Thursday, July 31, 2014

`My Praise Is for Decency, Craft-Lore'

We best honor a writer by reading him attentively, articulating our understanding, bafflement and pleasure, and sharing our thoughts with others. Two weeks ago a reader requested a “Nabokov reading plan.” Where to begin with the great Russian-American master? I suggested the obvious, Lolita, followed by Pnin, Pale Fire and the memoir, Speak, Memory, and the reader, to my surprise, is following my proposal.  After finishing Lolita he wrote: 

“You may recall that, near the end of the book, H.H. describes for us the absolute beauty he perceives in Lolita’s tennis playing (the `pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket’). As I read that scene, I could not help but feel that it described perfectly my experience watching Nabokov exercise his talents: `I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation.’ Which is a curious thing given that the immediate subject matter is repulsive. There’s much to consider in that.” 

I’ve earned better readers than I deserve. This one is an attorney, husband and father in Arizona. I had warned him of Nabokov’s trickiness and Humbert Humbert’s charm, and recalled but didn’t mention the noxiously persistent rumor that Nabokov was himself a pedophile. Who can name a funnier, sadder novel? On Wednesday my reader wrote: 

“I finished Pnin over the weekend. What a wonderful book. It’s an example of what I think of as the `small novel.’ The subject matter is modest and seemingly without any grand conceit. VN does his work quietly in this book, which is not to say that it lacks any of the beauty I found in the style of Lolita. It’s my favorite kind of novel: a story about a man who would seem to have nothing to recommend him as a novelist’s subject. That is, until an observant storyteller gets ahold of him. (The novel Stoner comes to mind.) I know there must be an established critical term for what I'm describing.” 

There is: a really good novel. I recognize the category he describes, and would add The Wife of Martin Guerre, Seize the Day, The Franchiser, Mr. Bridge, Zeno’s Conscience, Morte D'Urban, Loving and The Man Who Loved Children to the basket, among others. Now my reader is reading my favorite, Pale Fire, and says, referring back to Pnin: 

“By focusing on the relatively insignificant life of this man, VN is able to say something bigger about `the melancholy and tenderness of mortal life’ (to borrow a phrase from the late John Shade). I don't mean to suggest that there's a moral to the story of Pnin. I don’t care about that. I mean to describe my experience as a reader. Having come to know and like Timofey Pnin, and having shared a little in his happiness and heartbreak, I sense that I've gained an important, though inarticulate, understanding about my own mortal life.” 

All of which reminds me of a poem by Dick Davis in which he lauds another poet as both writer and man. Here is the final stanza of “In Praise of Auden” (Touchwood, 1996): 

“My praise is for decency, craft-lore,
The twin ways you laughed
Off what wouldn’t depart, importunate
Self-important Fortune,
The hand dealt you by orgulous Duty;
You could be rude and cute
At the drop of a hat and often
Were, but the sidelong cough
Of Conscience recalled you always to
The one life that pays,
As, minding our manners and metres,
You affirmed the discreet
And distinguished; in cosmic terms a trifle,
But an unwasted life.” 

There’s a further encomium to Auden concealed here, Nabokov-fashion. Consider “orgulous,” meaning “proud, haughty.” A rare word – one of Auden’s delights. The older poet used it in “The Dark Years” (The Double Man, 1941): “That the orgulous spirit may while it can / Conform to its temporal focus with praise.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

`Well, I Might As Well Get My Pension'

Poets no longer write much about money.  In the sixteenth century, Barnabe Googe could sing, “Give money me, take friendship whoso list,” and readers nodded their heads. Today, to write a poem about making money would be – what? Tacky? Unpoetic?  Ironic, isn’t it, considering that poetry, after agriculture, is the most heavily subsidized of industries. People get paid to write the stuff, regardless of how many other people read it -- a total subversion of market forces. Dr. Johnson, an occasional poet and never a blogger, famously remarked: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Not unexpectedly, Philip Larkin shared a few thoughts on the subject in “Money” (High Windows, 1974), which concludes with these lines: 

 “I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
    From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
    In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.” 

