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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR APRIL 2006

April  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Her face was completely expressionless . . . Ah, how sensible were these old women, who at least knew their own mind, who had made a silent communal decision to have nothing to do with the whole affair. No hesitation, no fluster, no fuss. With what solidarity, sensing danger, they had clutched their baskets of poultry to them, when they stopped, or peered round to identify their property, then had sat, as now, motionless. Perhaps they remembered the days of revolution in the valley, the blackened buildings, the communications cut off, those crucified and gored in the bull ring, the pariah dogs barbecued in the market place. There was no callousness in their faces, no cruelty. Death they knew, better than the law, and their memories were long. They sat ranked now, motionless, frozen, discussing nothing, without a word, turned to stone. It was natural to have left the matter to the men. And yet, in these old women it was as if, through the various tragedies of Mexican history, pity, the impulse to approach, and terror, the impulse to escape (as one had learned at college), having replaced it, had finally been reconciled by prudence, the conviction it is better to say where you are.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

The Absolutely Last Word

Yesterday, I wrote that Kakutani was intellectually unserious. Although I think that charge is true, it needs further development. So let me call in the distinguished (and deceased) long-time poetry editor for the Times Literary Supplement, Ian Hamilton, to explain  how an intellectually serious reviewer would go about his or her task:

I like reading book reviews, if they are any good. And I know they are very hard to write. Mostly they are written by people who think they are easy to do. In fact, they are not. They ought to be constructed, and listened to, and they shouldn’t contain a word out of place. And there should be some rhythm in their sentences and some wit. They should be entertaining and evince some justice and fair play to the ting reviewed. There’s a lot that goes into a good book review, and it does irritate me when I see kids just out of university working away in the book pages as if the review is just an extension of some dinner party throwaway thing, a bit of idle opinionating. The idea of the well-made review and of the essay form itself interests me as something between fiction and non-fiction—a form you can do all sorts of things in. An underrated form. There’s a joy in finding the right word in a book review that’s comparable to finding it for a poem. It doesn’t have the same prestige and status, even in one’s own mind; nonetheless, I don’t take it lightly.

Hmmm, "a bit of idle opinionating," who does that describe?  Oh yeah, moi.

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April  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Why were there volcanic eruptions? People pretended not to know. Because, they might suggest tentatively, under the rocks beneath the surface of the earth, steam, its pressure constantly rising, was generated; because the rocks and the water, decomposing, formed gases which combined with the molten material from below; because the watery rocks near the surface were unable to restrain the growing complex of pressures, and the whole mass exploded; the lava flooded out, the gases escaped, and there was your eruption. –But not your explanation. NO, the whole thing was a complete mystery still. In movies of eruptions people were always seen standing in the midst of the encroaching flood, delighted by it. Walls fell over, churches collapsed, whole families moved away their possessions in a panic, but there were always these people, jumping about between the streams of molten lava, smoking cigarettes.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

Kakutani Out of Control, Part 8,132

As of this post, I am officially out of the Cocked-Up Kakutani game. Her review in yesterday’s New York Times starts like this:  "’Everyman,’ the title of Philip Roth’s flimsy new novel . . . ."  You can tell she really loved it--particularly by following up that observation with the scintillating:  "Spending time with this guy is like being button-holed at a party by a remote acquaintance who responds to a casual ‘Hi, how are you?’ with a half-hour whinge-fest about his physical ailments, medical treatments and spiritual complaints." It’s not that I’m tired of her high percentage of negative reviews.  As I’ve explained before, I’m generally opposed to negative reviews but not of prominent authors—Philip Roth certainly qualifies—whose latest works should be analyzed as a matter of course.  But I am tired of her adolescent game of "gotcha," which involves sacrificing analysis and close reasoning for stale bon mots.  She thinks she’s being witty when she’s merely adolescent.  In other words, she’s intellectually unserious—and yet, like most teenagers, takes herself very, very seriously, indeed.  That said, if I’m ever in the mood for a cranky teenage "whinge-fest" I’ll turn on MTV.  From now on, when I see her byline, I’ll utilize that great innovation facilitated by printing technology:  I’ll turn the page.

