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.

Sep 042006
 

No one thinks big thoughts about the morality of the shoe salesman, or the morality of the computer programmer, or the morality of the garbageman. But somehow the morality of the artist, who after all purveys a product, just like so many of the rest of us, becomes a source of endless hand-wringing and agonized speculation. Even the industrialist gets off comparatively lightly. Israel informally bans performances of Wagner because he wrote anti-Semitic tracts. Yet as far as I know you can drive a Ford there without getting funny looks, despite old Henry’s ravings in the Dearborn Independent.

In 1975 a career criminal named Jack Henry Abbott began writing Jerzy Kozinski letters from jail. These revolted Kozinski, so Abbott switched to Norman Mailer, a more promising customer. Mailer proclaimed Abbott a literary genius, a “phenomenon,” arranged for extracts from his letters to be published in The New York Review of Books, prevailed upon Random House to edit them down into a book, In the Belly of the Beast, and successfully lobbied the parole board to have him released from jail. Abbott appeared with Mailer on “Good Morning, America.” Susan Sarandon named her son after him. Six weeks into his release Abbott stabbed a waiter, Richard Adan, to death in an East Village restaurant. Adan was himself a promising writer, an irony lost on Mailer. “Culture is worth a little risk,” he noted at the trial. “Otherwise you have a Fascistic society. I am willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man’s talent.”

Twelve of the elements with which Mailer was willing to gamble convicted Abbott of first-degree manslaughter and sent him back to jail, this time for good. In 1987 he published one more book, My Return, demanding an apology from society for his treatment. Society demurred. In 2002 he hanged himself in his cell.

Martin Amis, writing about the case in 1981, says:

The first thing to be said about In the Belly of the Beast is that it isn’t any good. It isn’t any good. It is also the work of a thoroughly, obviously, and understandably psychotic mind: as such, it is a manifesto for recidivism. Its author, plainly, could not hope to abjure violence…. You can hear the paranoia snickering and wincing behind every word.

Amis quotes enough to leave the accuracy of his judgment in no doubt. But his relief is palpable. Suppose the book had been good? How in God’s name would that have justified Mailer or anybody else who wanted to let this maniac out of jail? Amis accuses Mailer of the “wishful misapprehension… that a ‘creative individual’ can’t be evil,” even as he labors under the converse, and equally wishful, misapprehension that an evil individual can’t be creative. The blurb copy for a biography of Richard Strauss inquires breathlessly: “Was Richard Strauss the most incandescent composer of the twentieth century or merely a bourgeoisie [sic] artist and Nazi sympathizer?” — as if these were mutually exclusive. Malcolm Cowley’s astonishing remark that “no complete son-of-a-bitch ever wrote a good sentence” represents the apotheosis of this attitude.

A couple weeks ago Terry Teachout divided artistic peccadillos into two classes: “statement-signing” and “wife-beating.” Neither, apparently, is all that awful, though the beaten wives might disagree. And the categories might be adequate to Mailer himself, if we stretch “wife-beating” to include wife-knifing. But one wonders: to which category does brigandage belong? Or male prostitution? Where do we file William “Tell” Burroughs’ little stunt? A new class for negligent homicide?

Since Terry carefully specifies that his categories apply only to “major,” “truly great” artists, one could object that neither Villon nor Genet nor Burroughs is “major.” This is wrong in the first case, right in the second, arguable in the third, and utterly beside the point. Nothing about their despicable behavior excludes them from making great art, just as it would not exclude them from high competence in some other field. Hitler was a lousy painter, but he need not have been. (To become Hitler he of course had to fail at painting, but that’s a completely different question.)

Terry, to his credit, confronts the extreme case directly:

I wouldn’t have any objection to placing a permanent ban on performances of Tristan und Isolde if it were to be revealed tomorrow morning that Hitler, not Wagner, had composed it. I wouldn’t support such a ban, but I wouldn’t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music. (It’s been broken once or twice in the past, but never without an outcry of public disapproval.)

Whoa. A permanent ban — on an opera? What does he propose to do about Mein Kampf? Next to that a Hitler-composed Tristan und Isolde looks pretty tame. I used to run a little sideline in picking on Terry, and I don’t mean to do so here. I cite him to show how this topic can derange ordinarily sensible people.

Consumers of art from moral defectives tend to come in three flavors: Transgressive Hipster, Disgruntled Fanboy, and Dime-Store Psychologist. For Transgressive Hipster vice is extra credit; it adds to the mystique of the artist as existential hero. One can chalk up the glowing reviews of In the Belly of the Beast to Transgressive Hipsterism, and no other theory can account for the popularity of Charles Bukowski, excepting possibly the theory that his books are very short. Transgressive Hipster is doubly unfortunate, having imbibed Mailer’s ideas while lacking his talent.

Disgruntled Fanboy thinks of the artist as his friend, and regards the artist’s bad behavior, or even the artist’s expression of opinions different from his own, as a personal betrayal. Of course his relationship with the artist is entirely imaginary, and it is certain that Fanboy, if he had the good fortune to meet his idol, would bore him to death. Disgruntled Fanboy can be observed, in pure form, in the 2003 boycott of the Dixie Chicks.

