Tuesday, April 24, 2018

`As If They Were Asbestos'

During my last visit to the central library in Houston I was unable to find anything to read. When my sons were young I took them weekly to the same library, where the staff called us the “Library Guys,” and each of us would leave with a bag of books. No longer. The adult fiction section consists almost entirely of recent popular novels. Invisible culling is underway. I used the online catalog to find the location of Christina Stead’s 1938 novel House of All Nations. It wasn’t on the shelf. I looked again several days later and it was no longer in the catalog. It had been purged, presumably because it was published eighty years ago and because it had not recently circulated. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it in “On the Shelf”:

“Libraries and colleges are clearing out books as if they were asbestos. Computer terminals are what are wanted now, in the same way that Mr Gradgrind wanted facts. I am not entirely technophobic: the internet is a superb instrument and I am very grateful for it, but it is by no means a perfect substitute for books.”

At present only four of Stead’s novels (not including her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, of which I own a copy) are in HPL’s holdings, and all are in the “closed stacks,” meaning they are shelved at another location not accessible to the public, and must be requested for delivery. The happy serendipity of discovery, always among the charms of a library visit, is eliminated. I remember finding John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers and Kafka’s The Castle that way in our neighborhood library when I was a kid. Some library visits are purposeful. One looks for a specific title or subject area. Others, the best ones, are small, hopeful adventures. All the lip service paid to encouraging children to read is hogwash. The public libraries I know are dedicated to books as data, or books as slightly old-fashioned novelties. Dalrymple writes:
“I have been obsessed by books all my life, and now I feel the melancholy that I suppose old artisans must once have felt when their trade became industrialised. All these years I have been on the wrong, or at least losing, side of history, a dinosaur that did not foresee its extinction.”

Monday, April 23, 2018

`I Live Among Such Damning Adjectives'

I have no memory of playing my maternal grandmother’s LP’s but I must have been listening. She and her second husband had albums by Burl Ives, “Sing Along With” Mitch Miller and John Gary. The Ives recordings stuck: “Billy Bayou,” “Killigrew’s Soirée,” “Funny Way of Laughing” and “Call Me Mr. In Between,” among others. I know the chorus and at least one verse to each. Like commercial jingles and TV theme songs from half a century ago, they are the sort of musical viruses that erupt unexpectedly, nag for an hour and return to dormancy. They are part of the reason I know we know more than we remember. As a teenager, the persistence of such songs embarrassed me, even in the privacy of my skull. The young are ferocious snobs. No more. It’s nice to carry around a sound track, augmented by subsequent voluntary listening. Ives had a beautiful voice, the songs are tuneful (a word I’ve never used before) and catchy, and I’m no longer interested in impressing anyone with my good taste.

At a more sophisticated level, Dick Davis describes a similar reevaluation of the past and acceptance of the present. “Brahms” is among the new poems included in Love in Another Language; Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Carcanet, 2017):

“Young Brahms played piano in a brothel parlour:
He watched the beery patrons go upstairs
And said, “Non olet,” pocketing his thaler,
But something nasty caught him unawares.
He never made it with a girl it seems;
His love was Clara Schumann, who had far
Too much to cope with to indulge his dreams—
Mad Robert flared out like a shooting star.

“I couldn’t take to Brahms when I was young—
Too sentimental, learnèd, ponderous,
I thought. Now that I find I live among
Such damning adjectives myself, I’m less
Inclined to carp, and if the cap fits wear it;
Let’s hear your heartache, Brahms; yes, I can bear it.”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

`Read Generously--As He Once Read'

Dick Davis’ verse I knew only from three recent volumes -- Touchwood (1996), Belonging (2002) and A Trick of Sunlight (2007) – and a scattering of earlier work online and in anthologies. Everything I read, I liked. This week I ordered Love in Another Language: Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Carcanet, 2017). Reading it is like discovering the rest of the iceberg. The earliest collection included, In the Distance, dates from 1975. From the start he was a craftsman with a delicate touch, focusing on particulars, avoiding grandiose gestures. Davis understands that when he is quiet we listen more intently. Here is “Littoral” from In the Distance:

“Salt smoothes and sand obliterates
The trite, the once-dear vestiges

“Mute hieroglyphs, the hulks of pomp
And sea-worn amulets of love.”

