Thursday, December 18, 2014

`1,025,000 Words in His Brain'

“He dwells on a poem for days, years. His genius is an ability to process the 1,025,000 words in his brain and select precisely the right one to follow the one that came before it.” 

That, among other things, is what separates us.  I remember the openings of two stories I wrote more than forty years ago. Both withered, never harvested: “No more jokes. I’ve had it with jokes.” and “A baby cried.” The former was spoken by a drunk to a wall. Something about futility. The latter was set in the balcony of a church sanctuary. Alphabetical – get it? That I remember such things and wish to share them is shameful, of course, but years of writing for newspapers set me straight. No talk of writer’s block on the city desk. “Inspiration” is your ass at the desk, writing. I most admire those writers who cultivate momentum. 

“The Asperger’s assists the process.” and “So does his humour.” 

That’s Trent Dalton in his recent profile of Les Murray, “Poet in Residence,” for The Australian. This is a splendid profile of a great poet, now seventy-six years old and still writing. In poetry and life, Murray, like Dr. Johnson, has always seemed more alive than the rest of us, forever engaging the world, with an enviably vast pool of language in his head. As to humor and cussedness, Dalton quotes Murray’s great elegy for his father, “The Last Hellos”: 

“Snobs mind us off religion
Nowdays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.” 

Dalton quotes “Home Suite,” “It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen,” "The Widower in the Country"and "Weights," and tells us Murray’s new book will be titled Waiting for the Past. While reading Murray, I feel like the little girl on the cover of his Collected Poems (1998).

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

`Fricassee of Dead Dog'

The title is irresistible: An Anthology of Invective and Abuse. Hugh Kingsmill published his collection in a propitious year, 1929, when the impulse to kick mercilessly (or at least watch someone else do the kicking) must have been impossible to resist. Modernism in literature was victorious and the world was going to hell. In his introduction, Kingsmill defines invective as “any direct verbal attack,” and thus exempts irony and satire while admitting that “the line of demarcation is sometimes indistinct.” He notes: “As the detachment of irony makes it a finer weapon, intellectually if not morally, than invective, the transition from irony to invective is even in skillful hands nearly always jarring in effect.” All abuse, whether laser-tipped irony or bare-knuckle fisticuffs, is best delivered coolly, without huffing and puffing. The best abuse looks effortless, the work of a ninja not a WWF wrestler. 

Kingsmill notes that in the fourth section of Gulliver’s Travels, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” the proportion of invective to irony is greater than in the earlier sections devoted to Laputa and Brobdingnag, and as a result it is less artistically successful. Kingsmill includes four excerpts from Gulliver, including the king of Brobdingnag’s well-known condemnation of the English: “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” 

None of Kingsmill’s selections are new to this reader, but he brings together many old favorites. Why is intelligent invective, as opposed to rabid frothing, so bracing to the weary spirit? Consider Prince Hal’s evisceration of Falstaff in the great Boar’s-Head Tavern scene (Henry IV, Part I, Act. II Scene 4): 

“…there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that  grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in  years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a  capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous, but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?” 

For sheer pleasure nothing compares to the venomous blather of Thomas Carlyle. Right or wrong, the Scotsman is always amusing. Of Keats he writes: “Fricassee of dead dog (Monckton Milnes’ Life of Keats)….A truly unwise little book. The kind of man that Keats was gets more horrible to me. Force of hunger for pleasure of every kind, and want of all other force—such a soul, it would once have been very evident, was a chosen `vessel of Hell’; and truly, for ever there is justice in that feeling.” 

Herbert Spencer he dismisses as “the most contemptible ass in Christendom” and Macaulay’s work as “dictionary literature and erudition,” but Carlyle saves his wittiest take-down for Coleridge: 

“A weak, diffusive, weltering, ineffectual man…a great possibility that has not realised itself. Never did I see such apparatus got  ready for thinking, and so little thought. He mounts scaffolding, pulleys, and tackles, gathers all the tools in the neighbourhood with labour, with noise, demonstration, precept, abuses, and sets—three bricks.” 

