Saturday, January 21, 2017

`In Certain Old Paintings'

Fairfield Porter (Rizzoli, 2016) comes with essays by John Wilmerding and Karen Wilkin. The latter writes: “Fairfield Porter made wonderful, memorable paintings about nothing in particular—or, more accurately, he could make nothing in particular seem as if it were of great significance, simply by making a painting about it.” Also included in the volume is a forgettable poem, “A Landscape after Fairfield Porter,” by J.D. McClatchy, which is printed with a detail from a painting titled Untitled [Landscape, Southampton Yard], 1957. Porter and his family lived in Southampton on Long Island. No reproduction of the painting seems to be available online.

In the foreground of the detail is a wooden railing, probably part of the porch at the rear of the house. In the distance is a patch of blue, a pond. Closer, under a tree, is a small white circular table, the sort you might see in a sidewalk café, and two chairs. A dark green shrub on the left may be a bay laurel. Shades of brown and gold dominate the rest of the painting – chestnut, burnt umber, goldenrod, butterscotch. McClatchy refers to “the maple’s melancholy gold,” but I prefer to think of Donald Justice’s final published poem, “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” which takes its title from the first line of the poem’s first stanza:

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.”

Given the reference to the Passion, we might think of the “charity” of the gold light, shining even on the Roman soldiers, as a sort of grace – intangible but real, like happiness “when we are happy.” In the next stanza, Justice turns from the Christian to the classical world:

“Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.”

Orpheus turns for a final glimpse of the doomed Eurydice. The poet sings of loss and grief or of nothing. Porter’s painting is empty of people though their traces are everywhere in the gold light. Now the third and final stanza:

“The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.”

Sonya Alexandrovna Serebryakov is speaking to the title character in the final scene of Uncle Vanya. Chekhov published the play in 1899, basing it heavily on another play he had published a decade earlier, The Wood Demon. Sonya describes a vision of the afterlife. Suffering is real but will be forgotten “as though it had never existed.” On Dec. 3, 1898, Chekhov (already ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1904) wrote in a letter to Gorky that he had never seen a production of Uncle Vanya:

“In the past few years it has had a good many performances in the provinces, possibly because I published it in a complete edition of my plays. In general I am not now particularly warmly disposed towards my plays; I lost interest in the theatre some time ago and no longer have any desire to write for it.”

Chekhov lived long enough after renouncing the theater to write Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, not to mention “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Dog,” “In the Ravine” and “The Bishop.” 

Friday, January 20, 2017

`Against a Background of Despair'

A poet in Canada writes me letters. They are long and journal-like, as were some of those written by John Keats, and put together over days or weeks, as time permits. His letters are chatty and digressive, like good conversation, and linger on nothing for long. They are also uncensored, provocative and funny, which is all we ever really want in our dealings with friends, especially since candor in some quarters has been criminalized. Honesty finds sanctuary in friendship. Reading my friend’s letters is doubly a pleasure. Judged as bull sessions in print – lamentations, gossip, ad lib lit crit – they are reminders that friendship can thrive across forbidding distances. Reading them is to indulge in nostalgia for a slower, more thoughtful age when even the marginally literate wrote letters. Now a letter is a novelty.

In his essay “On Reading the Great Letter Writers” (The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948, Library of America, 2009), Thornton Wilder takes a rather elevated view of letter writing:

“Art is confession; art is the secret told. Art itself is a letter written to an ideal mind, to a dreamed-of audience. The great letter-sequences are written to close friends. But even the closest friends cannot meet the requirements of the artist, and the work passes over their shoulder to that half-divine audience that artists presuppose.”    

I think Wilder means that the best letters transcend their original recipients and arrive in the mail box of anyone willing, even after centuries, to read and appreciate them. For him, the letter writers who do this most often are Horace Walpole, William Cowper and Edward FitzGerald. I haven’t read Walpole and only recently started reading Fitzgerald’s letters (after reading Nearer the Heart's Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat: A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald by Robert D. Richardson, 2016), but Cowper (1731-1800) is an old friend. Of him Wilder writes: “. . . if William Cowper brought merely his charming news of eight persons, three Belgian hares, one dog, one cat, and one garden, I doubt whether he would be so surely surviving into a world of railroads, aviation, and steel construction.” The other ingredient found in Cowper’s letters, Wilder says, is personality: “Gradually a face hovers between the words.” That, not what Wilder calls “verbal felicity” (which always helps), is the quality shared by all the most rereadable letter writers (Swift, Cowper, Keats, Stevenson, Flannery O’Connor).   