Dime-Store Psychologist, a Usenet fixture, holds that the life leaches into the work. He spends a great deal of time combing Wagner’s operas for anti-semitism, Yeats’s poetry for fascism, Woody Allen’s movies for pederasty, and so forth. Quite often he finds it. Many of Woody Allen’s movies are pederastic, and if you can’t abide them on that account, I understand. But that has everything to do with the movies and nothing to do with his diddling his teenaged stepdaughter while married to Mia Farrow. Lolita is more unpleasantly and graphically pederastic than anything Woody Allen ever wrote, despite the fact that Nabokov managed, in life, to keep his pants on.

What none of these types is doing is paying attention to the art; they are paying attention, but to something else. Pay attention to the art.

Read the books, look at the pictures, listen to the music. Then, should it prove necessary, call the cops.

Update: Ilkka Kokkarinen comments. I’d trade the navigation gizmo for a name with five k’s.

Aug 142006
 

homework

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.

Sincerely,

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.

Aug 122006
 

The idea that aesthetics has a lot to do with self-similarity occurred to Benoit Mandelbrot thirty or so years before it occured to me, although if you ask Mandelbrot there are vanishingly few ideas that didn’t occur to him first. It’s Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, and Mandelbrot, not necessarily in that order.

So it isn’t original, which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature is one of the best-selling books on mathematics of all time, mostly because it has a lot of pretty pictures. Fractals are fun to look at. Little copies of the whole structure are buried everywhere within it. Zoom in to 10 angstroms, or out to 10,000 feet: in any part of the picture the same intricate patterns appear.

In self-similarity the part resembles the whole. Symmetry, a different affair, describes a relation between parts. Self-similarity implies some form of symmetry. If A and B are both part of C, and both resemble C, then A will also resemble B, in some sense. But the converse is false. Parts A and B may resemble each other without either resembling the whole, C, in the slightest. One tends to think of self-similarity (and symmetry) as visual, but the principle is structural. The play-within-a-play and the colloquy of the gravediggers in Hamlet are instances of self-similarity. For symmetry, take a lesser play, say Noel Coward’s Nude with Violin, in which a famous modern artist resembling Picasso dies and turns out to have hired a different person to produce the work for each of his “periods.” Each act, in which one of the period painters shows up to claim a share of the estate, resembles the others, but none especially resembles the whole. The play is symmetrical but not self-similar.

Christopher Alexander, in The Nature of Order, gives fifteen principles for “living” architecture, at least six of which can be subsumed under self-similarity. “Local symmetries,” “deep interlock and ambiguity,” “echoes,” “positive space,” “good shape,” and “gradients” are all aspects of what I’m talking about. And a lucky thing too, as one of my principles is that no list of principles should reach double digits.

Alexander also includes “roughness” in his list, which is very much to the point. Fractals fall into two categories: exact and approximate. The first known fractal (arguably), the famous Koch curve, a mathematical monstrosity with unbounded perimeter but finite area, is exact. It is also boring. When you’ve seen one level you’ve seen it all. Everyone likes to look at baby animals. What makes them “cute” is that they are copies of their parents, but inexact ones. They belong to category two.

Self-similarity is a deeply ingrained way for people to see the world. All pre-scientific theories of genesis involve self-similarity. Embryos were first thought to be full-grown animals in miniature, with tiny heads and limbs. It sounds absurd now, but if you knew nothing of cell division and had no microscope handy you might make the same guess. Lamarck precedes Darwin because he assumes that all traits are inherited, that is, that self-similarity applies in full.

If art, as is commonly alleged, speaks to our deepest selves, one would expect it to show self-similarity everywhere, and sure enough it does. Pictures, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” which Mandelbrot reproduces in his book, are the first place to look. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are fractal. Music, to my untutored ear, is replete with structures that repeat approximately on different scales, such as leitmotifs taken up first by the winds, then the strings, the brass, and eventually the whole orchestra. I will leave this speculation to those who know, as I do not.

Poetry, however, I do know something about, and perfectly symmetrical verse forms have never gained much traction in English. The sonnet has fourteen lines, and in neither of its standard forms do these lines divide into identical groups. The Petrarchan version has its octet and sextet, and the Elizabethan its three quatrains, along with that last awkward couplet that Shakespeare could never quite figure out what to do with. The villanelle, with its six triplets and 19th line, exhibits the same sort of approximate symmetry. Then there’s the Spenserian stanza, eight lines of pentameter with an alexandrine tacked on to the end. A while back I remarked the stupor produced by extended passages of Pope, in reams of closed, perfectly balanced heroic couplets. Neatness is not all your second-grade teacher cracked it up to be.