How many of our much-vaunted “public intellectuals,” Coleridge's spawn, does that describe with clinical precision?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

`His Granite Attitudes'

“When I should have been running forward to embrace life, I was digging a fortification against it. With every reason for optimism, I became a stoical pessimist. Samuel Johnson was my favourite author, my moral hero; Boswell and The Rambler were constantly open on my table. Johnson reflected my mood exactly, because he put into dignified and resounding prose the sense of stoical resistance against hopeless odds.” 

This is one Midlands writer, John Wain (1925-1994), honoring another in Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography, published in 1962 when Wain already had five novels, two story collections and two volumes of poetry in print. The passage quoted is drawn from the chapter describing his wartime years at Oxford University. Johnson, too, attended the school, but could afford only one year of study, though in 1775, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. Like Johnson, Wain was born into the lower-middle class in a working-class neighborhood, sensitizing him to class differences on both sides. He grew up during the Great Depression, relieved only by the war. Wain continues the account of his Oxford years: 

“I would murmur to myself. As if they were lyrics poems, sombre fragments of his lay sermons. `Life is everywhere a state in which there is much to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.’ [Rasselas, Chap. 11] `So large a part of human life passes in a state contrary to our natural desires, that one of the principal topics in moral instruction is the art of bearing calamities.’ [The Rambler #32] But it was not his gloom alone that made Johnson a hero to me. It was his tragic gaiety.” 

Wain’s understanding of, and kinship with, Johnson is profound. In that last sentence he echoes Yeats: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” When readers tell me Johnson is dull and depressing, I know that life for them must be dull and depressing. Like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Johnson is life, the whole contradictory mess, heaven and hell mortally mingled. Wain goes on: 

“Amid all this settled conviction of hopelessness, he was sociable, welcomed friends, reveled in talk, devoured books. All this I did too. No wonder I took over his attitudes en bloc; but they were the wrong attitudes. Brave, dignified, and admirable in his case, they were foolish and even cowardly in mine. When Johnson wrote the sentences that rang in my head, he was old, racked with diseases, emotionally shattered by the deaths of those he loved, with nothing ahead but a failing of powers and a death that might or might not appear as a merciful release. Such a man would make himself ridiculous and contemptible by counterfeiting youthful abandon; but it was just as absurd for me, at the age of twenty, to adopt his granite attitudes.” 

Call it premature stoicism or affected philosophical armoring – the disease of bright, self-pitying young people. We wear it like an unearned trophy of war. If we’re fortunate, life or at least an uncommonly honest friend will knock it out of us. Johnson wasn’t Johnson when he was twenty. He had to wait for the appropriate time to become himself, and the outcome was never guaranteed. Wain is inverting Johnson’s observation in The Rambler #50: 

“If dotards will contend with boys in those performances in which boys must always excel them; if they will dress crippled limbs in embroidery, endeavour at gaiety with faltering voices, and darken assemblies of pleasure with the ghastliness of disease, they may well expect those who find their diversions obstructed will hoot them away; and that if they descend to competition with youth, they must bear the insolence of successful rivals.” 

Wain takes the title of his autobiography from Dryden’s drama Aureng-Zebe (1676): 

“None would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And from the dregs of life think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.” 

[In 1973, Wain published a play about his hero, Johnson is Leaving, and edited the anthology Johnson as Critic. In 1975 he repaid his literary debt with Samuel Johnson: A Biography.]