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April  26,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Over the chevron-shaped windows, which looked down the Calle Tierra del Fuego, hung a terrifying picture he hadn’t seen before, and took at first to be a tapestry. Called "Los Borrachones"—why not Los Borrachos?—it resembled something between a primitive and a prohibitionist poster, remotely under the influence of Michelangelo. In fact, he now saw, it really amounted to a prohibitionist poster, though of a century or so back, half a century, God knows what period. Down, headlong into hades, selfish and florid-faced, into a tumult of fire-spangled fiends, Medusae, and belching monstrosities, with swallow dives or awkwardly, with dread backward leaps, shrieking among fallen bottles and emblems of broken hopes, plunged the drunkards; up, up, flying palely, selflessly into the light toward heaven, soaring sublimely in pairs, male sheltering female, shielded themselves by angels with abnegating wings, shot the sober. Not all were in pairs, however, the Consul noted. A few lone females on the upgrade were sheltered by angels only. It seemed to him these females were casting half-jealous glances downward after their plummeting husbands, some of whose faces betrayed the most unmistakable relief.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

One of the Reviewer’s Deadly Sins: Gnosticism

I can forgive quite a bit, but some reviewer behavior is irredeemable—once committed, that person must be forever banished to outer dankness.  One such sin, when it rises to the mortal from the mere venial, is gnosticism.  Gnosticism, as it is generally known, has received quite a bit of press as of late with the National Geographic Society trying, like everyone else in the publishing industry apparently, to ride on the coattails of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code, with its new . . . well . . . sort-of-new . . . okay, okay, thirty-year old . . . discovery of the "lost" Gospel of Judas.  Strangely enough it had been languishing for decades in a bank vault in Hoboken—who’d a thunk it?  Supposedly, this gospel had been one of the many works produced by the gnostics, a group of early Christians that we don’t know much about because one of their chief tenets concerned some variation on the theme that the elect were recipients of certain "secret knowledge" that us hoi polloi did not have access to.  So, fast forward two millennia, and what do we have?  A bunch of hocus pocus and the Lost Gospel of Judas. Thanks gnostics.

We can also thank the gnostics for the tendency of some reviewers to revel in their own form of "secret knowledge."  I’ve posted in the past on the venial sin of this behavior where a reviewer will list three or more authors to represent a particular point, two of whom are well known to all, but the third is known only to the author and his cousins who are related to that person:  "Of course, the use of a political subtext in a conventional dramatic plot has been put to telling effect by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and H. J. ‘Pudge’ Knucklebottom." Extreme forms of this behavior may become mortal sins, however, which must be avoided lest I shall forever shun thy works.

I vaguely remember first coming across this mortal sin against the reader in a puff piece of journalism—probably from Vanity Fair that cotton-candy of periodicals—concerning, of all people, Donald Trump.  What, you have something against wallowing the hog trough of journalism from time to time?  You should try it. The mud bath is good for the skin. But it ain’t good for getting the skinny as the author of this profile ended it with some quip about how, after The Donald uttered a few innocuous remarks, he then said that what would follow would have to be off the record. Then The Donald spent several hours revealing the foibles of the famous and fatuous. Unfortunately for us, our gimlet-eyed chronicler could not reveal any of these tidbits because he’d lose his access to The Donald forevermore.  Yea, it is better to lose thy right eye then thy readership—just ask Truman Capote who was banished from high society for his article about the fancy-dress black and white ball

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April  24,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"A communal drink." The Consul passed the toothmug over his shoulder. "’Clank of coins irritates at Fort Worth.’" Holding the paper quite steadily the Consul read aloud from the English page: "’Kink unhappy in exile.’ I don’t believe it myself. ‘Town counts dog’s noses.’ I don’t believe that either, do you Hugh? . . .

