Saturday, November 18, 2017

'Here Were No Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters'

It’s no surprise that the list of books I first read as a boy and have continued to read periodically ever sense, despite fortunate changes in taste and understanding, is brief and respectable. Nothing to be ashamed of. No Zane Gray (whom I’ve never read) or Jules Verne (whom I haven’t read since I started shaving). There’s the Bible, Kim and Robinson Crusoe, all of which give me even more pleasure now than when I first read them as a kid. But when a reader wrote this week asking which “classic” (his word, not mine) I would recommend for his twelve-year-old daughter (“She’s already a strong reader”), the answer was simple: Gulliver’s Travels. The book can be read without strain as pure adventure and/or savage satire. The “and/or” is the secret to Swift’s genius. I can’t remember my initial reaction to the Houyhnhnms. Today, their portion of the book, Part IV, is my favorite. Gulliver, at last, knows a measure of happiness. What the Houyhnhnms lack is precisely what England has in excess, as spelled out in Chap X:

“I enjoyed perfect Health of Body and Tranquillity of Mind; I did not find the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering or pimping, to procure the Favour of any great Man or of his Minion. I wanted no Fence against Fraud or Oppression; Here was neither Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Fortnne; No Informer to watch my Words, and Actions, or forge Accusations against me for Hire: Here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, splenetick tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuoso's, no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; no Encouragers to Vice, by Seducement or Examples: No Dungeon, Axes, Gibbets, Whipping-posts, or Pillories: No cheating Shop-keepers or Mechanicks: No Pride, Vanity or Affectation: No Fops, Bullies, Drunkards, strolling Whores, or Poxes: No ranting, lewd, expensive Wives: No stupid, proud Pedants: No importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing Companions: No Scoundrels, raised from the Dust for the sake of their Vices, or Nobility thrown into it on account of their Virtues: No Lords, Fidlers, Judges or Dancing-Masters.”

No Dancing-Masters, praise be. Swift delivers a lesson in stone-cold irony, a catalog of accelerating hilarity and some of the cleanest prose in the language. Precisely what a twelve-year-old needs.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

'The Race of Sonnet Writers and Complainers'

“I assure you I find this world a very pretty place.”

Strong words. All of us see only ugliness and waste sometimes, but there’s a voluble class of people unwilling to see anything else. Think of them as critics without portfolio. I once worked for an editor who returned from his first visit to Montreal and complained about the scratchiness of the hotel towels. The more balanced soul quoted above is Charles Lamb. On this date, Nov. 17, in 1798, Lamb is writing to his friend Robert Lloyd, who in a previous letter had complained that “this world to you seems drain’d of all its sweets.” Keep in mind that three years earlier, Lamb had spent six weeks locked up in an asylum. As he wrote to Coleridge in May 1796:

“I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol. My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told.”

On Sept. 22, 1796, his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. For the rest of his life, Lamb, who never married, remained her legal guardian. Lamb replies to Lloyd in his 1798 letter:

“At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! but I am afraid you meant more. O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and honey comb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings.”

Some readers find Lamb’s prose indigestible. He’s just too silly, unlike his friend and reflection in a funhouse mirror, William Hazlitt. Fortunately, they are not mutually exclusive tastes, and we can always be grateful that Lamb never published a three-volume biography of Napoleon and Hazlitt never wrote Lamb’s awful poetry. Lamb had every excuse in the world to be anguished and suicidal. Instead, he became one of the wittiest writers in the language, a master of tone and rhythm, even in letters. Who else among his contemporaries makes us laugh? Wordsworth?      

“Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. So good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you—you possess all these things, and more innumerable: and these are all sweet things. You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall. The bees are wiser in their generation than the race of sonnet writers and complainers.”

Lamb’s wish to comfort and reassure his friend is touching. To do so while being eloquent and funny is miraculous.         

Thursday, November 16, 2017

`Ninny-Hammers, Goosecaps, Joltheads'

I paused when I came to “jolter-head” in William Hazlitt’s “Merry England” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819). The meaning was clear from context: “They judge of the English character in the lump as one great jolter-head, containing all the stupidity of the country . . .” But where did it come from? The OED cites Hazlitt’s usage and refers the reader to another entry, jolt head: “a heavy-headed or thick-headed person; a blockhead.” The etymology, of course, is “obscure,” but one of the other citations is a gem and comes from Vol. 4, Chap. 4, LXXXIV of Tristram Shandy:

“And here without staying for my reply, shall I be called as many blockheads, numsculs, doddypoles, dunderheads, ninny-hammers, goosecaps, joltheads, nincompoops, and sh..t-a-beds--and other unsavoury appellations, as ever the cake-bakers of Lerne cast in the teeth of King Garangantan’s shepherds.”

