Aug 112007

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show.

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show, watching the wide-screen video. It shows soldiers and firemen, then August Busch III, or maybe IV, representing Anheuser-Busch, the corporate parent. He tells us to honor our heroes, which we do, with applause. A whale trainer, perky, live, asks everyone who has served in the American, Canadian, or British Armed Forces to rise. They do, to more applause. I wonder where Australia went. The video ends and the show begins. Shamu splashes soldier and civilian alike.

Bertha, my server for the evening, points out that she makes the salads. I do not order one.

My ten-year-old niece says that she does not understand me and I scare her.

(After our new Poet Laureate.)

Update: Jim Henley comments. Jim and I have had our disagreements in the past, but we stand to shoulder to shoulder in the unalterable conviction that, as bad a poet as Charles Simic is, Billy Collins is worse, perhaps the worst in human history. Sound and Fury comments.

Jul 242007

The odor from the stinkbomb that Colby Cosh lobbed at The Sopranos has wafted hither. T.S. Eliot notoriously remarked that the only method of the critic is to be very intelligent. This doesn’t help the writer much, but it saves the reader all kinds of time, allowing him to skip, say, the critical efforts of Brian Williams, the noted newsreader. Williams, to be fair, is terrifically game about the whole business, and one must admire him, in the way Dr. Johnson admired a woman preaching.

By the same standard, we are obliged to treat Colby’s comments seriously:

I haven’t seen very many episodes of The Sopranos over the years — only just enough to know that it was a derivative show universally praised for its originality, and an amazingly slackly-written show universally praised for its tight writing.

David Chase is supposed to have had the whole thing pretty well sketched out in his godlike genius brain right from the get-go, and if you can believe that while fumbling with the loose ends of two dozen plot threads, you’ll believe it was incredibly inventive to have a mob boss living in a New Jersey suburban neighbourhood in the guise of a waste-management executive. (Did the producers ever just go ahead and actually put a “DARK UNDERBELLY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM LOCATED HERE–NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY” sign on the front lawn of Casa Soprano?)

Here Colby has forgotten the second, implied part of Eliot’s injunction: to be very intelligent while practicing criticism. Yes, the big theme of the show is unmissable, like many big themes. Their size makes them relatively easy to spot. Let’s try a few. Emma: people must discover their happiness for themselves. Lost Illusions: success and merit are weakly correlated. The Brothers Karamazov: Christianity or moral chaos, the choice is yours. The Man Without Qualities: I, Robert Musil, am the cleverest man in the world.

Two of these are obvious. Two are false. Yet the books are all very much worth reading. Such merit as they have must lie elsewhere.

The Sopranos‘s big theme markedly resembles that of The Great Gatsby, though I for one am thankful to be spared a shot of James Gandolfini floating face-down in his swimming pool. Yet anyone who leveled the “no flash photography” charge at Fitzgerald would be missing the point. You read The Great Gatsby for the beautiful shirts and the voice full of money, the cufflinks of Meyer Wolfsheim and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Jordan Baker cheating at golf and young Jimmy Gatz studying electricity from 7:15 to 8:15 every morning.

Details from The Sopranos adhere to your consciousness in the same way. A witness is gung-ho to testify in a murder case, until he finds out the perp is Tony Soprano. In the scene in which he changes his mind, the book he’s reading is Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Tony’s dreadful mother dies, and his dreadful sister conducts the wake by going around the room and insisting that each guest dredge up a pleasant memory. In the very top of the frame Uncle Junior enters the room, has no idea what’s going on except that he wants nothing to do with it, and bolts up the stairs. Or in the last season, we have Junior again, now confined to an asylum for the criminally insane, running a poker game for imaginary stakes in a parody of his mob life, itself a parody of legitimate business. Yet to Junior and his young MIT-educated Chinese underling, life in the asylum is the only life there is, and the parody gradually grows earnest. None of these bits advance the main plot threads in the slightest. You watch the show, in short, for what John Crowe Ransom used to call “texture.”