"And—ah—yes!" he went on, "’Eggs have been in a tree at Klamanth Falls for a hundred years, lumberjacks estimate by rings on wood.’ Is that the kind of stuff you write nowadays?"

"Almost exactly. Or: Japanese astride all roads from Shanghai. Americans evacuate . . . That kind of thing.—Sit still."

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

The Remedy for Poetry, Part II

Poetry magazine seems to have chosen an admirable book-review policy to spark some vitality in the otherwise moribund art of poetry:  Parcel out omnibus reviews to opinionated reviewers who are neither beholden to nor with an axe to grind against the poets under review.  One intended effect of this policy is that, in the course of reviewing eight or ten books of poetry within the omnibus review, quite a few of the books will be rejected as lukewarm or worse.  This result would seem to contradict my own postings on the pointlessness of bad book reviews. So let me try to resolve that contradiction.  First, novels are mostly reviewed seriatim in long, sprawling chunks of newsprint—if they were reviewed in brief, bite-size paragraphs, then the negative review would be much less objectionable (The Times Literary Supplement does engage in this practice, sometimes with very witty results; The New York Review of Books does not, alas).  Rarely does one see two or more books on the same subject reviewed together on a comparative basis, but, instead, the books are reviewed as complementary to one another.  There are exceptions which I have noted such as the invidious paired reviews last year of the biographies of George Balanchine, one by the very talented writer, Terry Teachout, whose book was consistently disparaged in favor of the one extruded by a leaden industry insider.  Second, novels are much less prone to be reviewed on a descriptive basis (just the plot and nothing but the plot, ma’am), so that, when a reviewer does engage in this practice, one may surmise two things:  The book under review is middling or worse and the reviewer does not have the fortitude to admit as much because it’s by a renowned author whose works must be reviewed as a matter of course (a good example may be found in this week’s New York Times Book Review).  No one would bother to give a descriptive review to a non-entity. Finally, the novel has not become industrialized like poetry, so it is still a lively art not segregated to the strictly patrolled reservations of the universities’ poetry journals, where, as is true in any closed society, cause relations to quickly degenerate into a Lord of the Poets structure.

For a good counter-example justifying Poetry magazine’s change in its editorial policy, one need look no further than this week’s New York Times Book Review which contains a wonderful example of an old-fashioned omnibus review by two reviewers (who alternate their welkin-shattering encomiums).  This dynamic duo reviewed ten books between them and managed to praise every single one of them. They vaguely understand how ludicrous this is as this analysis of the first book under review indicates:

BLACK LAB. By David Young. (Knopf, $23.) American poetry — according to one of the many competing caricatures — is dominated by English professors and the minor epiphanies they have while walking their dogs. Dispelling this notion doesn't appear to be a priority for Young, emeritus professor of English at Oberlin, whose new book is named for the most popular breed of dog in America and opens with a poem called "Walking Around Retired in Ohio." But poems about pedestrianism needn't be pedestrian, and Young's are full of small, satisfying surprises. There's a destabilizing foreignness even in his most domestic scenes. "Retired in Ohio" turns out to be an imitation of the third-century Chinese poet Lu Ji. Later, Young riffs on a wild Paul Celan poem addressed to a discus: "THROWPLATE, with / a face full of stars and foresights / throw yourself / out of yourself." That yearning for transcendence may be Young's signature note, but the prevailing force in his poetry is gravitational, not centrifugal. Earth's the right place for love; the afterlife will be a family reunion only "if the myths have got it right for once," and that's no small if. In the meantime, the best way to transcend our mortality is to make ourselves at home in it, to "fill our eyes and word-hoards, / pick our way down mule trails, / and trust that somehow we belong to this." Young is, in many respects, a conventional poet, but conventions are easier to disparage than the work a serious artist does within them. When it snows, Young's titular black lab "bounds out, inebriate of cold. / The white flakes settle on his back and neck and nose / and make a little universe." There's life in the old dog yet.