Sterne’s hommage to one of his masters, Rabelais, is also a catalog of essential words. After all, we can never have enough synonyms for moron and buffoon. Yiddish is a virtual encyclopedia of such words (shmendrik, putz, shmegege, et. al.), but English has grown depleted. Use of ninny-hammer, though it shows up in Tolkien, seems to have peaked early in the eighteenth century. There’s no record of W.C. Fields using jolter-head or jolt head, but in The Bank Dick (1940), in the role of Egbert Sousé
(“Sousé – accent grave over the ‘e’!”), but he offered this advice to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (“Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub”):

“Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl! You’re not those, are you?”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

`He Read and Wrote and Read'

Heavy tasks undertaken with little likelihood of commensurate reward move me to admiration; the work of careerists – never. One such hero is Ford Madox Ford. He published more than eighty books, yes, and never had enough money, but in his final project he exceeded previous accomplishments. When Ford started work on The March of Literature in 1937, he was sixty-three, overweight and still feeling the effects of having been gassed twenty years earlier, during World I. He had rheumatism and, since 1929, had suffered several heart attacks. Ford spent eight months as writer in residence (then a novel concept) at Olivet College in Michigan, giving him time to read, research and write.

I read Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells when it was published in 1982. He chronicles the time at the turn of the twentieth century when those six writers were neighbors, friends and sometimes collaborators in East Sussex and Kent. In “An Old Man Mad About Writing” (Anywhere Out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, Death, 2005), Delbanco returns to Ford. He tells us his earlier book “was in large part powered by a desire to celebrate” the author of Parade’s End, whom he portrays as a one-man literary catalyst.

The March of Literature is no dry textbook. It’s inimitably Ford’s work, as personal as DNA. Delbanco says, “There’s an intimate wrangling discursiveness here, as though the host of a party has buttonholed guests, and it’s of no real consequence if they are distant or dead.” It ought to be academic but reads like inspired conversation. Delbanco seems to be repaying a debt. He writes:

“On the forced march to completion, Ford started work at five in the morning and finished at seven at night. Years before, he had transcribed spoken utterance from Conrad, and Henry James made of dictation a routine procedure, yet it still beggars the imagination—beggars mine, at any rate—to think of anyone producing so much scholarship so fast.”

Ford had spent a lifetime internalizing literature. It was never merely a job. He published his 900-page March of Literature in 1938 and died the following year, the task of a lifetime completed. In conclusion, Delbanco writes of Ford: “He read and wrote and read. He wrote and read and wrote.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

'My Never-Failing Friends They Are'

The title sounds like New Age malarkey: The Quiet Spirit. The subtitle clarifies things: An Anthology of Poems Old and New (1946). The editor is Frank Eyre (1910-1988), an English-born editor at Oxford University Press who lived the latter half of his life in Australia. Eyre divides his collection into five sections: “Verse: and the Quiet Mind,” “The Green Shade,” “Ideal Love,” “Night and Sleep” and “The Final Quiet.” We’re still in New Age territory, it seems, but Eyre has a novel premise for his anthology. His selections are printed without title or author. There’s an index at the back that provides that information. In his foreword he says the 175 poems and excerpts are meant to be read consecutively as if the collection were not an anthology but a single autonomous work in which “a continuous thread of poetic thought is sustained throughout.” Playing Eyre’s game and reading the poems cold reminds me of the Blindfold Test in Down Beat magazine (see the late Walter Becker’s). Here’s one I recognized:

“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

“Care is heavy, therefore sleep you;
You are care, and care must keep you.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.”

That’s Thomas Dekker’s “Cradle Song” from his 1603 comedy Patient Grissel, later reworked by The Beatles. As poem or song, it’s a lovely piece of work. Eyre’s tastes are evident. He favors gentle verse and nature poetry, whether Shelley or Edward Thomas. He seems to have had no taste for satire or light verse, shies away from humor in general, and includes no Dryden, Pope, Swift or Dr. Johnson. A good poem I didn’t recognize, though I placed it in the right century, is by a poet much admired by Yvor Winters:

“If thou sit here to view this pleasant garden place,      
Think thus—At last will come a frost and all these flowers deface:    
But if thou sit at ease to rest thy weary bones,   
Remember death brings final rest to all our grievous groans;
So whether for delight, or here thou sit for ease,
Think still upon the latter day: so shalt thou God best please.”

That’s George Gascoigne’s “Lines Written on a Garden Seat.” Finally, another poem that stumped me. Here is the first stanza. Only slowly did I realize the poem is a sort of riddle:

“My days among the Dead are past;         
  Around me I behold,        
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,        
  The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.”

The title gives it away: “His Books,” by Robert Southey.

Monday, November 13, 2017

`Among Other Minds'

Reading Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday, 2017), Anne Applebaum’s study of the Holodomor (from the Ukrainian for hunger and extermination), one encounters scene after scene like the following. Anastasia is a child living in Kharkiv, now the second-largest city in Ukraine. She manages to buy a loaf of bread and is stopped by a peasant woman carrying a baby. The woman begs for a scrap of bread. Anastasia tells what happened:

“No sooner had I walked away than the unfortunate woman keeled over and died. Fear gripped my heart, for it seemed that her wide open eyes were accusing me of denying her bread. They came and took her baby away, which in death she continued to hold in a tight grip. The vision of this dead woman haunted me for a long time afterwards. I was unable to sleep at night, because I kept seeing her before me.”