Money, like food and sex, is among the leading causes of insanity and tedious conversation. The key to the poem comes earlier and is written in a voice we might call mock-disingenuous: “Clearly money has something to do with life / —In fact, they’ve a lot in common.” Those of us who had little money when young – not poverty-stricken but necessarily careful – perhaps have it easier than some, being neither misers nor spendthrifts. Larkin sees in money not cause for self-righteousness but sadness and futility, as he does in most things. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett glosses the final sentence of “Money” with a line by Larkin on Thomas Hardy collected in Required Writing (1983): “his own characteristic intensely sad, intensely penetrating note.” When his Paris Review interviewer asks Larkin, “Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?” the university librarian replies, in part: 

“On the one hand, you can’t live today by being a `man of letters’ as easily as a hundred or seventy-five years ago, when there were so many magazines and newspapers all having to be filled. Writers’ incomes, as writers, have sunk almost below the subsistence line. On the other hand, you can live by `being a writer,’ or `being a poet,’ if you’re prepared to join the cultural entertainment industry, and take handouts from the Arts Council (not that there are as many of them as there used to be) and be a `poet in residence’ and all that.” 

Chilling thoughts, clearly, to Larkin. Never clubbable, he was too proud and independent to go on the dole for poetry, but a spirit of aggrieved entitlement has produced generations of poets eager to line up at the trough. Larkin continues in the interview: 

“But I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time, like Trollope. Then, when you started earning enough money by writing, you phase the job out. But in fact I was over fifty before I could have `lived by my writing’—and then only because I had edited a big anthology—and by that time you think, Well, I might as well get my pension, since I’ve gone so far.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

`No Objection to His Own Company'

The Dictionary of National Biography, launched in 1885, was one of those grandly ambitious productions of the hyper-industrious Victorians, alongside the Oxford English Dictionary, Tennyson’s verse, Darwin’s researches and Fors Clavigera. Though many writers contributed, the Dictionary was the brain-child of a single, self-made man, George Smith, who dropped out of school at age fourteen and within five years was running the family publishing business, Smith, Elder & Co. The DNB’s successor, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, was published online and in sixty volumes in 2004.

Literary Lives (2001) is a selection of the DNB’s more recent potted biographies, edited by John Sutherland, though to call them “potted” is misleading. Each is an essay, really, prepared by a fellow writer who was not a stranger to the deceased. Sutherland observes in his introduction: “The writers of these pieces (how often `private knowledge’ and `personal information’ appear) typically knew their subjects, as closely as we know our friends, family, and colleagues.” The method has limitations – most obviously favoritism and special pleading – but many of the entries strike a pleasing balance between reference utility (names, dates) and essayistic interest. Here is John Wain – poet, novelist, biographer of Dr. Johnson -- on his friend Philip Larkin, who died in 1985:

“Larkin, while always courteous and pleasant to meet, was solitary by nature; he never married and had no objection to his own company; it was said that the character in literature he most resembled was Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. A bachelor, he found his substitute for family life in the devotion of a chosen circle of friends, who appreciated his dry wit and his capacity for deep though undemonstrative affection. His character was stable and his attitude to others considerate, so that having established a friendship he rarely abandoned it.” 

Not a bad way to be remembered, and certainly a corrective to the many caricatures of Larkin published after his death. Wain is good, too, on the work: 

“Both in prose and verse, Larkin’s themes were those of quotidian life: work, relationships, the earth and its seasons, routines, holidays, illnesses. He worked directly from life and felt no need of historical or mythological references, any more than he needed the cryptic verbal compressions that were mandatory in the `modern’ poetry of his youth. Where `modern’ poetry puts its subtleties and complexities on the surface as a kind of protective matting, to keep the reader from getting into the poem too quickly, Larkin always provides a clear surface—one feels confident of knowing what the poem is `about’ at the very first reading—and plants his subtleties deep down, so that the reader becomes gradually aware of them with longer acquaintance.” 

In defending Larkin’s poetic practice, Wain is simultaneously defending, in a very Johnsonian manner, the importance of sanity and common sense in art. He accomplishes that, and includes all the vitals, in less than three pages. Compare this to the two pages Wain devotes in Literary Lives to Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978), better known as Hugh MacDiarmid. Never overtly dismissive of the Scottish poet, the entry feels clinical, like a police rap sheet. Without comment, Wain notes than MacDiarmid twice joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. The coolness and objectivity of the entry, while mustering the pertinent facts, is damning in its effect. One senses that Wain is not impressed by a modernist Scottish nationalist who dabbled in the most successfully savage political philosophy of the last century. 

(This prompts one to ask, parenthetically, has a Communist ever been a first-rate writer? Former Communists, yes: think of Whittaker Chambers and Arthur Koestler. But true believers and fellow travelers? Neruda, Brecht, Sartre and the rest? A sorry lot. One wonders here about cause and effect, but politics undeniably tends to corrupt literary practice. A writer interested foremost in politics probably ought to devote his career to that endeavor, not debasing the language and boring the rest of us.) 

