Mar 032005

By a feat of yogic discipline — or sloth; you choose — I managed, until now, to pass by the deaths of Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller without dusting off my opinions of them for public consumption. I am neither man’s ideal reader, and my experience with Wordsworth and W.E. Henley has shown that it may be wiser to keep my own counsel in such cases. No eloquence can persuade the man who feels a sense of something more deeply interfused that rolls through all things that Wordsworth is a fatuous bore. Detailed analysis leaves the impenetrable head of the Invictus fancier bloodied but unbowed. I confine myself to saying that I simply lack the alpha model to appreciate these gentlemen, and that the people who have it might do better with a different model.

My favorite Hunter Thompson book is Hell’s Angels, his only book whose subject is not Hunter Thompson, which tells you all you need to know. As Cosh, his most interesting eulogist, pointed out, Thompson was one part John the Baptist and one part Jonathan Swift, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” being his Book of Revelations and Voyage to Brobdingnag, respectively. Revelations has its distinguished admirers, D.H. Lawrence for one, but as a computer programmer I object to dumping core, even in Thompson’s fine style, as a literary technique. Cosh thinks Thompson is immortal. I expect to outlive his reputation, provided I lay off the cigarettes.

Arthur Miller was a playwright. He married Marilyn Monroe. He will be read as long as there exist high school teachers charged with imparting the obvious to the oblivious, which is to say, forever.

But I wanted to talk about something else.

Why must people write of someone when he dies of whom they did not think to write while he was alive? Tom Wolfe I can see: while his obituary wasn’t very good, he was a friend of Thompson’s, and he presumably got paid. One would also expect Thompson’s long-time and only conceivable illustrator, Ralph Steadman, to say a few words. But what were the rest of you thinking?

The uncharitable explanation — monkey see, monkey scribble — has as usual a good deal in it. Thompson is a topic, Miller is a topic, and we are perennially starved for topics: such is the vital function of the newspaper. But there is something even more unpleasant at work — a ghoulish, misbegotten sense of duty, as if failing to note their passing means that our own will also go unremarked. Well, it will. Not to worry.

Occasionally the manner of exit is pertinent. Thompson’s, like Thompson, was histrionic; Mark Riebling and I’m sure many others have made the suitable remarks. Arthur Miller, on the other hand, went old, rich, and in his sleep, which didn’t seem to shut anybody up.

Obituaries fall loosely into three categories: encomium, scorn, and measured assessment. Encomium, at best, is too little too late; at worst it is breast-beating aimed at calling attention more to oneself than to the dear departed. (Many of the great fakes of English literature, like Lycidas, are eulogies. Does anybody believe that Milton gave a damn about Edward King?) Scorn is unsportsmanlike, its object no longer being around to answer back.

Measured assessment is worst of all. If you’ve ever flipped through a biographical reference book, say Harvey’s Oxford Guide to English Literature, you know what I mean. I open it at random to Prosper Merimée (1803-1870) and read, “French novelist and dramatist, a member of the court of Napoleon III, was the author of admirable novels and short stories (‘Colomba’, ‘La Vénus d’Ille’, 1841; ‘Carmen’, which inspired Bizet’s opera, 1852), of plays (‘Theâtre de Clara Gazul’, 1825), of ‘La Jacquerie’ (feudal scenes in dialogue form), and of the historical novel, ‘Chronique de Charles IX’ (1829). His well-known ‘Lettres à une Inconnue’ display his ironic and critical temperament. He was a strong supporter of the innocence of ‘Libri the book-thief’ (q.v.).” I find this heart-breaking, down to the last q.v. Poor Merimée! It’s like being buried twice.

Sir Paul Harvey, here, is just doing his job; measured assessment is not the sort of thing that anyone should do for fun. And let’s face it: Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller had their literary deaths decades ago. You didn’t know them. You read a few of their books and you still can, any time. Do you honestly care that they’re dead? Why should you?