The reviewer should be shot just for that clichéd last tag line. But, instead, I will content myself with repeating a telling line from the apologia of Poetry magazine for its new reviewing policy:  "If a critic gets ten books sent to him for review, and he finds six or seven of them are excellent, then he is either the luckiest poetry reviewer on the planet, or he has no taste."  I wonder what one makes of a review tandem that gets ten books sent for review and finds all of them excellent.  Of course, the answer is a tautology (much like the scribblers’ analysis):  It, my precious, gets to review poetry for the New York Times Book Review.

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April  23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

On his return with the whiskey bottle he rightly deduced the Consul to have hidden in the cupboard, his eyes ranged the Consul’s books disposed quite neatly-in the tidy room where there was not otherwise the slightest sign its occupant did any work or contemplated any for the future, unless it was the somewhat crumpled bed on which the Consul had evidently been lying—on high shelves around the walls: Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie, Serpent and Siva Worship in Central America, there were two long shelves of this, together with the rusty leather bindings and frayed edges of the numerous cabbalistic and alchemical books, though some of them looked fairly new, like the Goetia of the Lemegaton of Solomon and King, probably they were treasures, but the rest were a heterogeneous collection: Gogol, the Mahabharata, Blake, Tolstoy, Pontoppidan, the Upanishads, a Mermaid Marston, Bishop Berkeley, Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Vice Versa, Shakespeare, a complete Taskerson, All Quiet on the Western Front, the Clicking of Cuthbert, the Rig Veda—God knows, Peter Rabbit; "Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit," the Consul liked to say—Hugh returned, smiling, and with a flourish like a Spanish waiter poured him a stiff drink into a toothmug.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

[N.B.: Folks, that paragraph is made up of one sublime sentence that includes just about every grammatical trick to breaking up monotony and establishing a quick pace; count ‘em up: Three m-dashes, two full colons and a quotation on Peter Rabbit. When you too can combine such heterogeneous elements into a single masterful sentence that includes the heights of hilarity (quips about Peter Rabbit, juxtaposition of Vice Versa and Shakespeare) and the depths of despair (drunkenness, disordered books reflecting a disordered mind) then you might, perhaps, be a writer.  Condensation is not just for water--or is that milk?]

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April  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But his success was already beginning to wear off a little. For one thing a premium was required (his aunt had paid the premium) and the songs themselves were not to be published for several months. And it struck him, more than prophetically as it happened, that these songs alone, while both of the requisite thirty-two bars of an equal banality, and even faintly touched with moronism—Hugh later became so ashamed of their titles that to this day he kept them locked in a secret drawer of his mind—might be insufficient to do the trick. Well, he had other songs, the titles to some of which, Susquenhanna Mammy, Slumbering Wabash, Mississippi Sunset, Dismal Swamp, etc., were perhaps revelatory, and that of one at least, I’m Homesick for Being Homesick (for being homesick for home) Vocal Fox Trot, profound, if not positively Wordsworthian . . .

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

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April  20,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The radio came alive with a vengeance; at the Texan station news of a flood was being delivered with such rapidity one gained the impression the commentator himself was in danger of drowning. Another narrator in a higher voice gobbled bankruptcy, disaster, while yet another told of misery blanketing a threatened capital, people stumbling through debris littering dark streets, hurrying thousands seeking shelter in bomb-torn darkness. How well he knew the jargon. Darkness, disaster! How the world fed on it. In the war to come correspondents would assume unheard-of importance, plunging through flame to feed the public its little gobbets of dehydrated excrement. A bawling scream abruptly warned of stocks lower, or irregularly higher, the prices of grain, cotton, metal, munitions. While static rattled on eternally below—poltergeists of the ether, claqueurs of the idiotic!