Larkin himself contributed the entry devoted to the wonderful novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose reputation he generously helped resuscitate. Larkin praises her novels for “their alertness of eye and ear and unsleeping sense of the ridiculous, [and] their continual awareness of life’s small poignancies and the need for courage in meeting them, expressed in a style exactly suited to her material and for which she never had to strive.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

`He Took a Cold Bath Each Morning'

“By his early twenties his knowledge of literature and history was so impressive that his Piccolo cousins dubbed him il monstro, the monster. Nearly all his reading, except for Russian novels, was done in the original language. As a child he had learnt to read Italian, French and German, and later on he had acquired English: he had read all of Shakespeare before visiting England in the twenties and must have been one of the first Italians to penetrate Joyce. Giuseppe later compared literature to a forest where it was important to investigate everything, not just the large trees in isolation but the undergrowth and wild flowers as well.” 

The reader in question is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedua (1896-1957), as described by David Gilmour in The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1988). His only novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was published in 1958, the year after his death, and became both a bestseller and recognized as one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century. Luchino Visconti’s film version came out in 1963. 

Lampedusa’s father was the Prince of Lampedusa and Duke of Palma di Montechiaro. He was an aristocrat and his grand theme was the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy and the rise of the lower orders. Lampedusa wrote other works but The Leopard, based largely on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, also a Prince of Lampedusa, sustains his literary reputation. As the quoted passage above suggests, Lampedusa was devoted to literature and read widely. The Leopard is often compared not to Joyce or Proust – writers he much admired – but to the cool realism of Stendhal and Tolstoy. One way to think about The Leopard is as a pan-European Italian novel. 

Lampedusa was thoroughly familiar with English literature and judged Jane Austen the greatest of all female writers. He admired Dickens, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Thackeray, George Eliot and Disraeli. Gilmour tells us “the quality he liked most about the English was their sense of humour. Once again this was a characteristic of their literature which ran all the way from Chaucer to Evelyn Waugh. He thought nonsense verse very funny and argued that `anyone incapable of laughing at a limerick basically understands nothing about England and its literature.’” Unexpected is Lampedusa’s valorization of Dr. Johnson. Gilmour reports that “one of [Lampedusa’s] favourite pictures” was Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1756 portrait of Johnson in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The biographer reports: 

“We know that he saw London not as a tourist in Trafalgar Square but as a reader of Dickens and Dr. Johnson. For Giuseppe, Johnson was the quintessential Londoner, `a countryman in exile’ who each Sunday went out to the country, had a picnic on the grass and returned to the City with a bunch of wild flowers.’ [Gilmour is quoting a lecture on England prepared by Lampedusa].” 

Of all the Englishmen Lampedusa admired, the two who “incarnated their country” – interesting pair – were Johnson and Isaak Walton (in particular the latter’s biographies of Donne and Herbert). The Italian thought Johnson’s character “embraced all the country’s national peculiarities.” Lampedusa was praising England when he called it “the country least governed by logic,” a quality offset by an innate capacity for common sense. Keep in mind these words were written by a Sicilian. Gilmour paraphrases Lampedusa when he writes: 

“He was also humorous, scrupulous and unconcerned with appearances; he might have dirty fingernails or forget to polish his shoes, but he took a cold bath each morning and changed his shirt every day. Above all he was phlegmatic and…a master of understatement. Lampedusa once recounted to friends how Johnson, after being robbed and injured by thieves, had described the affair as a lively exchange of opinions. `Any of us Sicilians,’ he commented, `would have screamed, “They have killed me!’”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

`His Step was Plantigrade'

Early One Morning in the Spring trails one of those long, extravagantly explicit subtitles more characteristic of books today and in the eighteenth century than in 1935: Chapters on Children and on Childhood as It Is Revealed in Particular in Early Memories and in Early Writing. The contents of the volume are likewise anachronistic by contemporary standards. One can hardly imagine a publisher in 2014 bringing out a light-hearted but serious six-hundred-page anatomy of childhood combining elements of essay, encyclopedia, anthology and literary criticism. Walter de la Mare’s book is a ramble, not a treatise. The Faber and Faber edition I borrowed from the library is the sixth impression, from 1949, and the book remains in print. Someone has been reading it (though, in my library edition, not since 1956, the year of de la Mare’s death). He takes children seriously, as few adults do. The obvious explanation for his gift is that the poet retained some essential child-like component in his adult nature, a component that passes away in most of us, like baby teeth or a cowlick. He published thirteen volumes of poetry for children and some thirty story collections. In his introduction to Early One Morning, de la Mare writes: 