Jul 072004

Conversation is not an exchange of opinion. It is a sifting of opinion.
–Jacques Barzun

Welcome to the wonderful world of Teachout’s Cultural Concurrence Index! It’s a new game, everyone can play, and nearly everyone has. At least a dozen bloggers have offered their answers, in part or in full, to Terry’s list of 100 binary, mostly arts-related questions. This adds up to nearly 12,000 opinions, all told — a plethora of opinions, a cornucopia of opinions, more than a division’s worth of opinions, each as distinctive as a soldier in uniform. Terry himself makes modest claims for his Index:

So what does the TCCI do, accurately or otherwise? It measures the extent to which your taste resembles mine — but thats all. What’s more, you probably noticed in taking the test that my taste cant be “explained” by any one principle or theory. Had I scrambled the order of the alternatives and asked you to guess my answers based on your prior knowledge of my work, I doubt many of you would have scored much higher than, oh, 70%, unless you also knew me personally and very well indeed. Yes, Im a classicist, but I also prefer Schubert to Mozart, which tells you…what?

By that standard it is a resounding success, despite a few minor difficulties with selection bias. (In a recent bulletin from the Institute of Tautological Studies, 99.87% of bloggers who answer online blog quizzes report that they’d rather read blogs than magazines.) And I defer to no one in my admiration for Terry’s catholic taste, animated by no one principle or theory. Yet Terry has stumbled over a potentially useful tool. Let’s suppose what I increasingly doubt, that we actually want to learn something. How might we proceed?

The overall scores tell us little beyond, as Terry says, how far you agree with Terry. They range from 40% to 70% agreement, which scarcely differs from chance, once we account for the fact that the test-takers read Terry in the first place and can be expected to share his tastes at a higher than random rate. But what if we cross-correlated the questions? Suppose we could persuade 1,000 bloggers to take the test, which ought not to be too difficult; they seem to have little else to do. A hundred questions yield 4,950 possible cross-correlations (99 correlations for each answer, divided by 2, since they are symmetric). Now we calculate the agreement between the answers to each pair of questions, looking for the outliers, as far from 0.5 as possible. With close to 1,000 data points for each answer pair — some respondents will opt out of some questions — we put ourselves in a position to draw a few conclusions. Some answer pairs will likely match up quite closely; I would expect a few correlations of 0.9 or higher.

Then we take these outlying pairs and run them back against the data set a few times more, looking for clusters. Interdisciplinary clusters will be best of all; if we find, for example, that nearly everyone who prefers Astaire to Kelly also prefers Matisse to Picasso and Keaton to Chaplin, then we might be on to something. We examine the clusters, looking for commonalities. Looking for rules, in other words. Although Terry’s taste, or the taste of any educated person, cannot be explained by one principle or theory — this is a reasonable working definition of “cultivated” — I would wager that it can be explained pretty well by several.

Unfortunately this is work. I don’t do work around here; I just assign it.

Jun 142004

Back from a blogging holiday, only to find that I’m a killjoy, a bully (check the comments to the last link: “fists raise to strike?” For the record, I haven’t hit anybody since 7th grade, and he hit me first), a “finely-tuned yay-boo machine,” and, my favorite, “ruler-wielding,” as if I were the evil nun from parochial school.

These bloggers are offended because I object to some work of art that they like. (Such quaint favorites too. I expect to catch grief for savaging Invictus, but Wordsworth, Shelley, Frank O’Hara, Yeats: who knew?) I understand, and I even sympathize, to a point. Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Public discourse being what it is, you must expect to see your loves bruised a bit. Nothing personal. I do not, no matter what Ray Davis says, “argue against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O’Hara,” or W.E. Henley, or anyone else. The pleasure that people take in Frank O’Hara is real, I am sure, and they are welcome to it. But it is obvious to me that the Williams poem to which I compared O’Hara exploits the possibilities of free verse in a way that The Day Lady Died does not. I write in the forlorn hope that some of my readers might see this as well. It is piety, not destruction.

When I say that art is this, or poetry is that, I will happily entertain counter-claims and objections, even the objection that the questions are pointless. With few exceptions, like the estimable Jim Henley, who argues like a proper adult, these are not forthcoming. Instead it’s “but I like Frank O’Hara!” or “art is an affair of the heart!” or “poetry is magical and mysterious!” The Department of Defense has plans for a refinement of the neutron bomb, which will wipe out the humanities faculty while leaving the campus buildings and the science faculty intact. This is why.