The theme is familiar – mutability, time’s attritions. Davis moves Ozymandias from the desert to the shore. There’s virtue in his brevity. It recalls many Imagist poems but without their lazily undeveloped snapshot quality. Inclusion of the “trite” in the catalog of losses is clear-eyed and inspired. Much of what we lose, much of what we regret losing, was hackneyed in the first place. No loss in such a loss. Here is “With Johnson’s Lives of the Poets” (Devices and Desires, 1989):

“He wrote these quick biographies
To be instructive and to please;
In them we find

“Among judicious anecdotes
The apt quotation that denotes
A taste defined

“And wrested from this record of
His irritable, captious love
For failed mankind—

From fear, from his compassion for
Insanity, the abject poor,
The world’s maligned.

He laboured to be just, and where
Justice eluded him his care
Was to be kind.

Read generously—as once he read
The words of the indifferent dead.
Enter his mind.” 

More than most writers, Johnson makes it difficult to separate him from his work. When we judge the writing, we’re implicitly judging the man. His poems and prose, seldom banally autobiographical, are self-revelatory. When we read his best-known observation on writing – “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it” – we hear Johnson speaking confidentially. Davis makes this clear in his final line: “Enter his mind.”

Davis dedicates the Johnson poem to the Kentucky poet and publisher R.L. Barth. Some years ago, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (1995), edited and published by Barth. On the title page is Davis’ “To the Reader”:

“In these few, graceful pages you will find
Translation of an untranslated mind;
A heart brought home that had aspired to be
At one with a serener clerisy—
Latin and Christian, still, unchanging, true:
And was, as it too intimately knew,
Contingent, fallen, unrelieved by prayer;
The prey of spleen, regret, bad jokes, despair.”

Saturday, April 21, 2018

`The English Do Poetry'

“Nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.”

Occasionally, we encounter a bit of writing that gels a thought we previously had left murky and undefined. Montaigne did that for Eric Hoffer. In his story “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” Saul Bellow describes a young man (based on Isaac Rosenfeld) who abandons philosophy after reading Moby-Dick. My experience is a little less dramatic. The passage above comes from an essay Bryan Appleyard published in 2007, “Poetry and the English Imagination.” Bryan is thoughtful and prolific, and I wasn’t expecting him to realign my thinking, but suddenly I understood that English is the nation of poets, and that Englishness, more than the essence of any other nation, is largely defined by its poetry. At the time I wrote: “Try to imagine your emotional, sensory and intellectual lives without the gift of English poetry.” No doubt, some will find the thought offensive. As Bryan says, “We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.” There is no rival.

On his own, a reader sent me Bryan’s essay because, he said, “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” He’s right, especially because I hadn’t read it in several years and because I had forgotten Bryan’s speculation as to why our cousins are poets:  

“But the truth, I suspect, is that it is the English language itself which made us poets. This is, of course, unprovable, not least because of the chicken and egg question – did the language make the English poets or did the English make the language poetic? But, if only subjectively, I think some kind of case can be made.”

For Bryan, the English line peters out after Auden. I can’t agree: Larkin and Hill, and down a notch, Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson. But that’s quibbling. Yes, the Americans, for a brief spell, picked up the slack, but that tributary too has also run dry. Bryan’s fondness for Ashbery is an aberration we can forgive:    

“Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England. Perhaps that is the way it must be: “The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices / Of the days” (Ashbery) must sweep all away. But, though the signs are not good, English poetry is buried too deep in English soil ever to be quite eradicated; and so, like Hamlet, we must defy augury and send the brats home to learn at least a sonnet a night.”

Friday, April 20, 2018

`Shut Not Thy Heart, Nor Thy Library'

Next week we’re having the carpet pulled up in four rooms, a stairway and hall, and replacing it with hardwood flooring. All of my books must be boxed, labeled and stacked in other rooms. That’s more than two-thousand volumes, not counting the rest of the family’s books. Culling is called for. I’ve invited a third-grader down the block to go through our sons’ old books and take or borrow what he wants. I already have an investment in this kid. I pledged 25 dollars in a reading-for-charity book scam his school is running. Last year we gave him our complete set of “Captain Underpants” books. He owes me.