“Slackly written” is an epithet, and you can’t win a wrestling match with an epithet. Certainly for many episodes, and a couple entire seasons, like Five and Six, “slack” is a charitable term. Eighty hours of television, even some of the best television that has ever been, will have its slow spots. In this The Sopranos resembles every epic work of art ever produced by man. You don’t want to read the theory of history with which Tolstoy concludes War and Peace or Victor Hugo’s hymn to the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables either, believe me.

The Sopranos went on too long because most of its characters were not intelligent enough to trace story arcs — more like lazy circles. Christopher goes on drugs, goes off drugs, goes on drugs again, goes off the road while on drugs. Carmela threatens to leave Tony, doesn’t, finally does, returns, threatens to leave again, sticks this time. A.J. does stupid shit, grows older, does really stupid shit. Everyone ends up as he began, or dead. This is what makes it inferior to Deadwood and The Wire. And this is the criticism that Colby might have made and did not, because to make it requires watching more episodes than “not very many.”

Mar 132007

Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism is a comprehensive, highly entertaining history of libertarianism with too many points of interest — Murray Rothbard’s solution to the free rider problem (“so what?”), Milton Friedman’s sterling character, The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Deontologist — to deal with in a single post. Instead I want to talk about the notes.

Radicals for Capitalism is a scholarly, though not an academic, book, and like many such books it does plenty of business in the notes. Not as much as some, like Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which the notes are longer than the text, but enough. For instance, my friend (and frequent commenter) Jim Valliant’s book on the Brandens, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, receives a half-page treatment in the endnotes, but none in the text. Out of 2,000 notes, there are 400 or so that you want to read; the rest are simple source citations.

Doherty’s notes receive the standard treatment, which is to say the worst possible. The notes are renumbered by chapter, but each page of notes is headed, usefully, “Notes”; the chapter titles occur only on the beginning page of the notes for that chapter. To look up an endnote, then, you have to remember the number, remember the chapter number, flip to the notes section, locate the beginning page of the correct chapter, and then flip forward to the right note number, only to be disappointed most of the time with a mere source cite. (Admittedly it would be more efficient to use a bookmark, but I never have one handy, and they tend to fall out. At any rate, the necessity confesses design failure.)

Yet this is all so simple to fix. There are five rules for notes:

1. Footnotes, provided they are short and sparse, are better than endnotes. They can be consulted immediately and without effort. Obviously in a book like Doherty’s endnotes are necessary.

2. Each endnote page should be headed by the page numbers of the notes it contains, to facilitate easy flipping. For example, “Notes, pp. 537-558”; not “Notes: Chapter Seven,” or “Notes: A Stupid Chapter Title That I’ve Forgotten and Now You’re Gonna Make Me Look It Up,” or, God forbid, “Notes.”

3. Notes should not be numbered. Numbers tax the reader needlessly, especially when they reach three figures. They should be marked by a symbol in the text, something like this* or this. In the back they should be referenced by the page number and the last few words of the passage that they annotate, which are the easiest things to remember.

It would be especially helpful to use two symbols, to distinguish substantive comments from simple citations, telling the reader when to flip to the back and when not to bother. I have never seen this in a scholarly book, and I wonder why.

4. The notes must be indexed. In Doherty’s book they are not. Had Jim Valliant gone looking for himself in the index, as I am assured august persons are wont to do, he would have come up empty. Why make trouble for Jim? If he merits a substantive mention, he also merits an index entry. I realize this is extra work. I expect extra work for my thirty-five bones, now marked down to $23.10, plus shipping.

5. The text should contain as little scholarly detritus as possible. Academic books often include source citations in the text, which avails the author the opportunity to look more erudite and avails the reader nothing, since if he wants to look up the source he has to consult the biblliography anyway. If the book has endnotes, that’s where the source cites belong.