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

 

The Remedy for Poetry

Is Poetry—the magazine, that is.  I posted earlier this week about the problem of poetry, which, in broad outlines, is two-fold, both elements due to a rejection of craft: (1) soft fraud (that is, log-rolling/influence peddling) and (2) hard fraud (that is, get-rich-quick schemes for shady poetry publishers and the like).  There is a simple remedy for this behavior: reestablish standards. Poetry, the venerable decades-old (and now filthy rich) periodical, has in the last couple of years striven to do just that.  Here’s an excerpt from its September 2005 issue—yes, yes, I’m woefully behind in my periodical reading, so scan me—discussing why its editors modified their rules requiring reviewers not to have any personal connection with respect to the poets under review:

These rules were put in place a couple of years ago, because it seemed to us that the state of reviewing in contemporary poetry was so dire. Not only was there a great deal of obvious logrolling going on (friends reviewing friends, teachers promoting students, young poets writing strategic reviews of older poets in power [N.B.: all hail King Anapest and his consort, Queen Strophe!]), but the writing was just so polite, professional, and dull. We wanted to eliminate the descriptive review, those pieces you finish without any clear idea of whether its author loved or hated the book in question [N.B.: hear, hear!]. We wanted writers who wrote as if there were an audience of general readers out there who might be interested in contemporary poetry [N.B.: which begs the question of that whole poet in power notion above]. That meant hiring critics with sharp opinions, broad knowledge of fields other than poetry, and some flair.

It has also meant, inevitably, publishing a lot of negative reviews. Any honest glance at literary history will reveal just how rare good poetry is. If a critic gets ten books sent to him for review, and he finds six or seven of them are excellent, then he is either the luckiest poetry reviewer on the planet, or he has no taste. We believe that it is important to publish these negative reviews along with the positive ones (though we would never print what we considered an ad hominen attack). Not only does it give some ballast and context to the critical praise, it also is a gesture toward treating poetry as a public art in the same way that films or novels are, both of which are routinely and fiercely argued over in the mainstream media. It is a service to serious readers.

Of course, this reviewing policy causes us great conflicts and disappointments at times. Anyone who has followed the magazine over the past two years can’t help but recognize that we are often in the position of printing negative reviews of poets whose work we have published extensively. In effect, our reviewers sometimes criticize our taste. This would be a very easy thing to control. It requires only a phone call to feel out a reviewer on a particular book, or a willingness to kill reviews you don’t agree with, or a stable of reviewers whose opinions you can easily predict. All of these options seem to us timid and deadening.

That, my friends, in a polite form, is what ye olde time pinko crypto-commie would call a manifesto. You don’t see much in the way of this literary form nowadays thanks to its abuse by ye olde etcetera etceteras, which is unfortunate since the moribund state of literature and, in particular, poetry, can be enlivened only through such radical measures. I’m one of those recent subscribers that just started following Poetry in the last couple of years. It is currently going through a renaissance of sorts and I highly recommend a subscription (which, for this month, are currently half price—wot a bargin for you!).  The current issue, by the bye, features translations including ones by Seamus Heaney, Richard Wilber, Leon Wieseltier, Richard Peavear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Dana Gioia, Michael Hofmann, W.D. Snodgrass, Peter Sacks, Sam Hamill, David Ferry and W. S. Merwin.  In other words, this is a much-have issue.  Since he’s one of my faves, here’s W. S. Merwin’s translation of Hadrian (yeah, that one, Mr. My-Villa-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Villa-And-Don’t-Get-Me-Started-About-My-Tomb):

Little Soul

Little soul little stray

little drifter

now where will you stay

all pale and all alone

after the way

you used to make fun of things

Penned by one of the great titans of the Roman emperors, there’s something particularly sinister about that last line, as if Hadrian is reproving some courtier or faithless lover who has fallen out of favor.  Having read Hadrian’s Memoirs by Marguerite Yourcenar, I fancifully imagine that perhaps the poem concerns Hadrian’s favorite lover, Antinous; and it was such sentiments that drove Antinous to commit suicide to Hadrian’s everlasting regret and remorse.  Anyway, the translations spur such thoughts.  Thank you Poetry.