Monday, December 15, 2014

`Other Debasements Will Follow'

In Conversation with Max (1960), S.N. Behrman informs Beerbohm (retelling an anecdote from his friend Dudley Fitts at Andover Academy) that a student made the “flat statement” in a paper that Pontius Pilate was one of the twelve Apostles. Beerbohm, he reports, was amused and saddened, as most of us would be. In recent decades, critics of American education have amassed anthologies of student howlers, usually with the implied corollary that “it wasn’t like that when I was in school.” Well, often it was. I knew plenty of dumb, indifferent kids who, while nominally literate, knew little beyond their suburban block. What’s different today is that many teachers can’t identify Pilate or, for that matter, Andrew, Simon and the others. I graduated from high school in 1970. My English teacher, who remains a friend, remembers that year as the Great Divide. She had us reading Dante and Saul Bellow. Within a few years, her students couldn’t identify Winston Churchill. She retired a few years later. Behrman quotes Beerbohm’s reaction to Fitts’ story: 

“`Gladstone used to quote whole strings of Latin hexameters, mostly from the Aeneid, in his parliamentary speeches, and the House understood him,’ Max said. `Already one discerns a debasement of English, and other debasements will follow that. With the blunting of precision of language, don’t you know, comes muddiness in political policy, in morality, and in conduct.’”
 
How odd to be living in a time of prophecy fulfilled. Vanity customarily casts us in the role of Cassandra – doubly satisfying because not only are we prescient but doubted until proven right. Beerbohm was speaking some sixty years ago, and it’s worse than his gentle but deeply ironic imagination could have conceived. The pleasing sense of Schadenfreude I experience when hearing tales of student ignorance always leaves me uneasy. It’s just too easy to feel superior. Sure, they’re dumb, but they’ve grown up in a culture that no longer values learning and, in some quarters, condemns it as “elitist” or whatever the fashionable platitude du jour happens to be. Those of us who love books and history must try to avoid hectoring and sermonizing. That changes nothing and merely strokes our already swollen sense of pride. Instead, let’s share our pleasure in bookish things, in Dante and Virgil, even in translation, even without terza rima and hexameters.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

`Of the Anastrophic Mind'

“It’s a quirky spirit he carried through the arch
To aftertime, making a salted fun
Of the holy show and grudging his respect
For all but truth, the master of a style
Able to see things as he saw through things.”                      

Avoid quirky as cute and hinting at euphemism, though it’s useful to learn the word’s oldest and still current meaning is “tricky, wily, cunning.” Howard Nemerov knew what he was doing. “Cunning” is the epithet we associate readily with Odysseus, who also visited the “aftertime,” the Underworld. He returned, as Philip Larkin did not. The poem is “Larkin” from Nemerov’s Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991, published in 1992, the year after his death and seven years after Larkin’s. Nemerov alludes to "The Old Fools." He acknowledged a kindred spirit, a master, one of the “great and dead”: “Dear Larkin of the anastrophic mind, / Forever now among the undeceived. Nemerov nods to Vers de Société and closes obliquely, looking back at Larkin’s first mature collection, The Less Deceived (1955). “Anastrophic,” the syntactic inversion, suggests not a backward mind but one forever looking back.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

`They Were Still Assailing Him'

“At noon, I called at his house, but went not into his room, being told, that he was dozing. I was further informed by the servants, that his appetite was totally gone, and that he could take no sustenance. At eight in the evening, of the same day, word was brought me by Mr. Sastres, to whom, in his last moments, he uttered these words `Iam moriturus,’ that, at a quarter past seven, he had, without a groan, or the least sign of pain or uneasiness, yielded his last breath.” 

The scene described is in Sir John Hawkins’ biography of Dr. Johnson, published in 1787, three years after the writer’s death. Johnson’s last known words were made to his friend the Italian teacher Francesco Sastres. When Sastres entered the room, Johnson reached out from his bed and said, Iam Moriturus – “I who am about to die.” W. Jackson Bate notes that the lifelong fighter may have been thinking of “the ancient Roman salutation of the dying gladiators to Caesar.” That is, Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant, as reported by Suetonius. Johnson’s dying was painful and protracted. His body was failing while his mind raged on. He read the Bible and translated Horace. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell records this 1769 exchange, fifteen years before Johnson’s death: 

“To my question, as to whether we might fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered in a passion, `No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.’ He added, with an earnest look, “A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.” 