Great poems exhibit symmetry and, especially, self-similarity in a high degree, though this may not be obvious to the casual reader. Consider Ben Jonson’s To Heaven:

1 Good and great God, can I not think of Thee,
2 But it must, straight, my melancholy be?
3 Is it interpreted in me disease,
4 That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?
5 O be Thou witness, that the reins dost know
6 And hearts of all, if I be sad for show;
7 And judge me after: if I dare pretend
8 To aught but grace, or aim at other end.
9 As Thou art all, so be Thou all to me,
10 First, midst, and last, converted One and Three,
11 My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state,
12 My judge, my jury, and my advocate.
13 Where have I been this while exiled from Thee,
14 And whither rapt, now Thou but stoop’st to me?
15 Dwell, dwell here still! O, being everywhere,
16 How can I doubt to find Thee ever here?
17 I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
18 Conceived in sin, and unto labor born,
19 Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
20 And destined unto judgment after all.
21 I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground
22 Upon my flesh t’inflict another wound.
23 Yet dare I not complain or wish for death,
24 With holy Paul, lest it be thought the breath
25 Of discontent; or that these prayers be
26 For weariness of life, not love of Thee.

Jonson longs for death while rejecting that longing intellectually. To understand this you must enter partly into the Christian experience. If you refuse, then a large portion of great art is partly or wholly closed to you, and the loss is not easily afforded. It may help to remember that you would likely be Christian had you been born in England in the 16th century. Human beings were no different then, you are extremely unlikely to be more intelligent than Ben Jonson was, and the number of atheists in England at the time was an engineering zero.

The poem is a prayer and an apology, and contains, in good fractal style, several prayers and apologies within itself. It is written in heroic couplets, but is 26 lines long, and naturally resists, like most of the classic English verse forms, division into equal parts. There are no enjambments until the very end, in lines 24 and 25. Every full stop ends a line. Yet the movement escapes Pope’s monotony because the argument moves forward and the syntactic unit varies. There are nine sentences (if we count the ejaculation that begins line 15 as part of the question); In line count they run two, two, four, four, two, two, four, two, and four.

The first sixteen lines deal mostly with God, the last ten mostly with man. Both sections are syntactically symmetrical. The first opens with two questions of two lines apiece and closes the same way. The second reverses the procedure, surrounding the short sentence with the two longer ones.

In lines 11 and 12 “faith, hope, and love” are exactly the qualities that a Christian might exhibit toward his “judge, jury, and advocate,” respectively — no other order would do. Jonson’s sleight-of-hand at the end of line 10, where he interposes a reference to the Trinity (“converted One and Three”) to break up his literal trinities, simply beggars praise.

The Elizabethan fondness for wordplay is employed tastefully, for once (cf. “when first your eye I eyed”). “Everywhere” and “ever here,” in lines 15 and 16, are effective; but “disease” and “ease,” in lines 3 and 4, are a masterstroke. “Ease” implies “death,” and sure enough we find “death” at the end of line 23, as distant from the end of the poem as “ease” is from the beginning. “Thee” rhymes with “be” to begin the poem, and “be” with “Thee” to end it. “Me” and “Three” and “Thee” and “me” are rhymed again almost exactly in the middle of the poem, separated by one couplet. “[J]udge me after” in line 7 balances “judgment after all” in line 20. “After all,” a throat-clearing device in most writers, including me, is resurrected here to become living language.

Despite a theme that will not resonate with most modern readers, To Heaven remains one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Can there be any doubt that it is largely the structure — the fractal — that we respond to?

Jul 312006
 

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The modern screenwriting instructor would say that the grief-stricken queen has an arc: she lives, she saddens, she dies. For an arc you need at least three points: with only two you have a straight line. This blog also had an arc. It began uncertainly, thrashing about for topics and style. Gradually it found subject matter, in cultural criticism, and received a bit of notice. It grew, modestly in readers, by leaps and bounds in self-importance. Posts lengthened; intervals between posts lengthened vastly. At last the blog undertook to remake Western philosophy from the ground up, beginning with thermodynamics. This project included formulae and could not be understood without them — a more or less deliberate affront to the blog’s mostly literary readers. Alpha theory was pursued through seven installments, at immense intervals. The rest, inevitably, was silence.

This arc, which one might call Self-Immolation, was traced more impressively by the British band Talk Talk. They began as ordinary synth-poppers: The Party’s Over, their first record, could have been made by Duran Duran (for whom they opened on a 1982 tour) or any of two dozen groups of the period. Their second record, It’s My Life, is great of its kind but is still recognizable as a kind. Their third record, The Colour of Spring, is transitional; about half of it still sounds like rock and it can be enjoyed by people who are not tuned to the band’s precise wavelength. It was a commercial success, produced a hit single, “Life’s What You Make It,” and induced the band’s record company, EMI, to give them an immense budget and plenty of time to make their next record.

Alienating your audience and infuriating your sponsor are the essence of Self-Immolation, and Talk Talk disappointed on neither front. The band disappeared into an abandoned church, spent the budget and then some while refusing to release any advance tapes to the company, and emerged fourteen months later with Spirit of Eden. They proceeded to inform EMI that there would be no singles. No tour either, since the arrangements were too complex to recreate live. EMI nonetheless released “I Believe in You” as a single without permission. The band promptly sued. EMI countersued for breach of contract, on the grounds that this wasn’t the record they were expecting, or everybody has to tour whether he promised to or not, or the band could have made a hit record if they felt like it but they just didn’t feel like it, or something. One outcome of the litigation was that the group was forced to make a “video” for its “single.” By chance, on MTV, I saw what was probably its sole airing. It consisted of Mark Hollis, the singer, sitting on a stool, against a white background, singing and playing guitar, in one, uncut shot, for seven minutes.