A brilliant exception to this rule is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which contains no specific source cites, only an occasional parenthesis, when discussing a topic, that “the book to read is…” or “the book to browse in is…” If you are a nonagenarian and the world’s preeminent living intellectual, you can write like that. The rest of us cannot afford to be so peremptory. Still, Barzun’s asides have furthered my education, which is more than I can say for the usual uncommented bibliography.

*Yes, a circle would be better. I can’t get a circle the right size using HTML character codes. Sorry.

Yes, a larger bullet would be better. See above. I trust you get the idea.

Update: Another intransigent opponent of endnotes, Billy Beck, heard from. I thank him for his recommendation of the Zerby book, which I will look up. Kieran Healy comments. Andrew Gelman comments. James Joyner comments. Evan Hughes comments.

Feb 202007

Our Girl in Chicago, Laura Demanski, has roused me from my torpor by asking for an interpretation of Philip Larkin’s Spring. She might want to quote the whole sonnet instead of its last six lines. Fourteen consecutive lines of verse will probably not tax most readers unduly. Larkin was an accomplished and rigorous editor of his own poems, and if he had wanted the octet omitted he might have thought to do so himself.

Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

The last three words baffle Laura; we will come to them presently. She cites a “reading” of the poem (which also quotes it only in part) that sheds no light on them.

I’d read lots of odes to Spring in my time but none that contained his piquant blend of lyricism and discontent. How often had I not felt that nature was doing its beautiful best but that my mood or circumstances simply didn’t match it? All of us must, at some time, have felt out of harmony with nature. The line ‘And those she has least use for see her best’ acknowledges the paradox that if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents, Spring would not be noticeable except as an accompaniment to one’s own blossoming. We see it so clearly because the contrast with our own state is so marked.

This is less a reading than a view from 10,000 feet, and none too clear at that. The theme of Spring is the radical discontinuity between conscious and subconscious or unconscious life, to which a phrase like “if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents” scarcely does justice. The poem is not a description of an unspringlike “mood,” and the “contrast with [his] own state” is incidental. The poet sees spring clearly because he possesses intellect, which is “indigestible,” sterile, unnatural. It is the subject of the poem, although the word never appears. Thinking humans feel “out of harmony with nature” because they are out of harmony with nature.

The theme is not original with Larkin. One finds it in many of the tougher poets — in Emily Dickinson (What mystery pervades a well), in Tristan Corbière (La Rapsode Foraine et la Pardon de Sainte-Anne: “L’innocent est près du ciel”), and in Yvor Winters (A Summer Commentary), among others.

The details in the octet are carefully managed. Nothing is at eye level. Larkin starts on the ground, with people sitting, walking, fingering the grass. “Walk in rings” is literally what people do in parks; it also connotes aimlessness, subconsciousness, mere existence. In the third line the poet shifts his attention upward, to the “calmly” standing cloud and singing bird. The adverb is chosen advisedly: their calm is the calm of belonging, as he himself, in his “pursed-up way,” does not. The light of the sun in the fifth line directs one’s attention to the ground again, to the bouncing balls and barking dogs, and then suddenly we encounter the striking “branch-arrested mist of leaf,” as if the poet were looking upside-down at the tree, growing out of the sky, leaves first, instead of the ground. With all of this back-and-forth between earth and sky, “threading,” in line seven, becomes peculiarly apt.

Lines nine through eleven, with their “piquant” description of the season, have made the poem famous. Such piquancy as they have arises from their continuation of the theme. Spring is “gratuitous” in both the primary and secondary senses. It spawns life — excited, multiple — in a way no other season does, for nothing, gratuitously. (The container, spring, is “excited,” while the contained, the cloud and the bird, are calm.) At the same time, for the poet, spring is also gratuitous, unnecessary — just grist for the conscious mill. “Untaught flower” emphasizes, again, the unbridgeable barrier between thought and not-thought.