Consider the following brief Cowper sampler. Here he is on May 3, 1780, writing to his friend the Rev. John Newton and making piety playful:

“I delight in baubles, and know them to be so; for rested in, and viewed without a reference to their author, what is the Earth, what are the planets, what is the sun itself, but a bauble? Better for a man never to have seen them, or to see them with the eyes of a brute, stupid and unconscious of what he beholds, than not to be able to say, `The maker of all these wonders is my friend!’ Their eyes have never been opened, to see that they are trifles; mine have been, and will be till they are closed for ever.”

On Jan. 5, 1782, in a letter to the Rev. Robert Unwin, Cowper agrees with Dr. Johnson’s mixed assessment in his “Life of Pope”:

“[Pope] was certainly a mechanical maker of verses, and in every line he ever wrote we see indubitable marks of most indefatigable industry and labour. Writers who find it necessary to make such strenuous and painful exertions are generally as phlegmatic as they are correct; but Pope was, in this respect, exempted from the common lot of authors of that class. With the unwearied application of a plodding Flemish painter, who draws a shrimp with the most minute exactness, he had all the genius of one of the first masters. Never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united.”

And here is Cowper writing to his friend Unwin on Jan. 17, 1782:

“To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without meanness, harmoniously, and without seeming to displace a single syllable for the sake of rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake.”

Here is Wilder accounting for the charm of Cowper’s letters:

“These pages gain all their richness from the fact that they are written against a background of despair. William Cowper lived an even more uneventful life than Edward FitzGerald. He seemed to be forever holding the wool yarn for elderly ladies. If a bee enters by the window it is quite an exciting event in the poet’s life. A balloon ascension in the neighborhood takes up about as much space in Cowper’s as all the wars and revolutions in Europe. A snake was caught under the kitchen door; an electioneering delegation intruded one night into the parlor.”

And those are a few of the reasons we enjoy Cowper’s letters after more than two centuries.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

`The Political Unimportance of a Creative Work'

A program of reading I can admire but never adopt:

“My system is curious. I keep reading the same book over and over, perhaps for six months, every day, and then switch to another which may last the same time.”

I am a slow reader, out of mental necessity, but not that slow. If I’m reading for pleasure, I never skim. That useful technique I reserve for purely utilitarian reading, such as finding a passage I failed to mark. I’m also a greedy reader. Only necessity could confine me to reading one book at a time. I sprawl and have no aim other than pleasure and learning. Only three times have I read systematically. Twice I read writers chronologically, first work to last, though I had already read almost everything by both of them: Shakespeare and Melville. And fifteen years ago, when I went back to college thirty years after dropping out, I read nothing but books by and about Henry James for almost six months, and wrote a thesis: “Poor Sensitive Gentlemen.” After my release from a strict diet of James, the first books I read were Waugh’s Sword of Honour, Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

“Altogether I have not read more than six or seven books during the past number of years. But I have read Gil Blas, Moby Dick, Ulysses, D’Arcy McGee’s History of Ireland and Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry hundreds of times.”

The last two titles I have not read. Alain-René Lesage’s picaresque novel I read once, long ago, in Smollett’s translation, and I remember nothing about it. The other two I reread periodically. Our reader could do much worse. It occurs to me that I have never finished reading a book and immediately started reading it again. I often do that with poems, good and inadvertently funny ones, and with the occasional movie. I need time to digest.

“All these books have several qualities in common. A dominant note is their comic detachment; their authors are not afraid to bend, to let themselves go, to be outrageous. Theirs is the philosophy of men who in a wonderful way do not care.”

Certainly this is true of Melville’s novel. Much of his other work is wonderful but unexceptional, and some is nearly unreadable, or readable only under self-imposed duress – see Mardi and Pierre. Moby Dick “outrageous”? Savor the farting and penis gags, and Chap.36, “The Quarter-Deck.” The book’s copiousness is outrageous. It is a rare novel in which a digression on almost any subject might find an appropriate place, a quality it shares with Montaigne’s Essays, The Anatomy of Melancholy and Tristram Shandy.