Art is not a curiosity shop to nance about in. It is not a verdant meadow to which you hie your exquisite sensibility for a picnic and a sunbath. It is a discipline, with basic questions that remain unanswered. What is it? What use is it? What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick. This no more deprives of them of their beauty than knowledge of civil engineering prevents one from admiring the Hoover Dam. On the contrary, I would think.

Doubtless these questions are difficult. But progress in answering them for the last two and a half millenia — since, oh, Aristotle’s Poetics — has been near zero. Somehow, during this same time, human beings have managed to answer other difficult questions, like how blood circulates, what causes smallpox, what the relationship is between mass and energy, and whether arithmetic can be axiomatized. Is art really that hard to understand? Or are its devotees just not interested in understanding it?

(Update: George Wallace comments, generously. Jim Henley comments, estimably.)

May 292004

In her cheery new book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs writes, with disturbing matter-of-factness:

Another form of architects’ self-regulation is to ban criticism of another’s work, especially criticism that can be heard or read by outsiders. This is why one reads few critical reviews by architects of new buildings, in comparison with reviews by writers, say, of books, drama, and film, or by musicians of musical compositions and performances. Architects’ mutual protection from adverse notice extends, when possible, to criticism by outsiders as well. When I was hired as an editor and writer by an architectural journal, the editor in chief gave me quickly to understand that I must shun critical comment. Otherwise, he explained, not only would our magazine stir up an unpleasant ruckus, but all architects, including those whose work was most interesting, would refuse us information and permission to publish their designs — a death sentence for the magazine.

…Almost always we published only proposals, buildings, or projects we could unreservedly admire, or that the editor in chief unreservedly admired, ignoring others. So for an architect to get his work published in a journal where it could be seen by clients was a compliment, rather like a low-key award. We were attuned to reputations within the profession, and we bowed obsequiously to fashion (a word we never mentioned; architecture has styles, not fashions), as did the architects themselves. Leafing through design and architectural journals a half century later, I see that they still abide by the familiar restrictions.

People get their knickers in a twist when a slick like Vanity Fair writes its advertisers up fawningly. Business has leached into editorial, the horror, the horror! Yet here we have an entire profession engaged, for fifty years, according to Jacobs, in the systematic practice of omerta. I don’t follow the architectural literature, but I know some of my readers do. Is this true? And if it is, why isn’t it a scandal?

May 252004

Hardy looks at the ocean and sees the ocean:

A distant verge morosely gray
Appears, while clots of flying foam
Break from its muddy monochrome,
And a light blinks up far away.
(The Wind’s Prophecy)

Dickinson looks in a meadow and sees a snake:

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens farther on.
(A narrow fellow in the grass)

Wordsworth looks at a landscape and sees — Wordsworth:

— Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under the dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door…
(Tintern Abbey)

A landscape presses, on most of us, thoughts of our own insignificance. Not Wordsworth: Nature puffs him up. Wordsworth beholds, Wordsworth reposes, and Wordsworth sees. Yet Wordsworth notices nothing. The scene is a blur; Wordsworth favors blurring, and there will be a great deal more of it later on. Cliffs, “steep and lofty” God help us, “connect,” oddly enough, the land with the sky; green fruits “lose themselves” in the green meadows. The one distinct feature is Wordsworth himself, who is everywhere, like Ali in the ring. Tintern Abbey would not be worth discussing except that it is commonly considered a great poem and has intelligent admirers who do not make their living exhuming Wordsworth. So here we go.

Begin with the title, which is not merely Tintern Abbey but Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798. This is lucky for the reader unacquainted with the geography of the Lake District, to whom the lines

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

might otherwise give pause. The significance of July 13, 1798, remains unclear. The unfortunate half-pun “oft, in” with “often” is characteristic. In this Bogan poem such near-repetition is used effectively. Of course Bogan had talent.