In his summary Larkin ironically chooses another nature metaphor, “mountain-clear,” to describe his apartness from nature. One never breaks away entirely. The poet walks in the park too. By now the “immodest needs” should be clear. Spring, for him, will not suffice: it is not enough to breathe and bark and sing and caper. His vocabulary is equally immodest: he treads — threads — “circuitous paths”; those whom the season “has use for” merely walk in rings. Larkin finds this conclusion too grandiose for the feeling of the poem, and he undercuts it with a rhythmic trick. The last line has eleven syllables and rhymes on its feminine ending, giving the impression of trailing off in a mumble. Immodesty, put as modestly as possible.

Update: Laura is not a dullard. She has written a vast deal of entertaining and informative prose, which is not what dullards do. One does not suddenly become a dullard by failing to quote the octet.

Dec 082006

The first piece of advice in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style concerns punctuation — the proper use of the apostrophe. I learn that I must write “Charles’s execution,” but “Jesus’ crucifixion.” Already my prose is improving, though not at the rate I would like.

Items 2 through 8 also concern punctuation. I learn to balance my commas, and to handle colons, semi-colons, and em-dashes with aplomb.

Punctuation is important. Its abuse can be a source of unintentional hilarity. (“I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”) Some would go so far as to regard it as an index to character. On its wings a marginally literate Englishwoman has soared to international celebrity. But The Elements of Style purports to be a guide to writing English. A badly punctuated essay can be corrected in minutes. A badly written essay can probably never be corrected at all.

Strunk and White expand their range in Items 9 and 10, which advise, respectively, that subject and verb agree in number and that pronouns be proper case. This is unexceptionable: as most of these errors derive from being unable to determine the subject or the case, it is also useless. With a final warning against dangling modifiers, buttressed by several amusing, if unlikely, examples (“Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”), Strunk and White conclude their “Rules of Usage” and move on to “Principles of Composition.”

There are eleven of these:

1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
3. Use the active voice.
4. Put statements in positive form.
5. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
6. Omit needless words.
7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
9. Keep related words together.
10. In summaries, keep to one tense.
11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

A strange mix of the anodyne, the obvious, and the risible. Omitting needless words is a fine idea, certainly better than adding them. (And how much better to choose a suitable design than an unsuitable one!) To judge from White’s introduction, it appears to have been a particular favorite of Strunk’s:

In the days when I was sitting in [Strunk’s] class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Willy Three Times, with so many minutes to spare, might have mentioned, in order of increasing importance, omitting needless sentences, omitting needless paragraphs, omitting needless chapters, and omitting needless books of advice. He might have touched on how to judge what is needless, which is where the trouble lies. But this would be difficult to do in “a hortatory essay…. of sixty-three words.”

The cabal of linguistics professors at Language Log likes to laugh at Strunk and White. They go especially hard on using the active voice and omitting needless words. Sometimes they lose their cool. A “vile collation of stupid advice and false claims about grammar”? Stupid and false perhaps, but vile? Professor overboard!

At any rate, the merits of the particular principles are mostly beside the point. The list reminds me of the to-do lists I make periodically, which include items like “learn Spanish” and “blog more often,” and items like “take out the trash” and “pick up the dry cleaning.” I somehow never get around to blogging more often or learning Spanish. The Strunk and White reader will never get around to choosing, and holding to, a suitable design either — not that the book would aid him if he did.

The hyphen, parenthesis, quotation mark, and exclamation point — apparently the red-headed stepchildren of punctuation — are relegated to Section Three, “A Few Matters of Form,” along with a few desultory bits of advice about dates, titles, margins, headings, and syllabification that must have fit nowhere else. The Elements is not, shall we say, rigidly organized. What did I read somewhere about choosing and holding to a suitable design?