“This inconsequentiality is a sign of the author’s assurance; he is master of the situation. Every so often the author of Moby Dick bursts out laughing or goes off on a ten thousand word digression leaving his principal character standing in a corner. But though far from his creator that character is never out of the author’s control. And when the author comes back the character is patiently waiting. This quality of not caring is part of the political unimportance of a creative work. `We the unpolitical’ says Auden.”

The quoted passages above are from “Studies in the Technique of Poetry: Extracts from Ten Lectures” in Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet (ed. Peter Kavanagh, National Poetry Foundation, 1986). In the next sentence in the same extract, Kavanagh (1904-1967) writes: “Being ignored except by a small group leaves a man free because he had none of the responsibilities which a large public inflicts on him.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

`A Large Personal Impress on the Nation'

I grew up reading Ernie Pyle’s World War II dispatches and like to think that in some covert way he steered me toward becoming a newspaper reporter (as did Eric Hoffer, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column in the late nineteen-sixties that I devotedly read and clipped). More importantly, Pyle may have influenced the sort of reporter I became.  Some of the names editors and readers use to describe much of what I wrote are less than enthusiastic – “soft news,” human interest, features, fluff. The big subjects, like government and business, I found tiresome. I liked writing about people, not things, events, ideas or institutions. That was Pyle’s specialty as a war correspondent in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific. In his syndicated column, carried in more than three-hundred newspapers, he wrote not about armies and strategy but about the lives of ordinary Americans who happened to be soldiers. In 1944, he received the Pulitzer Prize. His wartime columns were collected in four books: Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944) and Last Chapter (1946).

On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. In a 1950 tribute in The New Yorker, fellow war correspondent A.J. Liebling credited Pyle with creating the mythic figure of “G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman”:

“The portrait was sentimentalized but the soldier was pleased to recognize himself in it, and millions of newspaper readers recognized their sons and lovers in Pyle’s soldiers and got some glimmer of the fact that war is a nasty business for the pedestrian combatant. Through millions of letters from home enclosing clippings, the soldiers learned that their folks read Ernie Pyle. He provided an emotional bridge. . . . He was the only American war correspondent who made a large personal impress on the nation in the Second World War.”

Pyle was writing long before the war, at various newspapers, and became one of the country’s first aviation reporters. From 1935 to 1941 he traveled the U.S. for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, filing six columns a week of “human interest” for most of that time. Some of the work was published posthumously in Home Country (1947). Now Indiana University Press has published At Home with Ernie Pyle (2016), edited by Owen V. Johnson, which collects much of the writing he devoted to his home state. I worked as a reporter for the newspaper in Richmond, Ind., from 1983 to 1985.  For me, Indiana was the home of Ernie Pyle, Theodore Dreiser, Hoagy Carmichael and Gennett Records. Pyle was born in Dana, in the west central part of the state, on the border with Illinois. Draw a straight line from Dana to Richmond and you intersect Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city.

Much of the work collected in At Home is prelude to the big story (World War II). We see a writer working industriously, learning his trade, turning himself from a dutiful reporter into a storyteller. There’s a folksiness to much of the material, a quality we also find in the war writing, where it’s used to greater effect. On May 17, 1938, Pyle files a story datelined Richmond, with this headline: “Fiend stalking the quiet streets of Richmond, Ind., hurls a dreadful missile at our correspondent’s car.” This is known in the trade as a slow news day. Someone spatters the hood of his car with an egg, and here is Pyle’s “lede”: “Richmond is clear across the state from my home town, and I am sorry it is not a few miles farther, for then it would be in Ohio. Richmond is a blot on the fair, clean name of Indiana.” Pyle stretches the anecdote across two pages. One sentence is eerily prophetic: “The egg had come from the hand of some human sniper on a nearby roof.” The columnist rouses faux enthusiasm for the culprits, praising their “zest for childlike hellishness,” and then turns on them in the final paragraph: “So, I would not have these young men spanked. I would merely have their jaws broken and their teeth knocked out.”

In a footnote to the story, the editor tells us the Richmond Palladium-Item, the newspaper I would work for forty-five years later, published Pyle’s column on June 25, 1938. In a note appended to the beginning of the story, an editor says of the young men who threw the egg at Pyle’s car: “It should be a matter of pride with these young gentlemen for many years to come, that they have so ably assisted in advertising the good name and reputation of their city.”   