Some perspective: At least 5 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934. Of them, more than 3.9 million were Ukrainians. The cause was not climate change or foreign meddling. Decisions made by Stalin and approved by the Politburo – including the demonization and eventual extermination of kulaks, wealthier peasants – resulted in intentional famine. At the same time, the Soviets launched an assault on the Ukrainian “intellectual and political elites.” In Applebaum’s words, these actions brought about the “Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity.”

What interests me is less the politics behind the scene with Anastasia than its human and moral content. There were millions like Anastasia, people of typical good-heartedness, burdened with a conscience. Reduced by hunger to thinking first of self and secondly of family, she refused to share her bread. Under pre-famine conditions, she might have torn her loaf in half and given it to the starving woman. Now, the instinct for survival displaces all other concerns – most obviously, compassion and generosity. Put yourself first in the starving woman’s place and then in Anastasia’s, without forgetting the ideologues and thugs who created the scene. Such imaginative projection is the essence of human decency.       

On the day I was reading Applebaum’s new book, I came upon a brief life of Guy Davenport written by Eric Allen Bean and recently published in the Harvard Magazine. Longtime readers of Davenport’s work will find little new information in Bean’s critical biography, but it’s useful to remind new and younger readers of his accomplishments. Without identifying the source, Bean writes, “. . . Davenport often declared that the purpose of imaginative reading was `precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility.’” The quoted fragment of sentence is drawn from one of Davenport’s finest essays, “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art (Counterpoint, 1996). Davenport has just described his dealing with an illiterate man in Kentucky and the “horror of his predicament.” He expresses gratitude for “being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.” Davenport adds, in a one-sentence paragraph:

“For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch [and the peasant woman and her baby, Anastasia and Anne Applebaum].”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

`The Exceptional Man'

My essay "'The Exceptional Man': Rereading Richard Wilbur" appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

`Something to Say, and Say It Well'

In the dark year of 1942, Franklin P. Adams published an anthology of light verse, Innocent Merriment. At the time, Adams, known by his initials F.P.A., was a household name. His syndicated newspaper column, “The Conning Tower,” ran for decades. He was a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, a prolific writer of light verse and a panelist on radio’s Information Please quiz show from 1938 to 1948. Journalists and wits can be amusing in their time but tend to prove evanescent in the long run. Think of Adams’ pals Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. In the introduction to Innocent Merriment, he writes of poetry:

“Bad light verse is more to be condemned, it sets the teeth more on edge, than bad serious poetry. Light verse should be flawless in execution; it should have something to say, and say it well. It needs little critical ability to tell whether light verse is good or bad; the difference between good and bad ‘serious’ poetry is far less obvious. They speak of light verse, the critics. They never say that anybody is a heavy-verse writer.”

One browses in a light-verse collection. Perhaps the better verb is “cavorts,” moving nimbly from dud to dud, never losing faith in happy serendipity. That’s how I came upon “The Hundred Best Books” by the marvelously named Mostyn T. Pigott. Even better, his full name seems to have been Montague Horatio Mostyn Turtle Pigott. He seems real enough – in 1892 at Oxford he founded The ISIS (retrospectively, an unfortunate choice of title) – and was born the same year as Kipling and Yeats, 1865. He died in 1927. “The Hundred Best Books” shares the comedy of any human effort aiming at comprehensiveness. It can be read as a parody of annual book lists. Loosely iambic, most of its one-hundred lines contain five syllables and refer to one book or author. It begins:

“First there’s the Bible,
And then the Koran,
Pope’s Essay on Man,
Confessions of Rousseau,
The Essays of Lamb,
Robinson Crusoe
And Omar Khayyam.”

There are minds that will not find this amusing. I think it’s a riot. Poetry gains little comedic purchase without rhyme, because it’s forced back on whatever humor might be inherent in the subject matter, whereas “Lamb”/ “Khayyam” is intrinsically funny. Here are the closing lines of Pigott’s tour de force of rhyme and inventiveness:  

“Rienzi, by Lytton,
The Poems of Burns,
The Story of Britain,
The Journey (that’s Sterne’s),
The House of Seven Gables,
Carroll’s Looking-glass,
Æsop his Fables,
And Leaves of Grass,
Departmental Ditties,
The Woman in White,
The Tale of Two Cities,
Ships that Pass in the Night,
Meredith’s Feverel,
Gibbon’s Decline,
Walter Scott’s Peveril,
And—some verses of mine.”

You can tell Pigott’s imaginative energy is flagging. Increasingly, he adds or elides syllables. Then he throws in some self-promotion, but who could blame him? But “Decline”/ “mine” is sweet. I’d take Pigott over Ashbery any day.