Section Four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” parades the usual suspects alphabetically: aggravate vs. irritate, irregardless, nauseous vs. nauseated, try to vs. try and, and so on. Such lists have historical interest at best. Strunk’s original, which included cranks like studentry for student body and forcible for forceful, might have made mildly diverting reading. But White, and subsequent editors (the franchise has fallen to his stepson and fellow New Yorker icon, Roger Angell), felt obliged to keep things current, so the section now reads like a transcript of Patricia T. O’Connor’s NPR show. Ambrose Bierce’s little book, Write It Right, is the same kind of collection, with two advantages over Strunk and White. Bierce is wittier; and he had only one edition to prepare. It is amusing to read his objections to “conservative estimate,” because “having been found to have several meanings, conservative seems to be thought to mean anything”; or to “United States” as a singular noun, because “grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.” It is edifying to learn that sideburns, in 1909, was still considered a vulgarism for burnsides.

Although Bierce’s book and Strunk’s original were almost exactly contemporary, they sometimes differ, and where they do Bierce always wins on points. For Bierce — and for me, and for Webster’s 2ndgratuitous means “without cost,” while for Strunk and White it means “unwarranted.” Strunk and White allow clever, in the sense of good-natured, to apply to horses, though not to people; Bierce says that “in this sense the word was once in general use in the United States, but is now seldom heard and life here is less insupportable.”

With Section Four Strunk’s contribution ends. For the first edition White added Section Five, “An Approach to Style,” in an effort not to shortchange his publisher. He begins by asserting that “style is something of a mystery,” which does not stop him from going on for another twenty pages in an attempt to unravel it. He takes as his text the first sentence of Common Sense: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Here we have eight short, easy words, forming a simple declarative sentence. The sentence contains no flashy ingredient such as “Damn the torpedoes!” and the words, as you see, are ordinary. Yet in that arrangement they have shown great durability; the sentence is now almost into its third century. Now compare a few variations:

Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it in any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion. We could, of course, talk about “rhythm” and “cadence,” but the talk would be vague and unconvincing.

Is this really so mysterious? A cursory consideration of the alternatives immediately removes the second, which sounds personal and petulant, as if Paine were short next month’s rent; and the fourth, with its grisly “soulwise.” The original is a perfect line of iambic tetrameter, with the first foot inverted — a common pattern in English poetry. None of the alternatives, except the hopeless fourth, scan naturally. Paine manages the buzzing sibilants brilliantly, bookending the first half of the line with “these” and “times” to produce a heavy caesura, and placing “men’s” next to “souls” to lengthen, and thus emphasize, the final foot. Strunk, who wrote a book about English meter, could have explained this easily. Unfortunately when White wrote this passage Strunk had been dead for a decade.

White continues with twenty-one more rules, which would be classed, if the book were properly organized, with Strunk’s Principles of Composition, and suffer from most of the same defects. I, for one, find it especially helpful to be told to be clear, to write naturally, not to overwrite or overstate, and not to explain too much. Before White, I used to try to be obscure, write unnaturally and floridly, exaggerate, and beat every point into the ground. White’s advice to write with nouns and verbs I will leave to Language Log. An admonition, contradicting the spirit of the previous eighty-four pages, that “style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” brings The Elements of Style to a merciful close.

This sorry hash has become a modern American classic, selling more than ten million copies. High schools require it. Parents send their children off to college with a copy packed in the luggage. People who ought to know better continue to recommend it, whether out of ignorance or deference is difficult to say. My mother likes it, and she hates everything but Middlemarch.

The Elements of Style, at its birth, had the field to itself. Today writing guides litter the aisles at Barnes & Noble, largely because of its success; but in 1959, when Macmillan commissioned White to whip it up, there was Fowler, who was scholarly and British, and very little else. White was also famous, which is how Americans prefer their how-to authors. Famous mathematicians write primers on mathematics, and famous physicists write primers on physics, but for some reason primers on writing are traditionally consigned to obscurities. Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who wrote Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best style book I know, are distinguished academics, but you’ve never heard of them.

The Elements of Style owes its success, above all, to its cramped and pedantic outlook. Strunk and White treat writing from the point of view of the copy editor, as if there were nothing that a vigorous line edit couldn’t fix. In fact there is very little that a vigorous line edit can fix. It certainly would not fix The Elements of Style.