In a letter written April 9, 1816, Charles Lamb thanks Wordsworth for the books he has sent. One wonders what Wordsworth, not a notably comedic soul, made of Lamb’s relentlessly absurdist wit:

“I have not bound the poems yet; I wait till people have done borrowing them. I think I shall get a chain and chain them to my shelves, more Bodleiano, and people may come and read them at chain’s length. For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read but don’t read; and some neither read nor meant to read, but borrow to leave you an opinion of their sagacity.”

Coleridge is visiting and is “beset with temptations.” Lamb tells Wordsworth: “Nature, who conducts every creature by instinct to its best end, has skilfully directed C. to take up his abode at a Chemist’s Laboratory in Norfolk Street.” C.’s laudanum dealer isn’t far away. In 1823, Lamb published his Elia essay “The Two Races of Men” – that is, lenders and borrowers. In the guise of Comberbatch, Coleridge is supreme among the latter:

“To one like Elia, whose treasures are rather cased in leather covers than closed in iron coffers, there is a class of alienators more formidable than that which I have touched upon: I mean our borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes. There is Comberbatch, matchless in his depredations!”

Elia’s outrage is tempered, however, by another Coleridge/Comberbatch quirk: obsessive annotations and commentary written in borrowed volumes. Princeton has published five fat volumes of Coleridge marginalia. For Lamb, it’s like interest paid on a loan:

“Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. —he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his—(in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals)—in no very clerkly hand—legible in my Daniel; in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands.—I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.”

Thursday, April 19, 2018

`Still, Still We Long for Light's Communion'

Aubade -- the word, I mean – in my lexicon will always be Philip Larkin’s. Plenty of poets have used that title, from William Empson to Bill Coyle, but Larkin copyrights it. His “Aubade” is one of the defining poems of the last century. It has a rival, however, from early in the twenty-first, a poem that reads as though it were written by a representative of a species sharing almost no genetic material with Larkin’s. Dick Davis’ “Aubade” was published in the Summer 2001 issue of The Threepenny Review. I cite the time and place because the poem helps define for me the pre-9/11 world, which became a world only after 9/11.

I flew to Philadelphia for a three-day conference that June. I had never visited the city but had little time to tramp its streets. With me I brought along The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and that issue of The Threepenny Review. The days were long and that’s how I wound down in the evening in my hotel room. Davis’ poem shares with Larkin’s a seemingly straightforward absence of faith: “These are the dawn thoughts of an atheist / Vaguely embarrassed by what looks like grace.” In a stringently philosophical world, Matisse’s colors are “a fake.” However, “Still we consent, and actively connive / In their unreal adjustments to our being.” Positivism, in the final stanza, never quite triumphs:

“Still, still we long for Light’s communion
To pierce and flood our solitary gloom:
Still I am grateful as the rising sun
Picks out the solid colors of my room.”

The upper-case “Light” is left undefined. It might be the deity, as “communion” suggests, despite the speaker’s self-definition in the first line as an atheist. No sane person would choose to inhabit a world in which “neither Fauve nor Esfahan survive.” I remember Davis’ poem, on first reading, kindling a sense of buoyancy. Humans are more than passive sensory receptors.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

`Each One Has Been a Friend'

Eleven years ago I happened on a poem by a poet previously unknown to me that was so good I had to write about it. Maureen Jeffs’ “To My Daughter, My Books” distilled a lot of wisdom and generosity into a small package and it sounded earned, not an empty gesture made public to elicit admiration. Jeffs wrote to thank me and I was touched by her gratitude and the assumption that we belonged to the same tribe – parents and readers.

On Tuesday I picked up the anthology in which I found Jeffs’ poem, It’s Her Voice That Haunts Me Now (1996), and read it again. Then I looked online to see if she had continued writing and discovered that Maureen Jeffs had died in 2015. The internet, among its other gifts, makes it possible to feel guilty and sad over the death of someone on another continent whom we never met. Think about that for a moment. I experienced a pang of guilt for not staying in touch with someone who seemed remarkably thoughtful and interesting. And now we’ll never have that permanently deferred conversation.      

Her website, perhaps created by the daughter addressed in the poem, is a fine tribute and preserves some of her poems and stories. As Jeffs writes in the closing lines of “To My Daughter, My Books”:

“Take them and use
Them well, each one has been a friend,
And may the truths you find console.
In these, and in the books I’ve penned,
You’ll find the substance of my soul.”