“Most adults...are at least friendly to childhood and to children. With a benevolent eye they watch their gambols, are amused at their primitive oddities, give what they suppose to be the countersign, and depart. A few take children as they take one another, just as they come, welcome them for what they are, refrain from making advances, and are gladly admitted on these terms into the confraternity. The very few—as few in books as in life—have the equivalent of what the born gardener is blessed with—a green thumb. He can pluck up a plant and without the least danger examine its roots. However delicate his specimen may be, his cloistered wizardry will succeed in bringing it into flower.” 

De la Mare frequently skirts sentimentality, the obvious risk a writer runs when writing about children. But sentimentality is merely the obverse of contempt, a quality almost absent in de la Mare. He likes kids, often understands them, and would seem to enjoy their company. He accepts that some children are nearly as rotten as adults. He devotes a chapter to “Bullies,” a familiar feature of every childhood (and adulthood) from every era, a type as abidingly human as liars and thieves. He begins: “Queer-looking or eccentric children, of looks or ways, that is, not acceptable to their contemporaries—long noses, shock-hair, `carrots,’ prominent ears, tallow skin, the knock-kneed, the bow-legged, the splay-footed—are liable to a preliminary handicap.” In our newly sensitive era, we’re not supposed to notice that some people, including children, are peculiar or unpleasant looking. We’ve outgrown all that. After he notes that Oliver Goldsmith was “jeered at for his ugliness,” de la Mare continues: 

“Charles Lamb was in this respect, at least, an exception. He had a peculiar plantigrade walk, eyes differing in colour, and what has become the most famous stutter in literature. But he was also amiable, sensible and keenly observant, and was indulged on account of his stutter by both boys and masters.” 

De la Mare senses a kinship with Lamb, another benevolent, child-like soul (a sort that shows up frequently in English literary history), though childless and a lifelong bachelor. The letters and Elia essays are laced with children and childhood memories. As a boy he attended Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street, where he befriended Coleridge. In “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” he describes the whipping of a boy by a master, “after the old Roman fashion, long and stately.” Lamb is neither bitter nor nostalgic, and even corporal punishment, justly applied or not, is chronicled with a hint of comedy: 

“These solemn pageantries were not played off so often as to spoil the general mirth of the community. We had plenty of exercise and recreation after school hours; and, for myself, I must confess, that I was never happier, than in them.” 

In his description of Lamb, de la Mare borrows “plantigrade” from zoology and anatomy. The term refers to mammals (bears, badgers, raccoons) that walk on the soles of their feet. In Origin of the Species, Darwin refers in passing to “the plantigrades or bear family.” They are distinguished from mammals (cats, dogs, weasels, mongooses, ballet dancers) that walk on their toes and are known as “digitigrades.” The word evolved a more mundane meaning in the human realm: flat-footed. A school mate of Lamb’s, Valentine La Grice, told the essayist’s friend and biographer Thomas Talfourd (Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1849-50): 

“Lamb was an amiable, gentle boy, very sensitive and keenly observing, indulged by his schoolfellows and by his master on account of his infirmity of speech. His countenance was mild, his complexion clear brown, with an expression which might lead you to think that he was of Jewish descent. His eyes were not each of the same colour, one was hazel, the other had specks of grey in the iris, mingled as we see red spots in the bloodstone. His step was plantigrade, which made his walk slow and peculiar, adding to the staid appearance of his figure.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

`An American Literary Giant'

Brooks Landon has a fine remembrance of Thomas Berger in the Los Angeles Review of Books: 

“From Tom I received an invaluable education, the intellectual joy of my life, an attitude toward the language that constructs the world, and maybe even a smattering of secondhand wisdom. Tom is gone, but his gift to us remains, wrapped between the covers of his 23 novels, waiting patiently in the amazing and frequently serpentine syntax of his exquisite sentences, promising to introduce or reintroduce us to the unique sensibility of an American literary giant.”

`It's No Good Just Writing It Down'

“I like to say that form is not about having control, but giving up control, allowing other forces into the poem.  Absolute liberty is paralyzing for me.” 