I grant that bloggers are not in the best position to criticize someone else for being deeply moved by the sound of his own voice; but this is a man who needs a line and a half to clear his throat:

Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift…

A gift, it turns out, for unintentional comedy:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountain…

A man whose thoughts are never interesting, for all his devotion to them. Tintern Abbey runs to 158 lines, and what thought we get is summarized in its most famous passage:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

These elevated thoughts amount to nothing more than a very mild version of the ecstatic merger with all existence that we find later, at excruciating length, in Whitman, and still later, with tragic consequences, in Crane. I confess I find the doctrine incoherent. Thirty lines later Wordsworth complains of “rash judgments,” “greetings where no kindness is,” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” all surely objectionable but equally surely included in the class of “all objects of all thought.” Where’s that something far more deeply interfused when you really need it? The essence of life, as Nabokov puts it in Pnin, is “discreteness,” and we shall all be one with the sun and the flowers and the trees and the dirt and the worms soon enough. Wordsworth may mean only that God is in all things, but he never mentions Him, and the thought scarcely seems adequate to the occasion.

The experience, to be fair, must be distinguished from the doctrine. One can accept its value, or at least its intensity, and agree that “blue sky” and “sense sublime” (a pointless inversion, a Wordsworth specialty) do little to illuminate it. Again we have “deep,” often favored by people who, like Wordsworth, have trouble seeing surfaces; its derivations appear seven times in Tintern Abbey. “Living air” conveys, in a small way, what he is after; but after numerous readings of this poem I am convinced this is an accident. For Wordsworth flatness, which he calls “the real language of men,” was a matter of theory as well as practice. We are taught in English class that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads began the counter-revolution toward simple language after more than a century of Miltonic ornament. In fact Dr. Johnson parodied this sort of thing before Wordsworth was born:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Wordsworth quotes this parody in the preface, and his efforts to explain it away make for amusing reading. The difference in style between this and the Lucy poems is very fine indeed.

Wordsworth owes his reputation to several happy accidents, major and minor. He wrote his best verse at the turn of the 19th century, just as the toff and the heroic couplet were going out of style and the peasant and blank verse were coming in, which has made him a convenient stand-in for wide cultural change. He wrote so much and so repetitively, in both verse and prose, that his point is impossible to miss, and scholars have dined for two centuries on his vast corpus like buzzards on carrion. His more deservedly influential friend Coleridge promoted him mightily. He uniquely has a psychiatric cure on his résumé: John Stuart Mill, better known as a philosopher than a literary critic, says in his Autobiography that reading Wordsworth helped him recover his sanity after a mental breakdown. Above all, perhaps, Wordsworth firmly believed in his own greatness, and the fact that so many people still do, after so much time has passed, testifies to the awful, the lofty, the sublime, the deep power of suggestion.

(Update: Ben H. casts the movie version of The Idiot Boy. Esme comments. David Fiore comments. Jim Henley slags Hardy for the same reasons I slag Wordsworth, by way of praising Frost. Fair enough; but note that in The Darkling Thrush, which he quotes in full, the description of the thrush itself, “frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume,” is exactly what a thrush looks like. Tim Hulsey is more generous than I am, and you should read him before you believe me. Also much, much more Wordsworth over at Bandarlog.

May 172004

In Snobbery Joseph Epstein has written as good a book as it’s possible to write without quite understanding your subject. It is full of things I needed to know; for instance, that Wolcott Gibbs once described Lucius Beebe as “menacingly well-groomed.” (Gibbs, who is undeservedly forgotten, wrote a devastating parody of early Time-style, when the sentences all ran back to front. The only thing you need to know about Beebe is that when he went in for minor surgery an acquaintance remarked that she hoped the doctors “had the sense to open Lucius at room temperature.” (“Sense,” where “taste” is meant, is a brilliantly snobbish touch in its own right. (I’m running low on parentheses here.)))

As I was saying. We need more than funny stories and smart remarks. We need a taxonomy, and this Epstein fails to provide. The trouble begins, as usual, with definitions:

…I take the snob to be someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors, and sometimes both; someone with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accouterments of status; someone who accepts what he reckons to be the world’s valuation on people and things, and acts — sometimes cruelly, sometimes ridiculously — on that reckoning; someone, finally, whose pride and accomplishment never come from within but always await the approving judgment of others. People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all.