Spirit of Eden was an equally spectacular critical success and commercial flop. It does not resemble any other music I know, except the band’s next and last record. I cannot, in words, make it seem palatable, let alone appetizing. (This may be a general problem; music critics seem to write around the music rather than about it.) It sounds, to the unaccustomed ear, like long stretches of whale sounds punctuated by brief outbursts of noisy free jazz. Regardless, listening to it is as close, with music, as I have ever come to the “transcendence” about which George Hunka and AC Douglas have been known to natter on and in which I usually profess not to believe.

After Spirit of Eden the band moved to Verve and made Laughing Stock, the same sort of thing only more so. There was nothing left to do but break up. As Mark Hollis put it in an interview, “When we finished Laughing Stock, there was no way I could get my head around doing another album because what we’d just done was so complete an expression of what I wanted to do, that the idea of writing something different just seemed impossible at the time.” There, in a sentence, is the Self-Immolator’s credo.

Yet it is difficult, without dying, to self-immolate entirely. Time hangs heavily. Talk Talk’s other members went on to form other bands and do other things. Hollis himself released a solo record years later, so ethereal that it is barely there. Although he has not been heard from in nearly a decade I would not be too surprised to see him return again.

In my own far smaller way, I too have decided to spoil my story arc and revive the blog. Partly because I have reached an age where I forget what I don’t write down, and partly because — well, I miss you guys.

Still, Hollis’s philosophy is a bit grandiose for me. I prefer to draw my inspiration from Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap bassist, who tells the band, before their first post-Nigel gig, as it dawns on them that without Nige they have no songs left to play, “You know what that leaves, don’t you? Jazz odyssey.” Welcome, then, to God of the Machine Mach 2. We hope you enjoy our new direction.

Aug 202005
 

Camille Paglia very likely agrees with Woody Allen that 80% of life is showing up. Author, teacher, scholar, advice columnist, courageous defier of contemporary orthodoxies left and right, tireless propagandist for the rapist within, and so much more, Paglia doesn’t just show up, she never goes away.

As for the nature of this prodigious output, we have Sexual Personae; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art; Sex, Art and American Culture; Sex in New York City: An Illustrated History; Madonna Megastar; Sex and the Single Professor. Can anyone find the pattern here?

Still, Paglia must weary of a single subject, and in Break, Blow, Burn she has ventured into poetry. The book is a “close reading” of 43 short poems ranging in time from Shakespeare to the present. One might think that so busy a woman as Paglia wouldn’t have time to learn anything about poetry. She doesn’t.

I am prepared to absolve her of much of the criticism of Break, Blow, Burn, which has been directed toward her selection. Supposing that Paglia thought these the greatest 43 poems in English — and she nowhere makes such a claim — her 43 would inevitably differ from yours or mine. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Dickinson, and Roethke have three poems each; Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Stevens, and W.C. Williams two apiece. The warhorses — “The World is Too Much with Us,” “Westminster Bridge,” “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “Song of Myself” — are out in force, but leavened with a few excellent and lesser-known choices, like George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s pallid “Woodstock” has occasioned grumbling, but rock lyrics are what mostly passes for poetry nowadays, and it is by no means the worst poem in the book.

I am willing to overlook her tasteless attempts at relevance and titillation. (I remember reading a passage from Vamps and Tramps in praise of the “Dionysian” Rolling Stones and thinking, Whoa. The Stones. How cool is that?) She wants to use “Leda and the Swan” as an excuse to talk about swan penises? OK. She wants to characterize the worms in “To His Coy Mistress” as “gang rapists,” or the relationship between Hamlet’s father and Claudius as “male-on-male rape”? Fine. She wants to call Sylvia Plath “the first female rocker”? All right. You’ve opened a Paglia book and this is the price of admission.

What I cannot forgive is the violence she does to the poems themselves. Poetry achieves its effects through the relationship between sound and sense, and to elucidate them requires technical analysis. You have to read carefully and you have to know something. Zero for two, you may want to consider another line of work.

On Herbert’s “Church Monuments” she essays this remarkable passage:

The memento mori takes the form of an hourglass with the curvilinear silhouette of the human body: “That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” As the sands flow through the hourglass, Herbert makes us hear and feel faint, regular pulses (like a water clock) on the words “flesh,” “glasse,” “dust,” and “time.” Then, with the end of time, the hourglass wobbles and tumbles off the end of one line onto the next, where it smashes to powder.

….The poem is in fact structured like a fall — a formal cascade like Baroque fountain: Herbert ignores the stanza breaks and lets his sentences spill over the gap. The effect is refreshing, like soft rain dribbling off a roof. The poem’s playful, soothing rhythms distance its unsettling imagery of death and decay.

