].”

What’s most interesting about Coleridge’s letter is the way he gives and takes, without contradiction. Hazlitt is an extraordinary fellow, a genius, and he’s a nasty little git. In perfect comfort, Coleridge swings back and forth. Most of us would compartmentalize our conclusions, first giving the good and concluding with the bad, or vice versa. I think Coleridge’s method is appropriate when describing so eminently complicated a creature as Hazlitt:      

“His manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive--: brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange / [Richard, whose nickname was “Conversation”] Sharp[e] seemed to like him / but Sharp[e] saw him only for half an hour, & that walking--he is, I verily believe, kindly-natured--is very fond of, attentive to, & patient with children / but he is jealous, gloomy, & of an irritable Pride—addicted to women, as objects of sexual Indulgence. With all this there is much good in him.”

I don’t sense a struggle in Coleridge or any effort to draw definitive conclusions. He’s at ease with Hazlitt’s contraries, as he was not with his own. Who among us, of course, ever is? “Shoe-contemplative” is priceless. The remarks about Hazlitt and children, coming from Coleridge, not the most dutiful of fathers, read like wishful envy. Nor was Coleridge any better balanced in the female department. He continues:

“. . .--he is disinterested; an enthusiastic Lover of the great men, who have been before us--he says things that are his own in a way of his own--& tho’ from habitual Shyness & the Outside & bearskin at least of misanthropy, he is strangely confused & dark in his conversation & delivers himself of almost all his conceptions with a Forceps, yet he says more than any man, I ever knew, yourself only excepted, that is his own in a way of his own--& oftentimes when he has warmed his mind & the synovial juice [the fluid secreted by the body’s joints for lubrication] has come out & spread over his joints he will gallop for half an hour together, with real Eloquence. He sends well-headed & well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bow-string.--If you could recommend him, as a Portrait painter, I should be glad. To be your Companion he is, in my opinion utterly unfit. His own health is fitful.”

Please keep in mind that the author of “Frost at Midnight” was an Olympic-class, dope-fueled gasbag, a talker of rare volubility, and not always ideal company. He peers at Hazlitt and sees Coleridge. But his words are amusing, piquant and insightful. He renders Hazlitt and something of himself. Of course, Hazlitt had plenty to say about Coleridge, as in “Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits, 1825):

“If Mr. Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

`What Are You Selling -- Corpses? Rags?'

On the day I started reading Boris Dralyuk’s 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) I also read a story in the Forward by Talya Zax about the Night of the Murdered Poets. This occurred sixty-five years ago, on Aug. 12, 1952. Thirteen literary and intellectual figures were murdered in the basement of Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Four were poets who wrote in Yiddish, and a fifth, David Bergelson, was a Yiddish novelist. All thirteen were Jewish – “rootless cosmopolitans,” to use Stalin’s phrase. Bergelson had left the Soviet Union in 1921 to live in Lithuania and Germany but returned in 1934. Dralyuk writes in his introduction to the prose section of his anthology:

“He did his best to conform to the demands of Socialist Realism and, along with many prominent figures in Soviet Yiddish culture, was an active member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Second World War. Many of the committee members were arrested in the winter of 1949; fifteen were subjected to a show trial in 1952, and thirteen – including Bergelson, Perets Markish (1895-1952), Itsik Fefer (1900-1952), Dovid Hofshteyn (1889-1952) and Leyb Kvitko (1890 or 1893-1952) – were executed on 12 August of that year, the so-called `Night of the Murdered Poets.’”

Dralyuk includes a brief, two-part story by Bergelson, “Scenes from the Revolution” (1917). Go here to read translations of two poems written by Peretz [alternate transliteration] Markish, including one from 1917 that concludes:

“What are you selling – corpses? Rags?
Or long-since-departed dads?
Hey, a buyer’s slipped a way,
he’s dying but will be reborn.”

Poets are a jealous, petty bunch, complaining about sales and tenure. But at least if you are a poet in the United States, you and your comrades are not likely to be shot in the back of the head by Stalinist goons.

[Go here to read a memorial pamphlet dedicated to the murdered poets, first published in 1973 by the National Conference of Soviet Jewry.]