Sane words from a man who feared for his sanity most of his life. In this, as in many other things, Johnson is quintessentially human. Strengths and weaknesses, virtues and sins, are mortally linked, like conjoined twins. Personality is never homogenized. Psychologists and biographers looking for consistency are delusional. We are the messiest species. Perhaps the act of dying is “not of importance,” as Johnson says, but death, like a roadside accident, defies us not to gawk. In The Rambler #126, published June 1, 1751, Johnson writes: 

“To be always afraid of losing life is, indeed, scarcely to enjoy a life that can deserve the care of preservation. He that once indulges idle fears will never be at rest. Our present state admits only of a kind of negative security; we must conclude ourselves safe when we see no danger, or none inadequate to our powers of opposition. Death, indeed, continually hovers about us, but hovers commonly unseen, unless we sharpen our sight by useless curiosity.” 

For Johnson, life was a gladiatorial contest, not with lions or fellow slaves but with himself. The struggle is always internal. Boswell writes in the Life: 

“His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.” 

Johnson died on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784 at the age of seventy-five.

Friday, December 12, 2014

`Beyond the Door'

This is from Andrew Lytle’s memoir, A Wake for the Living (1975): 

“In the courthouse a man did his public business; at home his private business. The private and public acts were separate and so defined the individual in all his parts. The front door is the symbol for both, and like a good symbol it has its literal meaning.” 

Lytle (1902-1995) was the last of the Southern Agrarians, a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a novelist and critic, and a histrionically ornery Tennessean. No doubt he was outraged by that most odious shard of sixties bumper-sticker wisdom: “All politics is personal.” Such thinking helped erase the public/private distinction, emboldened the do-gooders and busy-bodies, and overturned the most precious of rights – the right to be left alone. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson gives four nuances of meaning for privacy: 1.) “State of being secret; secrecy.” 2.) “Retirement; retreat.” 3.) “Privity; joint knowledge; great familiarity. Privacy in this sense is improper.” 4.) “Taciturnity.” Contemporary usage is a mingling of the first and second, though the politics-is-personal crowd has taken the third, with its suggestion of sexual intimacy, and made it exhibitionistically public. One can only wish they were taciturn. 

The sense of discretion suggested by Lytle implies not fear or timidity, or the implication that we have something to hide, but rather, confidence, an ease with one’s values and self. One respects the privacy of others and expects it in return. The Louisiana poet David Middleton dedicated his second collection, Beyond the Chandeleurs (1999) to Lytle: “for all who live in the given world, especially Andrew Lytle, who took `the long view’ and loved the permanent things.” He also dedicates a poem to him in that volume, “The South,” which includes these lines: “Down here great Sherman suns burned up / The sweetest fields our Aprils bring, / Gay daisies blazed with buttercups, / The cavaliers of spring.” It would be a mistake to confuse Lytle’s defense of privacy with a revival of slavery or The-South-Shall-Rise-Again nostalgia. He’s talking about something bigger, deeper and more ancient and important. 

One of Middleton’s epigraphs to his most recent collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill (2013) is drawn from “The Hind Tit,” Lytle’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand: “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” In the final line of a poem written “for the Agrarians,” “The Planters,” Middleton pledges to protect “The unsurrendered ground, our proper home.” For the first time, while rereading I’ll Take My Stand, I thought not of “Dixie” but of Yeats’ lines from “Coole Park, 1929”: “Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand / When all those rooms and passages are gone.” Lytle continues the passage quoted earlier from his family memoir: 

“What went on behind the door was domestic and intimate. Before it lay the world, and the division the threshold made was known to all and respected. Beyond the door decorum demanded circumspection and regard. Our grandfathers knew that to confuse the two was to return to chaos, that frightening view just behind Paradise. Not to know the difference between the public thing, the res publica, and the intimate is to surrender that delicate balance of order which alone makes the state a servant and not the people the servant of the state.”