From the top: the body as an hourglass is a commonplace of the English Renaissance. It is not intended to be visualized; such resemblance as exists applies only to women, in the best case, and is irrelevant in this poem. The quoted lines sound nothing like a water clock (in part because water clocks don’t make noise). They derive their effect from variation: the heavy accents on “glasse,” “dust,” “time,” and “dust” again, come after six syllables, then four, then six, and finally ten. The famous last line of Greville’s elegy on Sidney produces a similar effect: “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.”

Assuming the hourglass were involved, “smash” would be a singularly inappropriate verb for a poem about dissolution. But the antecedent of “which also shall be crumbled into dust” is “all our time,” not the hourglass. The thought of time itself dissolving gives this passage much of its concentration and power.

It would be difficult for a poet to “ignore” his own stanza breaks, but in any case Herbert published the poem without them; later editors added them to clarify the rhyme scheme. Yes, the stanzas are all enjambed, but the most violent enjambment of all, on which Paglia does not see fit to comment, comes mid-stanza, in the very passage she quotes, between “shall” and “be,” which splits a verb phrase and emphasizes the utter finality of the end of all things.

The rhythms in this passage, and throughout the poem, are as far from “refreshing” or “playful” or “soothing” as can be imagined, as any moderately sensitive reader can hear for himself. (Not that rain dribbling off a roof is too refreshing either, unless you’re thirsty.) Herbert does not try to “distance” his reader from death and decay; quite the contrary. His rhythms emphasize the grimness of his subject in the most effective possible way.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I,” though a fine poem, is metrically undistinguished in every respect. Of line 13:

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art

Paglia writes: “Rapid, darting rhythms capture the dove’s flight as it swoops in to ‘wing’ the poet’s soul to safety.” Never mind that she invents the dove: Donne is rarely rapid, and never darting, and this line is among the statelier in the history of English literature. In each of the first three feet the unaccented syllable is longer than the accented, which slows and flattens the line. The awkward juxtaposition of a dental and a glottal in the second and third feet slows it further. How much of this is accidental, Donne being Donne, is a nice question. For “darting rhythms” try his contemporaries Campion or Greene or Peele. They are all inferior to Donne as poets but incomparably superior as metrists.

W.C. Williams, a master of tiny sound effects, she simply does not understand. The miracle of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has nothing to do with the fact that the stanzas look like wheelbarrows, though I suppose they do. It is the contrast between the red of the beginning and the white of the end, and the echoing vowel sounds, long long short, in the lines “glazed with rain / water” and “beside the white / chickens”. Paglia proceeds to claim that “This Is Just to Say” resembles an icebox, crossing over from irrelevance into absurdity. The rhythms of the poem are not “halting”; the feet vary widely, and often inversely, in length and speed, which is essential in good free verse. You can hear it especially in the two lines “they were delicious / so sweet”, where the two-syllable foot is slower than the five-syllable one.

The narrator of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” according to Paglia, “shares [Blake’s chimney] sweep’s dangerous naivete: both are cheerful, chatty innocents who meet but never comprehend the dark forces at work in the world.” There is nothing “chatty” or “sing-song” about the first stanza; its diction is exact, and “kindly,” on which she places so much emphasis, is intended ironically. The narrator shows the same intelligence from beginning to end. It is not the “Or rather” at the beginning of the fourth stanza that provokes “the hesitation or stutter”; it is the fact that Dickinson inverts her usual hymn meter of four feet followed by three to three followed by four. The line “the dews grew quivering and chill” does not involve metonymy, which is not adequately defined as “rhetorical displacement.” Paglia’s aside about “Dickinson’s archaic, Anglo-Saxon capitalizations (which were condescendingly ‘corrected’ and removed in the first posthumous collections of her work)” is a slur on Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Bianchi, who displayed more sensibility in editing her poems than her later editor Johnson did and far more than Paglia does in explicating them. (One of Todd’s greatest sins as an editor, as Paglia fails to note, was to omit the fourth stanza of this very poem. The stanza itself is bad, but integral, and it is a close judgment whether the poem is better without it.)

Wallace Stevens bears most of the brunt of her frequent abuse of biography. Often she confuses the narrator with the poet, in the traditional freshman manner. Paglia lets drop that Stevens’ wife appears in “Sunday Morning,” from which I have been unable to discern, after several dozen readings, that the man was even married. Of Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” she remarks: “The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep.” Evidently: and “My Last Duchess” was evidently written by a murdering medieval duke, A.E. Housman evidently survived countless suicides to become a famous classics scholar in middle age, and as for “Piazza Piece,” I bet you had no idea that Death writes poetry and wears dustcoats. One might excuse Paglia on the grounds that the “note” that the poem purports to be is not the same as the poem itself. Unfortunately she adopts a similar technique throughout, reproducing, for instance, a speech from Hamlet’s father’s ghost as a self-contained poem and discussing it as if it were in Shakespeare’s person.

Arriving at “Anecdote of the Jar,” Paglia takes flight:

In style, the jar more resembles an earthenware pot than a polished vase on a pedestal. It rejects the elite standards of uniqueness and perfection of the European “masterpiece.” Stevens was born and raised in Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where home produce was “put up” in ceramic crocks or glass canning jars and where farmers’ markets still abound. The region borders on West Virginia, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, through which the Appalachian mountain chain drops to Kentucky and Tennessee. Hence Stevens’s Tennessee jar, with its dollops of canned or sampled nature, may also be a jug for moonshine (fiery corn whiskey), that staple of the Southern underground economy… Behind his respectable facade in Hartford, perhaps Stevens in his secluded hours of poetry thought of himself as running a secret still on his own mount of the Muses.