Epstein buries the two essential features of snobbery here beneath a mass of irrelevance. First, the snob exaggerates, as Epstein says. Sometimes he exaggerates the importance of whatever form his snobbery takes; always he exaggerates the importance of himself. Sometimes he develops a preposterous vocabulary to buck himself up; oenophiles, for instance. Always he develops a thick rulebook of what ought or ought not to be said or done, Talmudic in its complexity and every bit as arbitrary.

Second, snobbery is social. Snob is as snob does; he needs a victim, or a co-conspirator. To think oneself superior is not enough; we all have such flashes. Action is character, wrote Fitzgerald, who knew quite a bit about snobbery, and snobbish action makes the snob.

Everything else in the passage is wrong. Betters and inferiors have nothing to do with snobbery. The snob is perfectly happy to impress those he regards as his equals — in fact he usually regards his betters as his equals — and the notion, which Epstein expands later on, that there are distinct classes of upward- and downward-looking snobs is absurd. I’ve never met a snob who wasn’t both and I doubt he has either. German has an evocative word for it, Radler, or cyclist, after his posture of bent back above and kicking legs below. You need both to ride the bike.

It is a poor snob indeed whose judgment dovetails with “the world’s valuation.” The snob appeals, with an airy wave of the hand, not to society but to Society — to whatever circle he aspires to join or fancies himself a member of, to everyone who is anyone, to tout le monde, as Tom Wolfe used to put it, meaning just the opposite. The aim is to please your betters (or equals) and discomfit your inferiors, and for this the common judgment will hardly do. Finally Epstein throws up his hands, all but saying that everyone is a snob at least sometimes, in which case no one is a snob, and why are you writing this book, exactly?

Errors in theory, errors in practice:

I recall…the meeting of two distinguished intellectual figures — one a scholar of high international reputation, the other a Nobel novelist — who were joined by an administrative vice president at the university where both men then taught. After ten or fifteen minutes, the vice president departed, and the scholar said to the novelist, “Ah me, I see that X is suffering from delusions of equality.”

Is this a tale of snobbery or merely a devastatingly witty remark? I think the latter. First, because the remark wasn’t made in front of the person at whom it was aimed. And second, because (as I happen to know) that person is himself a considerable snob, a double snob actually, one who sucks up to his betters and looks down on those he takes to be beneath him.

Of course this is a tale of snobbery. Epstein’s reasons for thinking otherwise dissolve in the light, which often happens to people who misdefine their terms. You can’t snob on people behind their backs? Or snob on other snobs? Or be witty and snobbish at the same time? Epstein acquits the scholar because he dislikes the victim, and admires the remark. The story has everything: the toadying implication that you and I are of a piece and he is not; the victim, and the attempted co-conspirator; and, especially, the exaggerated self-regard. You know what the novelist (Saul Bellow, I’m guessing) was thinking? Bellow was thinking: And where the fuck do you get off? Great novelists, of whom Bellow is one despite his Nobel Prize, are, approximately, to scholars, even scholars of high international repute, as scholars are to vice-presidents of administration.

We cannot make shift with a mere great novelist and distinguished scholar either; we must have a “Nobel novelist” and a scholar of “high international reputation,” which is snobbish by Epstein’s lights, if merely pathetic by mine. Noam Chomsky is a scholar of high international reputation, and Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Proust, whom Epstein correctly regards as the world’s foremost authority on the topic, comes close when he says that snobbery is “admiration of something in other people unconnected with their personality.” Saying that someone is morally vicious, or stupid, or lazy, or incompetent at his job, may be nasty but is never snobbish, because these matters are integral, unlike his taste in beer or the cut of his suits. The snob is consumed by inconsequence.