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April  19,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Hugh put one foot up on the parapet and regarded his cigarette that seemed bent, like humanity, on consuming itself as quickly as possible.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

 

Bury the Flaubert

James Wood, perhaps my favorite under-seventy literary critic, has an excellent feature review in this week’s New York Times Book Review of Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown. Actually, it’s not much of a review of the biography, thank goodness, but, instead, an incisive encapsulation of why Flaubert is a great writer who is still well worth reading today (I know, I know, this should seem obvious—but such are the times we live in).  Check it out.  One little pet peeve, though.  Just like with last week’s rapturous review of why Elizabeth Bishop has created the world we now live in (please, no snorting), Wood’s review starts off with this bombastic paragraph:

Novelists should thank Gustave Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. He is the originator of the modern novel; indeed, you could say that he is the originator of modern narrative — that the war reporter and the thriller writer owe as much to him as the avant-garde fictionist. The great bear of Croisset, the monkish aesthete who spent much of his life in one house, and a great deal of that time in one room, has sired thousands of successors.

This kind of superlative nonsense is a sort of throat clearer which may be translated succinctly: "Please, please read me!"  If Wood had a decent editor (or, at least, one who was not busy summarizing the latest Muriel Spark novel), he or she would have red-lined that first paragraph and just started the piece with the second which actually makes a good lead without needing to change anything.  I notice this flaw in my own writing where, quite frequently, the first paragraph adds nothing to the exposition other than to announce to all and sundry that, by gum, I’ve got sumpthin impertinent to say and ya’ll better lissen up now, ya hear.

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April  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

. . . . . . Night: and once again, the nightly grapple with death, the room shaking with daemonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful sleep, the voices outside the window, my name being continually repeated with scorn by imaginary parties arriving, the dark’s spinets. As if there were not enough real noises in these nights the color of grey hair. Not like the rending tumult of American cities, the noise of the unbandaging of great giants in agony. But the howling pariah dogs, the cocks that herald dawn all night, the drumming, the moaning that will be found later white plumage huddled on telegraph wires in back gardens of fowl roosting in apple trees, the eternal sorrow that never sleeps of great Mexico. For myself I like to take my sorrow into the shadow of old monasteries, my guilt into cloisters and under tapestries, and into the misericordes of unimaginable cantinas where sad-faced potters and legless beggars drink at dawn, whose cold jonquil beauty one rediscovers in death.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

[N.B.: Malcolm Lowry is one of the great stylists of English prose—at least before the drink got to him.  The quote today is taken from the first part of a paragraph which opened up with that double ellipse.  Lowry’s use of metaphor and imagery leaves one in the same state as the poor saxophonist who first heard Charlie Parker and realized that the jig was up, there was no following the crazy explorer down that path; sure, the madman would emerge unscathed at the end because he didn’t give a damn for the danger but you, with your faltering step, would fall into a ravine somewhere.]

 

Kakutani Out of Control, Part II

I’m not the only one who views the antics of Ms. Kakutani in less than a rosy light. There’s an article (screed, really) in Slate by Ben Yagoda about her baleful influence.  The gist of Mr. Yagoda’s complaint is that Ms. Kakutani reviews literature in the same manner that most hacks review movies (i.e., plot synopsis followed by a thumb’s up or down with rarely a reference to other relevant works). There’s nothing particularly wrong with the inarticulate yawp, "you love me, you really, really love me"—nothing wrong, that is, if the exclamation comes from someone who’s taste I respect. But Ms. Kakutani is too prone to support or reject a book on non-literary grounds. Let’s not forget she led the charge last year to eviscerate Tom Wolfe’s book, I Am Charlotte Simmons.  This attack was mostly driven by the argument that Wolfe’s depiction of modern campus life dominated by thuggish athletes committing casual date rape was lurid and unrealistic.  Lacrosse anyone?  Ironically, Wolfe did a lot of his research at Duke.  Being vitiated by subsequent events does not make one’s book a work of art—just prescient.  But to take on someone of the stature of Tom Wolfe is going to require a heck of a lot more than a thumb’s down. That, though, seems to be all Ms. Kakutani has to offer.  And I don’t trust her taste.  Memo to the New York Times:  Next critic please.