The latter sentence, I suppose, has political applications, but A.E. Stallings in her interview with the Tupelo Quarterly is delivering the coup de grâce to vers libre. “Other forces” means meter and rhyme, the happy disciplines that distinguish poetry from prose, though not necessarily good poetry from bad. “Absolute liberty” is a state sought after by adolescents of all ages. Adults understand that no such state exists. Like art, life is a compromise with reality. Formlessness means surrender, the coward’s way out, and anarchy is tiresome. The speaker in one of Stallings’ poems, “Prelude” (Hapax, 2006) tries to account for the powerful emotions art elicits in her. In the final stanza she concludes: 

“No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don't see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.” 

Asked what poets she reads when “in a rut,” Stallings answers: “Housman (not necessarily when in a rut, but when feeling down) and Larkin, to a lesser extent Heaney, Dickinson, Bishop, the Oxford Anthology of English Verse.” No surprises there, all respectable choices. Nice of her to acknowledge her envy when reading poems by an American contemporary, Joshua Mehigan. And best of all: “Larkin’s greater poems strike me as having almost an unapproachable perfection.” Mehigan too has declared his admiration for Larkin, a “formalist” – meaningless term – for whom form is a way to organize emotion and reproduce it in others. Larkin says: 

“I read poems, and I think, Yes, that’s quite a nice idea, but why can’t he make a poem of it? Make it memorable? It’s no good just writing it down! At any level that matters, form and content are indivisible. What I meant by content is the experience the poem preserves, what it passes on. I must have been seeing too many poems that were simply agglomerations of words when I said that.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

`Art Endures, or So the Masters Say'

Like the rest of us, poets are egotists, only more so. Most you would never invite to dinner, loan money or leave alone in the company of your children, so we’re gratified to hear the story of a poet behaving selflessly or generously. This is even truer when the recipient of the kindness is another poet. 

The poems of Agnes Lee (1868-1939), a native Chicagoan, were never widely read even during her lifetime. In 1903 she published a translation of Théophile Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, and five volumes of her own poems followed. She was associated with Poetry magazine from its earliest days, and Yvor Winters, also born in Chicago, was a friend and admirer. In the September 1939 issue of Poetry, Winters published a remembrance of Lee who had died July 23. As we would expect of Winters, the tribute is generous but whitewashes nothing. Winters was congenitally allergic to bullshit, even when writing a eulogy. The Gautier translation, he says, “is not successful, but the task of translating Gautier must resemble that which a foreigner would encounter in rendering Herrick: it is really hopeless.” Then he singles out one of her poems, “A Statue in a Garden,” for praise, saying it contains “unyielding grandeur,” and goes on: 

“This quality is characteristic of all her best work, and sets her off sharply from all the women poets of our time whether good or bad. It is not that her work was unfeminine, but that it was impersonal and absolute. She was a great lady, and would have been at home in the court of Louis XIV.” 

This is extraordinary but believable praise for a minor poet, and not unique in Winters’ criticism (Tuckerman, Daryush). He raises the stakes by adding that, “among American writers, regardless of medium, her spiritual quality seems to me closest to that of Mrs. Wharton.” As always, Winters’ judgments are careful, shrewd and blunt: 

“She is the author of a handful of separate but beautiful poems, an anthology poet, essentially, but one of the finest. No American poet of her generation except Robinson is comparable to her.” 

Keep Winters’ evaluation in mind as you read Lee's “Convention”: 

“The snow is lying very deep.
My house is sheltered from the blast.
I hear each muffled step outside,
I hear each voice go past. 

“But I'll not venture in the drift
Out of this bright security,
Till enough footsteps come and go
To make a path for me.” 

Clean lines, no muddle or posturing, echoes of Robinson and Frost. The poem honors tradition, our dependence on forebears. None of us writes without first reading. We’re not blazing trails but following paths. The poem is homage, not an admission of weakness. To “A Dedication in Postscript,” Winters, a deeply tradition-minded writer, adds as a subtitle: “Written to Agnes Lee shortly before her death”: 

“Because you labored still for Gautier’s strength
In days when art was lost in breadth and length;
Because your friendship was a valued gift;
I send these poems—now, my only shift.
In the last years of your declining age,
I face again your cold immortal page:
The statue, pure amid the rotting leaves,
And her, forsaken, whom Truth undeceives.
Truth is the subject, and the hand is sure.
The hand once lay in mine: this will endure
Till all the casual errors fall away.
And art endures, or so the masters say.”