Snobbery is to exaggerate one’s own importance at someone else’s expense. The snob syllogism — you are my inferior in such-and-such a matter, therefore you are my inferior — seems to be missing a premise somewhere. Note that one can be a snob about matters other than taste. Ancestral snobbery is a well-known example. Racism is another, although it no longer seems so, since it has gone out of fashion, to be replaced by an equally snobbish “respect for all cultures.” Nothing is quite so declassé as yesterday’s snobbery.

Food snobs, wine snobs, clothing snobs, school snobs, ancestor snobs, all crowd the lowest rung of the snob ladder. “Snob,” in ordinary use, invariably refers to this crude type, which I will call the snob of matter. Such snobs rarely stick to their last; they combine concerns, which produces, somehow, an effect less of union than of intersection. It never crosses the mind of the snob of matter that other, better people simply do not give a damn about the microscopic aspects of life that engross him. He can always be trumped with a well-played inverse card. Stephen Potter, whose Upmanship books (missing from Epstein’s lengthy bibiliography) are, in the guise of how-tos, among the most acute books on snobbery ever written, advises a counter-gambit against the wine snob:

I shall always remember Odoreida thrusting aside sixteen founding members of the Wine and Food Society with a ‘Well, let’s have a real drink,’ and throwing together a mixture which left them breathless. ‘Pop-skull, they called it in Nevada,’ he said, and poured two parts of vodka into one of sherry and three of rum, adding a slice cut from the disk of a sunflower.

Here we ascend to snobbery of manner, which is where all the action is, in its best-known form, inverse snobbery. Among bloggers Scott Chaffin, The Fat Guy, has mastered this tactic. By the time you’ve absorbed his assurances that he’s jes a bumpkin who dunno nuthin about nuthin he’s already removed the shiv from your back and wiped the blade. The Two Blowhards, Michael in particular, have raised inverse snobbery to high art. They constantly bemoan their “lousy Ivy League” education, the glorious fruits of which can be picked daily on their site — the most glorious, perhaps, being the liberty to sneer at an Ivy League education. Michael happily poor-mouths it in post after post, with references to his “addled” and “fuzzy” mind and failed career in journalism. But should any reader be so naive as to take these demurrals seriously and question his authority, out will come the whip hand. Scott, Michael, and Odoreida all tread in that perilous no-man’s-land between defense, which is never snobbish, and offense, which is.

Snobberies of manner can become dizzying. The most primitive is the political snob, secure that his advanced views show him to be a step up in human evolution. (Tim Hulsey demonstrates this to be literally true.) There is the self-knowledge snob, who knows only that he does not know, and that’s more than you can say. The philosophical ancestor of the self-knowledge snob is, of course, Socrates; Plato reports his conversations but the number of Athenians who punched him in the mouth has, alas, gone unrecorded. The self-knowledge snob often hangs about with his first cousin, the self-hatred snob, whose literary antecedents include Swift and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who employs his own perceived worthlessness to scourge the rest of the race. Fortunately you never see that kind of thing around here, no sirree.

Thus the disease. Epstein despairs of a cure:

You will have to take my word for it when I claim that I never act on what is my downward-looking snobbery, and that in everyday actions I am not a snobbish person. It is only in my thoughts that my snobbishness lives so active a life. Yet why can’t I leave it alone, let it go, continue to make my little distinctions, social observations, but do so without feeling just a touch of corrupting snobbery when going about it?

Many adjectives spring to mind to describe this passage, “searching” not among them. What happened to “acting on that reckoning” anyway? It’s all very New Testament for a writer who makes such a point of being Jewish, and it had a familiar ring. Then I remembered: Jimmy Carter! Committing adultery in his heart as a nation snickered.

W.H. Auden, who thought himself a Christian, claims one warm June evening in 1933 to have been sitting with three colleagues — fellow teachers at a boys’ school, two women and a man — and for the first time his life he “knew exactly — because thanks to the power, I was doing it — what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself… [I] recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed with the spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being.” The heightened feeling, he says, continued for roughly two hours, and lasted, in diminishing force, for two more days.

After which I guess he got the all-clear to resume stealing candy from children.

What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings, without invidious distinctions of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one’s fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself. Wholehearted love with the power of pure objectivity behind it, how glorious it must have been to undergo — and as Auden was too honest not to add, all but impossible to maintain.