Monday, August 14, 2017

`The Calm Retreat, the Silent Shade'

William Cowper writes to his friend William Unwin on this date, Aug. 14, in 1784:

“I give you joy of a journey performed without trouble or danger. You have travelled five hundred miles without having encountered either. Some neighbors of ours about a fortnight since, made an excursion only to a neighboring village, and brought home with them fractured skulls and broken limbs, and one of them is dead. For my own part, I seem pretty much exempted from the dangers of the road.”

No, Cowper’s dangers were strictly internal. Few writers of his time and place travelled less, externally. Johnson had his Scotland, Gibbon his Switzerland, Keats his Italy. In the interior, Cowper’s journeys were unnumbered. Despite lunatic asylums and botched suicides, he wrote industriously, letters, poems and hymns, which often read like dispatches from that other world. Temperamentally, he was a homebody, unsuited for marriage and career, but blessed with a gift for friendship. In “An Epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq.”, he writes to another friend:

“Go fellow!—whither?—turning short about—
Nay. Stay at home;—you're always going out.”

The stuttered phrases and abrupt reversals tell the story. Cowper longed for nothing so much as peace, and it was denied him in this world. Consider the second stanza of his hymn (or poem – editors can’t make up their minds), “Retirement”:

“The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.”

Cowper’s redeeming literary quality, what keeps his work from succumbing entirely to earnest piety or despair, is a sense of humor. Sometimes whimsical or satirical, sometimes wildly Dickensian (as in the passage quoted at the top). Here’s how Cowper completes the passage:

“—thanks to that tender interest and concern which the legislature takes in my security! Having, no doubt, their fear lest so precious a life should determine too soon, and by some untimely stroke of misadventure, they have made wheels and horses so expensive, that I am not likely to owe my death to either.”     

Sunday, August 13, 2017

`The Mob Picks Them Out at Once'

“From childhood he had been devoted to whatever was useless, metamorphosing the streetcar rattle of life into events of consequence, and when he began to fall in love he tried to tell women about this, but they did not understand him, for which he revenged himself by speaking to them in a wild, bombastic birdy language and exclusively about the loftiest matters.”

Only important people, those who count, whose thoughts are stamped approvingly like sides of beef, need occupy our attention. Their aspirations are lofty and pure. They never fuss over bad skin or how they will pay the rent. Important writers always know what the next word will be before they write it. Important readers pre-order the resulting books from Amazon.

Devotees of the useless fool no one. For them, life is not a problem to be solved. They bathe but sometimes forget to comb their hair. They read almanacs and dictionaries. They consider syntax an important matter. Noise is their raw material. They shape.

“A manuscript is always a storm, worn to rags, torn by beaks.
It is the first draft of a sonata.
Scribbling is better than writing.
I do not fear seams or the yellowness of the glue.
I am a tailor, I am an idler.
I draw Marat in his stocking.
I draw martins.”

The quoted passages above come from one of my favorite twentieth-century works, “The Egyptian Stamp” (1928), collected in The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (North Point Press, 1986). It has been called a novella, a collage and an autobiographical essay. It deals with Jews living in St. Petersburg. In his notes, the translator, Clarence Brown, tells us: “The name `Marat’ is suggested by the verb marat' [scribble], three lines above.” Jean-Paul Marat was the most radical of the radicals, and died in the bathtub. Mandelstam’s narrator disapproves of Parnok, the protagonist of “The Egyptian Stamp”:

“Parnok ran, tripping along the paving blocks with the little sheep hooves of his patent leather shoes. More than anything in the world he feared to attract upon himself the displeasure of the mob.

“There are people who for some reason or other displease mobs. The mob picks them out at once, taunts them, and pulls them by the nose. Children have no special liking for them and women find them unattractive.

“Parnok was among this number.”

In “We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory” (The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, 1987), Clarence Brown’s lifelong friend Guy Davenport sets up a verse dialogue between “Potch” (the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam) and “Polden” (a loyal young Bolshevik). Potch says of her dead husband: “He was a poet. They took him away. / I have all of his poems off by heart.” Polden asks: “Are they published in a book?” and Notch replies: “No, never. / One of them is about the Old Cockroach [Stalin] / Seeing his face in the shine of his boots.”