Obliged though I am to Paglia for the definition of “moonshine,” that’s only one kind. This passage is another. It is known, in the argot of literary criticism, as making shit up. The reader may be pardoned for having forgotten in all the hubbub that all we know about the jar is that it’s “round upon the ground,” “gray and bare,” and “tall and of a port in air.” About the “secret still” the less said the better.

Everything Paglia writes about “Anecdote of the Jar” is wrong, including “and” and “the.” “This cryptic poem is about art making,” she says. It is not. It is about Stevens’ single subject, the sterility of the human intellect, represented by the jar, and the consequent necessity of hedonism. This might have occurred to her had she spent more time reading his poetry and less fantasizing about his private life. “Without human framing nature remains ‘a slovenly wilderness,’ a primeval chaos.” No again, as lines 3 (“It [the jar] made the slovenly wilderness”) and 6 (“It [the wilderness] sprawled around, no longer wild.”) make clear. (Italics mine.) Anyone who has come upon a wild scene that looks pristine at first and then spotted a piece of trash will appreciate what Stevens means. The jar makes the mess, which is why it is “gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” These details are indeed “inscrutable and intractable” when you have the poem backwards from the get-go. It is only fair to point out that most of the Stevens specialists don’t understand it either.

Blake’s “London” she treats as a catalog of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, which makes a hash of “in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” and which would have outraged its author. To interpret the “marriage hearse” as the spread of venereal disease is not only contrary to the author’s intent but illogical. Syphilitic prostitutes may blight marriages with plagues, but why “the marriage hearse”? Blake is pleading, as usual, in favor of anarchy and against law and civil society in every form. This is the man who wrote “damn braces, bless relaxes.”

I will not revisit my little dust-up about “Ozymandias” here. Suffice it to say that my severest critics and I would agree that, whatever the merits of the poem, it decidedly does not “wipe out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Shelley was as firm a believer in human progress as anyone this side of Robert Wright. In “Ozymandias” it is the tyrants who perish. This is a good thing.

I think I’ll buy a copy of Madonna Megastar. I hear it’s a picture book.

Jul 142005
 

You will recall from Part 1 that I owned a typescript of two unpublished poems by Yvor Winters and referred to my readers the question of what to do with them. Arguments were offered for selling, publishing, and burning. The arsonists had much the worst of it. Their best point was mine: that publishing them would muddy Winters’ reputation, and the reputations of poets are easily muddied. Still, even Helen Vendler can probably distinguish these juvenilia from such performances as “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Before Disaster,” “To the Holy Spirit,” and “Danse Macabre.” Eddie Thomas suggested that burning them will spare my heirs (my girlfriend) from thinking about what they stand to gain from my death — this typescript, and a stolen eight-ball from the local poolroom. I thank Eddie for making me feel, for a moment, like the billionaire who informs his grasping nephews that everything will go to the dog shelter. Perhaps he will be mollified to know that Lisa was only kidding. You were kidding, right sweetheart?

The historians pointed out a few matters that did not occur to me. We preserve literature for reasons other than strict aesthetic merit. Colby Cosh cites the poetry of Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t much good but which we are happy to have. Colby also reminds me that as an accidental executor my responsibilities may differ from, say, Max Brod’s. Bad poetry, Michael Krantz points out, may shed light on the good, though in my own experience it tends only to obscure it. I agree, however, with George Wallace that I have hedged about them sufficiently that no one will likely take these poems for more than what they are. In short, the historians win.

The mercenaries, led by the terse Paul Frankenstein, may take comfort in the fact that publishing and selling are not mutually exclusive. But I like owning the typescript and I don’t need the money. Certainly I will sell it before I dine on dog food.

Since I’m not going to get rid of them, I see no reason to withhold them. So here they are.

The Hermit

The shaggy old man of the canyons
Was fearful for mortal to see;
But he scattered his crumbs to the song-birds,
And raised the sage flower for the bee.

All folk turned aside when they saw him,
They feared his strange eyes and long hair;
But he played with the fawns in the shadows,
And dug up sweet roots with the bear.

And so when he died no men mourned him,
For he was a stranger to men;
But the fawns stare big-eyed from the shadows,
And the old bear moaned in the glen.

And the birds gave over their singing,
And the canyons were lonely and still;
And the birds dropped leaves over his body,
And the bees hummed his dirge on the hill.

To A Coyote

Gentle pussyfooter of the gulleys,
You of the sleepy slouch,
Of the furtive tail,
And the leering eye,
With your long tongue sliding enviously
Out of one corner of your mouth,
Dripping,
Slavering,
Your coat is moth-eaten,
And your ribs show through it,
Your–

But wait,
Where have I seen you before?