I know only two infallible rules for writing well. First, read good writing: take it apart to see how it works, where it succeeds and fails, and then imitate it as best you can. Who would produce must first consume. (Faulkner recommends reading bad writing as well, but I have tried reading Faulkner, and it did me no good.) Second, write exactly what you think. Certain authors, like Céline and Henry Miller, have survived despite prose that lacks every virtue but this one. Most of us suppress our best material, in the interest of job security or domestic tranquility or not being forced to flee the country.

These rules, in guidebook form, would not sell ten thousand copies, let alone ten million. They require diligence, persistence, and courage to follow. Don’t bother. Spend your time balancing commas, double-checking apostrophes, eliminating adverbs, rewriting passives, and rearranging conjunctions. You’ll make teacher happy, and you won’t have to go into exile.

Update: Maxine Clarke comments. It is odd that in England, of all places, they seem not to have heard of the Oxford comma, but there it is. Frank Wilson comments. Derek Lowe comments. Battlepanda comments. Thudfactor comments.

Oct 242006

Discoveries of unpublished poems by famous poets depress me. We already suffer from an enormous glut of poetry — even, perhaps especially, by famous poets — and of art of all sorts. A law that required artists to burn half of their finished product, the way Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls, would vastly improve public taste. Poems are generally left unpublished when their author does not think they merit publication. There are exceptions, and accidents. A pretty good Philip Larkin poem escaped publication because of girl trouble. Wallace Stevens omitted one of his best poems, “The Course of a Particular,” from his collected verse, although he fortunately remembered to publish it elsewhere. But nearly always the poem is no good. Sometimes it’s not by the famous poet either.

Reading Robert Frost also depresses me. Frost is a popular poet, the closest thing to a poet laureate America ever had. He read at Kennedy’s inauguration, and he is said to have made a living from poetry. There are several reasons for this. Frost usually, and always at his best, writes short rhymed iambic poems; his readers feel assured that they’re reading honest-to-god poetry and not that sissy modern stuff. His themes are simple, his settings are rural, and his vocabulary is small. Frost looks the part, the very model of the crusty New England sage. His name doesn’t hurt either; it’s as good as Cary Grant’s, and he was born with it. Frost also has considerable talent (his best poems are probably here and here), but this is incidental.

I wrote in my last post about characteristic moments in the work of an artist. There is no need to search in Frost: his chief characteristic is a vacillating, go-with-the-flow pseudo-profundity that plays, and pays, especially well in America, and it is everywhere. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, perhaps, but one could also do a great deal better. Frost is perfectly satisfied with himself, and resents any attempt at improvement:

Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
(“Build Soil”)

Frost hedges this passage a bit with “rate,” but its import is obvious. He is openly hostile to intellect:

So if you find you must repent
From side to side in argument,
At least don’t use your mind too hard,
But trust my instinct – I’m a bard.
(“To a Thinker”)

No thanks. But it is a very American attitude.

To be fair, “The Road Not Taken”, his most famous poem, is celebrated principally because it is misread. It is usually thought to counsel leaving the beaten path, which is pretty pallid moral advice but is not what Frost has in mind. Its title, often misremembered, significantly, as “The Road Less Traveled,” refers to the path that the narrator doesn’t take, not the one he does. The narrator, confronted with the fork in the road, is “sorry that he could not travel both and be one traveler.” Neither path is much less traveled at all: “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” The traveler’s difficulty is, having chosen one, he misses his chance to choose the other, because “way leads on to way.” The poem does not advocate the road less traveled; it is about the agony of having to choose at all. Had the traveler chosen the way more traveled by, that, too, would have made all the difference. There is something sneaky about his putting the narrator on the less-traveled road, when either road serves the logic of the poem. I suspect Frost of intentionally inviting the common misreading.

Last month’s discovery of an unpublished Frost poem, therefore, occasioned no joy in the GotM household. The complete poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” is available only to subscribers to the Virginia Quarterly Review, which leaves you and me out. But I can piece it together from scattered quotations; and since I am too puny, I trust, for the VQR to sue for copyright infringement, here it is:

On the backside of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.