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

`An Extraordinary Lexical Appetite'

Unsolicited, two books of poetry published by a university press arrived in the mail. I’m as greedy as the next guy and was pleased with my windfall until I opened the books and started reading. Only one of the poets had I heard of before. Both are youngish, a man and a woman, both come decorated with prizes and neither seems interested in language. Even as prose their poems are dull and indistinguishable from the messages (usually political, in the form of self-aggrandizement) they intone. I expect poetry to carry with it a field of energy. It ought to stimulate and please the mouth and mind. The poems of a plain-spoken poet – Swift comes to mind, and J.V. Cunningham – are still charged with vitality, proving that even politics can be interesting in the right hands.

I have no wish to publicize the work of the two poets whose books I have already given away, so we’ll leave them anonymous. They too must earn a living, an effort I never begrudge, however desultory the labor. Let the market decide. I’ve recently reread Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), and was reminded of the gratuitous opulence of our language. Then I reread the review of the book written by Eric Ormsby, whose poems and essays are voluptuous celebrations of the English we have inherited. He writes:

“The prose and the fine solicitude are inseparable. Johnson may be, after Shakespeare, the only author to have grappled with the sheer totality of the English language. The Augustan balance of his prose conceals an underlying voracity, an extraordinary lexical appetite, chastened and held in check by the cadenced discipline of his language. The beauty of that language is a moral beauty, hard won out of a lifelong struggle with the world and with himself. That's one good reason for the fondness he inspires: In giving us words he defines how we might live.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

`I Had a Wonderful Life'

One would like to go out with a quip on one’s lips, a zinger, a piquant retort to life (or impending death), a consummately quotable Q.E.D., rather than the more likely and banal scream, moan, gasp or cough. But mortality trumps wit. Even a well-rehearsed final declaration is likely to go unspoken in our waning moments. And yet, when William Hazlitt died on Sept. 18, 1830, his last words were supposed to have been: “I have had a happy life.” The final utterance of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, was reported as: “I am happy, so happy.” And Ludwig Wittgenstein must have surprised everyone on April 29, 1951, when he chirped his last: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” None was renowned in life for a sunny disposition. All three reports are fairly reliable, but one remains dubious. Were they having second thoughts? Was it a last-minute editing of the narrative of their lives? Or mere babbling, a random firing of electrons?

In a late collection, Rovigo (1992), Zbigniew Herbert includes another of his elegies, “To Piotr Vučič” (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007). In the poem’s final lines, he both echoes the trio cited above and adds a characteristically terse and acerbic coda:

“I once heard an old man recite Homer
I have known people exiled like Dante
I saw all Shakespeare’s plays on stage
I was lucky
You might say born with a silver spoon

“Explain that to others
I had a wonderful life

“I suffered”

At least in translation, Herbert echoes Whitman: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

`Your Voice Falls As They Say Love Should'

“More than any other major soloist in jazz, he has made a basically unsentimental music come extremely close to the romantic—a magnetic, invariably troubling conversion, which usually draws either slings or hugs.”

The writer is Whitney Balliett and his subject is Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist from New Orleans. He might also be writing about Philip Larkin, author of “For Sidney Bechet” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964). I often think of Larkin as a blues poet, one who never mistakes the blues for mere sadness or self-pity, and whose darkest poems are never less than emotionally powerful.  There’s nothing cold about Larkin.

Balliett in the same essay judges Bechet as “one of the great blues soloists” (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, 2000). Listen to “Blue Horizon” (1944), which Larkin describes in All What Jazz (1970) as “six choruses of slow blues in which Bechet climbs without interruption or hurry from lower to upper register, his clarinet tone at first thick and throbbing, then soaring like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice, commanding attention the instant it sounded.”

I hear self-projection in Larkin’s celebration of Bechet. Despite conventional wisdom, Larkin is a gifted celebrator (of Barbara Pym, of Louis Armstrong, and so on). Those who dismiss Larkin as a gloomy wet blanket don’t hear his paean to Bechet: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes”). He adds: “the natural noise of good.” Larkin finished writing “For Sidney Bechet” on this date, Jan. 15, in 1954. Then I remembered Van Morrison’s mention of Bechet on his album Hymns to the Silence (1991). In “See Me Through Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee),” Morrison sings or chants:

“Silence and then voice
Music and writing, words
Memories, memories way back
Take me way back
Hyndford Street and Hank Williams

“Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet
On Sunday afternoons in winter
Sidney Bechet, Sunday afternoons in winter
And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless.”