–Yvor Winters

Jun 252005
 

Fifteen years ago I walked into the Phoenix, a poetry bookshop on Jones Street that no longer exists, and asked what they had by Yvor Winters. The proprietor went to the back and returned with several items from the library of Glenway Wescott (1901-1987), a distinguished novelist and a friend and contemporary of Winters. I promptly relieved him of them for more than I could readily afford.

Among the items was a typescript of two poems, “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote,” signed by Winters, with a note by Wescott: “I found this with poems of my own not later than the summer of 1920? (I think)”. To judge by the style he is correct. Winters’ first book of poetry, The Immobile Wind, was published in 1920, and these obviously belong to him, and to that period. They have appeared nowhere in print to my knowledge.

Winters took considerable pains with his literary estate. He issued a Collected Poems in 1952, revised it, adding two later poems, in 1960, and collected his early poetry in 1966. He was very definite about what he wanted to keep, as he was about most matters. In the introduction to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-28, he wrote as follows:

I publish this book to provide an authorized edition of my early and “experimental” work. Some one would do this in any event, and probably some one who would sweep all of my uncollected work into a single volume, with no indication of what I had considered my best work at the time I was writing and publishing it. I include three small books [The Immobile Wind, The Magpie’s Shadow, and The Bare Hills], a group of four poems previously uncollected from magazines, and two later groups of some size… Any other uncollected material is rubbish.

Some one else has done this, regardless, although Winters has been fortunate in his editors so far. In 1978 Donald Davie published The Poetry of Yvor Winters, which included everything from Winters’ own two collections and only fifteen additional pages of what he wished to throw away. In 2000 R.L. Barth put out a fine selection of Winters’ verse, along with a well-edited Selected Letters, which are amusing and harrowing by turns.

The Complete Poetry of Yvor Winters, with the usual trappings, critical detritus, and library pricing, is surely in our future. Sooner or later an academic with more diligence than talent will get around to exhuming Winters’ literary remains. He will want to see my typescript.

I will not reproduce “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote” here. They are, in fact, rubbish. The typescript gives me great joy to possess, and I will not let it go until I die. The question is, what then? Should I donate it to a library and put the poems in the public domain? Or should I burn it? You tell me: I honestly don’t know.

Jun 212005
 

In ordinary discourse a “dated” work of art is old-fashioned, no longer pertinent, a back number. But this is imprecise. The truly dated work can be traced to the moment it was made.

The 40s: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

The 40s are remembered, cinematically, as the era of gangsters and gun molls, of crooked cops and desperate double-crossing dames, all pursued by gumshoes who dangle a cigarette out of one side of their mouths and deliver snappy patter out of the other. This is known as “realism.”

Whatever it was, the audience had a taste for something else. The top ten grossing movies of the decade were Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Duel in the Sun, Sergeant York, Mom and Dad (not quite so wholesome as it sounds), Meet Me In St. Louis, and Easter Parade.

Somewhere between the 30s and 40s journalists in the movies went from raffish ambulance chasers to plumed crusaders for truth. Maybe Ernie Pyle is to blame, maybe more journalists starting getting screenwriting jobs, I don’t know, but when Gregory Peck is cast as a journalist you know the party’s over. In Gentleman’s Agreement he plays his customary straight arrow with that deer-in-the-headlights look that he didn’t manage to lose until The Boys from Brazil. Anti-semitism is exposed with all the investigative grit of Eddie Murphy’s seminal “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Does this movie date? Well, let’s just say that 1947 was about the last year that even senile lounge lizards thought they could keep the money in the country club and the Jews out.

The 50s: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Here we have a case of overdetermined dating. Psychology: until the 1950s it did not occur to psychologists, not always the sharpest tools in the shed, that juvenile delinquents weren’t always from the slums. Mise-en-scène: teen angst without music, garish Technicolor, homoerotic subtext (did I really just write “subtext”?), pegged jeans, chicken runs. Acting style: James Dean slouches and shambles, stumbles and mumbles, shrieks and stammers, and generally Methods up a storm. Bonus: the climax takes place in a planetarium.

The 60s: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967)

Poitier glowers! Hepburn quavers! Tracy blusters! Miscegenation shocks white liberals!

Of course the movie was released in 1967, but when? It’d have to be after the summer (of Love); I estimate September 23rd, 4:33 EST. Give or take ten minutes.

The 70s: Carnal Knowledge (1971)

It would be cheating to draw any inference from the fact that this movie stars Art Garfunkel, though inferences from Garfunkel’s hair, not to mention Carol Kane’s, are admissible. It’s when Jack Nicholson sits himself down in one of those praying-mantis lounge chairs and treats Kane and Garfunkel to a slide show of his erotic life that we know we’re in that early 70s netherworld between Godspell and disco. Plus Garfunkel describes Kane as his “love teacher.”

The 80s: Wall Street (1987)

Oliver Stone is no accountant. Anacott Steel, according to the wise old broker, has “no fundamentals,” while according to the corporate raiders it has a breakup value of 80 a share when it’s selling at 45. So maybe you figure there are a few fundamentals in there somewhere.