It is late in an afternoon
More grey with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow
When it is blue jay and crow
Or no bird at all.

So someone heeds from within
This flurry of bird war,
And rising from her chair
A little bent over with care
Not to scatter on the floor

The sewing in her lap
Comes to the window to see.
At sight of her dim face
The birds all cease for a space
And cling close in a tree.

And one says to the rest,
“We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.”

Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.

On that old side of the house
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.

Frost has one of the best ears among 20th-century poets, and it shows to advantage especially in the first and last stanzas. In the second stanza the grammar wanders. Frost’s preternaturally articulate animals make an egregious appearance (see “The Oven Bird,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and passim). Is it me, or is there something ridiculous about blue jays discussing the First World War? The central comparison, of fighting men with fighting birds, is trite. It is not among Frost’s best hundred poems, and if it had never been found no one would mourn its lack.

Its discoverer, Robert Stilling, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, likes it better than I do:

“War Thoughts at Home” dwells in that moment before darkness, doubting the necessity of the bravery that drives a soldier-poet like Thomas [Edward, a friend of Frost’s who was killed in the war] to enlist. Its doubt stands at odds with the poet’s own stoic convictions about war and violence. And the ending, dead on a side track? This is neither fire nor ice, but this is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend. These stanzas’ troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.

Stilling is shilling for his discovery, and who can blame him? I made too much fuss about a couple of unpublished poems myself, and I’m not bucking for tenure. But my God, Frost made a career out of a “troubling lack of conviction.” If he had abandoned poems on that account there would be nothing left. What we have, in short, is the spectacle of an ambitious graduate student, who has not read Frost with much attention, making his career on the back of a poem that Frost regarded, correctly, as unworthy of inclusion in his permanent work. Which is most depressing of all.

Sep 202006

In a footnote in Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, he has this to say of the ideal reader:

I am not [Saul Bellow’s] son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.

There is a theory to infer here, once we discard the prissy Platonism of the word “ideal.” A single ideal reader does not exist any more than a single soulmate. Still, some readers are better than others, and for the best of them the word will serve.

An ideal reader is a kindred spirit, not a doppelgänger. Hitch, the Trotskyite, and Kingsley, the Tory, are savage and bloody-minded in a way that Martin is not. Martin and Saul Bellow, on the other hand, both have a taste for wistful picaresque and a sense that even rotten bastards aren’t rotten all the way through. They treat phonies and frauds sensitively where neither Hitchens nor Kingsley would have the patience. (To see how Kingsley handles such people in his novels, read Hitchens on Mother Teresa or Bill Clinton.) It is no accident that The Adventures of Augie March is Martin’s favorite Bellow novel. Martin’s own best novel, Money, is a sort of picaresque itself: its moneyed yob, John Self, blunders and binges through America.

An ideal reader sometimes vastly surpasses his author — Poe’s ideal reader was Baudelaire. The other way around is impossible; understanding presupposes intelligence.

An ideal reader often writes about his author, but he is too near him, temperamentally, to play the judicious critic. He reads the author as the author would want to be read, not as others would want to read him.

The relationship can be, but is usually not, reciprocal. Edith Wharton’s ideal reader was certainly Henry James, although he had died by the time she wrote her best novel, The Age of Innocence; and Henry James’s ideal reader was very likely Edith Wharton.

Just as an author can have multiple ideal readers, so can a reader be ideal for multiple authors. My girlfriend is Quentin Crisp’s ideal reader; also Doug Kenney’s. You now know her better than her immediate family does.

Who is my ideal reader? I thought of Matt McIntosh, but no: he agrees with me too often, and the literary blather obviously bores him. My ideal reader, in an upset, is Conrad Roth, of the scholarly, whimsical, and criminally underrated Varieties of Unreligious Experience. He is literary but has mathematics as well, sympathetic but critical. (I am too poor a linguist to be Conrad’s ideal reader; he’s on his own.)