Give Auden some credit: he kept warm for his mystic vision, unlike Tolstoy, who insisted on walking Christ-like, heart full of love for the Russian peasantry, into a raging blizzard to his death. But we need nothing so drastic. Instead of loving the peasants more, we might try loving ourselves a little less. Or at least a little more realistically.

(Update: Scott Chaffin comments.)

May 042004

Eve Tushnet posts a list of great book titles, which you ought to read, like most everything else she writes. It is surprising how scarce great titles are, once you get to thinking about it. She marks some of them “in context,” which means you have to read the book to appreciate them, and this strikes me as a bit of a cheat. A great book title, like a great wine, ought to be glorious at first and improve upon acquaintance. Still, I mostly agree — who could knock A Clockwork Orange or Pale Fire? — though she veers more toward the prolix than I might. I am mildly discomfited by the absence of Wyndham Lewis, who is responsible for probably half of the top ten book titles in English. Consider:

The Apes of God (which used to be the name of my fantasy baseball team. Not that I have a thing about omniscience.)
Snooty Baronet
Malign Fiesta
Revenge for Love
The Vulgar Streak
The Doom of Youth
Men Without Art
The Art of Being Ruled (The last three are non-fiction, so they may not be official, but I mean, come on.)

Lewis, I note impartially, can also lay claim to possibly the worst title ever, The Jews, Are They Human? His answer, incidentally, was yes.

(Update: Eve has more, noting that she meant “in context” as meaning only that you know a bit about the book, actually reading it not being necessary. So there turn out to be three categories of great titles. Hey, I’m not false dilemma for nothing!

(She also wonders if there’s a philosophy of titling. I doubt it. I looked through my bookshelves and couldn’t pick out more than a couple dozen really distinguished titles from a thousand books or so. It seems to me mostly a matter of happy chance. The best title for an autobiography, by the way, was proposed by Preston Sturges, who never finished his, and remains unused, to my knowledge: The Events Leading Up to My Death.)

Another: Ian Hamet comments. The Dancer from Atlantis? Someone wean Ian off the sci-fi already.)

May 042004

Now that David Hurwitz has blown the lid off classical music, I feel impelled to do my part.

1. Everything you liked in high school is bad. Everything your English teacher told you to like is also bad, but for different reasons. If you liked what your English teacher told you to like, you are now teaching English.

2. Donne should be hanged for his placing of the accents.

3. Blake was stone loony.

4. Reputation bloat is directly proportional to the fodder the poet supplies for doctoral theses. “Philosophical” poets are especially prized. Wordsworth leads the league in this department.

5. When browsing an anthology, skip any poet you have heard of. Only the one-offs will be any good. In fact someone ought to get around to making an anthology strictly of one-offs, like those Nuggets collections Rhino Records puts out.

6. Eliot’s scholarship is a complete fraud.

7. Pound was actually a nice guy. A traitor, but a nice guy.

8. Only about a dozen poems in English longer than 100 lines are worth reading. One of them, unfortunately, is Paradise Lost.

9. Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good. The plays are pretty good, however.

10. The middle section of Leaves of Grass consists of the sentence “All work and no play makes Walt a dull boy,” repeated 3,482 times.

(Update: Alexei comments, and comments on the comments.)

Apr 272004

What distinguishes poetry from prose? Any poetry critic who can’t tell you should turn in his union card. Yet the answers to this question, from the history of criticism, are surprisingly unsatisfactory. The old Horatian formula of “instruction and delight” is not unique to poetry. Wordsworth offers “emotion recollected in tranquility,” a definition in which neither element seems strictly necessary, and which again applies equally well to prose. Other critics, especially poet-critics, take refuge in impressionism, like Emily Dickinson’s “if it feels like the top of my head has been taken off, that is poetry.” Paradise Lost has not, I suspect, taken off the top of anyone’s head for quite some time, but no one calls it prose on that account. Most critics do not trouble themselves over the question at all: they assert, like Justice Stewart on pornography, that they know it when they see it. But remarks like “that isn’t poetry” are slung about frequently, and even offered as criticism. Clearly the question is worth troubling over.