Oliver Stone, God help us, is a screenwriter. Daryl Hannah says to Charlie Sheen, “I want to do for furniture what Laura Ashley did for fabric.” “And I’ll take you public,” Sheen says. “You will?” she squeals. (Her next line, “Oh goody!”, apparently survives only in the director’s cut.)

Charlie Sheen says to Daryl Hannah, “So what do you want?” “I want…a Turner. A perfect Canary diamond. World peace. The best of everything.” Not necessarily, one surmises, in that order. 1987’s on the phone. He says it’s OK, you can keep his dialogue.

Honorable mention: Flashdance (1983). What a feeling.

The 90s: Jerry Maguire (1996)

Writer/director Cameron Crowe is really, truly sorry about the 80s, and he promises they won’t happen again. This abject apology for the previous decade is, to my knowledge, the first, and one hopes the last, movie to feature a sports agent, which dates it with precision. Before 1995 nobody knew what a sports agent was; after 1996 nobody cared. Jerry Maguire is of course best known for bequeathing to subnormals that most 80s of all slogans, “Show me the money!” This bitter irony for Crowe was assuaged, in part, by a tall, cool stack of cash. The movie grossed over $150 million in the US alone.

The 00s:

Ask me in ten years.

Jun 092005
 

Now is the time on God of the Machine when I play nice with the other blogchildren, who must be exasperated by my philoso-scientific treatises. I have been tagged for a game by Agenda Bender, who sustains, practically single-handed, my diminishing belief that homosexuals are, in fact, witty. I will indulge him.

1. Number of Books I’ve Owned: Lifetime, a few thousand, more than five and less than ten. Like Alfred Jay Nock in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man — which I own — I owe a great deal of my education to reading the spines of books. My apartment has room for only 1,500 or so, and henceforward each arrival necessitates a departure.

2. Last Book Bought: The Greeks and the Irrational, by E.R. Dodds. See last book read.

3. Last Book Read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I picked this up a few years ago and brought it to work, intending it for subway reading. My boss spotted it and called me “a Julian Jaynes homosexual.” I had to put the book down so I could think about how to punctuate that.

Jaynes’s book is interesting, if a bit off the wall, and he cites Dodds favorably, which prompted me to buy it. The portion of my education not due to book spines I owe to my habit of reading the books that the authors I admire read. A book without footnotes and bibliography is like a day without sunshine.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: I just gave a reading list, and I hate reading lists. Instead you will get a reading history.

In my adolescence I had no mind to speak of. I read indiscriminately, remembered little and understood less. I assiduously studied Fowler’s Modern English Usage, utterly failed to discern its spirit, and became a pedant. The only books I thoroughly absorbed were about games: Bobby Fischer’s My 60 Greatest Games, Louis Watson’s The Play of the Hand, and The Baseball Encyclopedia.

At 20 my sneaking suspicion that I had been fed an awful lot of shit was confirmed by Ayn Rand, which helped to make me insufferable for the better part of a decade. Fortunately I was already a bit too old; Hazlitt and von Mises convinced me about economics before Rand made a dent. It usually begins with Ayn Rand, and usually ends there too.

At 25 I was browsing the back of the book in The New Republic and came across a reference to Yvor Winters as “being opposed to everything the 20th century stood for” or something like that. Not true — Winters believed that the 20th century is poetry’s greatest in English — but there, I thought, is the critic for me. After two years of immersion in Forms of Discovery and its accompanying anthology, Quest for Reality, I fancied myself a poet; after five, a poetry critic.

At 30 I took up computer programming. I learned how to think about programming problems from George Polya’s various books about mathematical heuristic, especially How to Solve It; how to design complex systems from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language; and how to develop reasonable coding habits from Code Complete by Steve McConnell and Refactoring by Martin Fowler. For any bugs in my current code these four men are entirely responsible.

Now I patch the holes in my defective education as best I can. Since I forget faster than I read, I keep falling further behind, in the manner of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, who needs half an hour to write fifteen minutes of his life. And there we are.

The culturati are going at it hot and heavy over the burden of consumer choice. So much food, so much art, so little time! Jon Hastings sympathizes; Virginia “Eternal Sunshine” Postrel is having none of it:

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

True, sometimes, I guess, though one wonders in passing which supermarket Postrel bought her husband at. I will readily stipulate that there are markets, like mattresses or deodorants, in which people who “really care about” sleep or smelling fresh will not be any better served than the rest of us by the hundreds of indistinguishable products on offer. Point is, the mattresses and deodorants are all pretty good, for exactly the same reason that there are so many of them. Here our choices are limited: high quality and profusion, or neither.

Also, Anne Bancroft died. I exempt myself from my recent strictures on the grounds that I often talked about her but never got around to writing, and besides, I feel like it. She triumphed as Annie Sullivan and equally, in a completely different way, as Mrs. Robinson, in a dated and overrated movie that lives only when she is on screen (excepting Buck Henry’s neat turn as the hotel desk clerk). She also managed to stay married to Mel Brooks for forty years and keep her mouth shut in public. A working definition of adulthood is the day you watch The Graduate and not only find Anne Bancroft more alluring than Katharine Ross but wonder how you could have ever thought otherwise.

(Update: Colby Cosh comments. Alan Sullivan comments.)