Whose ideal reader am I? In the world of actual books, I am of course Yvor Winters’ ideal reader. I have occasionally, unfairly, been regarded as a Winters epigone. (This is a Winters epigone.) Winters was a Thomist and a theist. He made more fuss about ranking poems than I do. His theory of free verse scansion differs entirely from mine. But we are both especially attuned to the conflict of the abstract and the particular, the subject of a large percentage of Winters’ favorite poems and an even larger percentage of his own verse. More to the point, we both regard “poetry-lovers” as the very people from whom poetry urgently needs to be rescued.

In the world of blogs, I am owned by Colby Cosh. This began to dawn on me one day, about the middle of last year, when I was contemplating a post about the great AC/DC — now, as ever, 100% irony-free! — only to discover that Cosh had already written it that morning. Several months later the realization was completed when I found myself linking to a few of his posts about hockey, a game I do not understand. His themes include, but are not limited to, the idiot innumeracy of journalists, bureaucratic idiocy, sportswriting idiocy, and idiocy all around. He is a shrewd literary critic, sometimes at my expense, when he cares to indulge. Our cats also look alike.

Who is your ideal reader? Whose ideal reader are you?

Update: Conrad Roth comments. I couldn’t have been a contender either. Megan McArdle comments. I report with embarrassment that I had to look up L.M. Montgomery.

Aug 142006


Idly browsing in the bookstore one day, I found this, carefully wrapped in onionskin and folded into an old edition of Hardy’s Collected Poems. The road to ignorance may be paved with good editions, as Bernard Shaw remarked, but its byways are littered with interesting ephemera.

Dear Mr. Smyth,

The assignment is all of the “Collected Poems” of Hardy. But I asked the class to give particular attention to those on pp. 7, 15, 58, 83, 99, 112, 124, 152, 161, 194, 222, 234, 248, 255, 269, 271, 288, 297, 325, 328, 369, 387, 390, 391-8, 409, 412, 439, 456, 505, 566, 598, 648, 658, 685, 710, 799.

I hope you recover quickly.


The signature is Mark Van Doren’s. Van Doren taught English at Columbia, including a legendary “Introduction to Poetry” course, for almost forty years. The tone of this note aligns with his reputation for brooking no nonsense, regularly tossing students out of class for failing to read the assignment. In his autobiography Van Doren claims (though I find this hard to credit) that a student once attempted to excuse a late term paper on the grounds of being in love. “Then you don’t love her very much,” Van Doren said. “How can you say that?” asked the student indignantly. “You won’t sacrifice a mark for her.”

He was also an excellent poet and critic, who wrote brief and readable books about Shakespeare, Dryden, and E.A. Robinson, among other subjects. The selections available on the web do not do his poetry justice, but this conveys some of the flavor.

Mark Van Doren is remembered only as the father of game-show cheat Charles Van Doren, and then only because of the hit movie made about the scandal, Quiz Show, in which he is played by Paul Scofield, with twinkly donnishness, as the soul of upright virtue — which, by all accounts, he was.

The hapless Mr. Smyth, it appears, was too ill to attend class and had to receive his assignment in writing. He must have quailed when he read it. All of the collected poems? All of them? They run to 800 pages of small print. I have read Hardy, quite assiduously, for years, and have not got round to nearly all of them. Nor do I expect to.

Unfortunately the poems Van Doren singles out for “particular attention” have more pedagogical than poetic interest. They include the Satires of Circumstance, which date badly; one or two philosophical colloquies that neatly clarify Hardy’s views on God and pessimism; and a few anthology favorites. They exclude all of his best poems.

Still, three generations of students found Van Doren inspiring. Even Smyth, once recovered, seems to have bestirred himself sufficiently to make an abortive start on the assignment. The table of contents shows the first six poems dutifully ticked off, and then nothing. One wonders how many times he was thrown out of class. However many it was, he kept the book, at least for a while, and took some pains to keep the note. Something probably got through.