I suggest a more prosaic definition, so to speak: a poem is what scans. Two objections suggest themselves immediately. The less serious is that it fails to exclude doggerel, like obscene limericks. But if obscene limericks aren’t poetry, are they prose? Or is there some third category of neither/nor? If we do not deny the title of prose to the speech of Monsieur Jourdain, I see no reason to deny the title of poetry to the limerick. Poetry, like art, is not an evaulative but a technical term.

The more serious objection is that my definition excludes vers libre, which doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, but is poetry nonetheless. To deal with this requires a brief theoretical preamble. The basic foot in English is the iamb, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. All natural speech in English is iambic. The previous sentence, for instance, is a line of iambic pentamenter (with a feminine ending).

Iambic rhythm so dominates English that its avoidance often sounds comedic, a fact that Lewis Carroll exploited brilliantly in his Longfellow parody, Hiawatha’s Photographing. It is written, like the Longfellow original, in unrhymed trochees, which are iambs in reverse.

Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of “passive beauty.”
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it,
But when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said “it didn’t matter,”
Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.

The ridiculous matter, set to trochees, is rendered supremely ridiculous. Other non-iambic meters lend themselves to similar effects, like George Wallace’s beloved double dactyls. Feminine line endings tend to undermine iambic movement, and although some serious poets, like Greville and Dryden, are partial to them, they are seen more often in light verse like W.M. Praed’s.

When writing poetry in English, you can studiously adhere to iambic meter or you can studiously avoid it. Anything in between is prose. Free verse consists, essentially, in avoiding any metrical norm by varying the movement continuously. This is much harder than it sounds.

An example may help. Let’s begin with a free verse poem that obviously is a poem, W.C. Williams’ To a Dead Journalist. Read it first, then look at the scansion. Primary accents are bold, secondary accents italic:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Williams wrote in a letter that for him the purpose of free verse was to vary the speed of the foot, and one could not find a better demonstration. The lines range from two to seven syllables, and no two scan, let alone move, alike, even if we disregard strength of accent. The short lines, like 4 and 12, tend to be slow, and the long lines, like 2, 7, and 14, tend to be fast.

Discernible consecutive iambs appear in three places, with point. The list of features in lines 4 and 5, bracketed by the heavily accented monosyllable “closed” and the lightly accented appositive “no longer useful,” is echoed, metrically, by their description in line 10. Williams produces a metrical miracle in lines 12 and 13, with its heavy iambs, after which the poem trails off in a sort of low mutter. The colon at the end of line 13 cleaves life from death absolutely. Continuous variation is impossible to sustain, and would weary the reader in any case, which is why good free verse is short, and scarce; but this poem succeeds completely.

For comparison most any selection from the poetry magazines would do, but let’s pick on someone famous. Let’s pick on Frank O’Hara. This is an excerpt from The Day Lady Died, which in its entirety runs too long for my purposes; you’ll have to trust me that the rest of it is exactly the same:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the Golden Griffin I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the Park Lane
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a New York Post with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Here the conscious variation one finds in Williams is absent. There is no point in scanning this: it has no scansion. Note the indigestable chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes, in line 2, lines 4-5, and lines 16-17. (There would be more, and they would be more obvious, if not for O’Hara’s habit of stringing together sentences with “and” to simulate the breathless effect that Williams achieves without such cheats.) Any reasonably sensitive reader will recognize this passage as prose, and not very good prose either. O’Hara, along with other bad poets, is sometimes praised for his “prose rhythms,” which is like praising a mouse masquerading as a rat for being a mouse after all. O’Hara, says one reviewer, “expand[ed] our ideas about what is poetic.” What say we contract them a little?

(Update: Jim Henley accuses me, correctly, of treating the term “poetry” normatively while taking others to task for doing the same thing. I should have picked a “poem” that I thought was prose but good prose, instead of the one I did. I’ll think about a suitable example and post it when I find it. Kevin Holtsberry comments. Was it really that arcane? mallarme comments.)