 

The Return of Hilaire Belloc?

I freely admit it:  I’m a Hilaire Belloc junkie.  I’ve posted on him before on how he writes like an angel—a cranky, curmudgeonly one, mind—but an angel nonetheless. I’ve also bemoaned the fact that he seems to be just about totally forgotten.  But thank goodness for our ridiculous copyright laws which exclude from public discourse any book published since about the mid- 1920s (another fact I have bemoaned at length).  Today, on the editorial page no less, of the New York Times, is an editorial by Verlyn Klinenborg about the wonderful Mr. Belloc and his prescience concerning the press and bloggers in a book published in 1918 titled The Free Press.  The reason the editorial writer learned about Mr. Belloc is that he peruses the University of Pennsylvania Library’s catalog of online books, and this one was just added.  So, hurray for ridiculous censorship . . . errr . . . copyright laws and the return of Mr. Belloc.  I’m sure, though, that he’d just grin and demand another bottle of beer.

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April  17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

M. Laruelle wondered if it was going to rain: it sometimes, though rarely, did at this time of year, as last year for instance, it rained when it should not. And those were storm clouds in the south. He imagined he could smell the rain, and it ran in his head he would enjoy nothing better than to get wet, soaked through to the skin, to walk on and on through this wild country in his clinging white flannels getting wetter and wetter and wetter. He watched the clouds: dark swift horses surging up the sky. A black storm breaking out of its season! That was what love was like, he thought; love which came too late. Only no sane calm succeeded it, as when the evening fragrance or slow sunlight and warmth returned to the surprised land! M. Laruelle hastened his steps still further. And let such love strike you dumb, blind, mad, dead—your fate would not be altered by your simile. Tonnerre de dieu . . . It slaked no thirst to say what love was like which came too late.

--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

 

The Spark Has Gone Out of Literature

Muriel Spark is dead. She was the last great link to the mid-twentieth-century tradition of British Catholic literature exemplified by Evelyn Waugh and Grahame Greene.  Indeed, she seemed to embody the best characteristics of both while minimizing their flaws: the wit of Waugh without the corrosive bitterness and the metaphorical theological fervor of Greene without the overt sermonizing. One would not surmise this, however, from the patchwork obituary of the New York Times.  It looks like a labor of labor stitched together by decades of NYT summer interns who dutifully added the latest potted plot summary to the crazy-quilt death notice.  For a much more thoughtful obituary—actually, for a much more thoughtful anything when it comes to literature—get thee to the Guardian or the Times (by the bye, there are multiple tributes in both papers, unlike the one stingy obituary in the NYT, so go online and read them all for yourself—it’s an enlightening education on how backward literary matters are here compared to that little, insignificant island on the other side of the Atlantic).  This, though, is a sad day as the already decimated literary ranks have lost yet another leading luminary.  The lights are going out all over the world. I look forward to when the lights go on again.  Muriel Spark, requiescat in pace.

 

Kakutani Out of Control

The best way to handle a dreadful book is simply not to bother to review it—or, better yet, after the first fifty fatuous pages, to simply discard it unread.  There are exceptions to this rule, the most important being the need to answer effulgent reviews from other quarters that seem to view the work as the best thing since sliced Brecht.  This rule, though, should not be abused.  Case in point, Kakutani’s withering broadside against A. M. Holmes’s novel, This Book Will Save Your Life.  One can tell, just from the title, that it’s a stinkeroo.  Why bother confirming that impression? Oh, yeah, Kakutani’s lame excuse is that Stephen King has blurbed on the back cover: "this brave story of a lost man's reconnection with the world could become a generational touchstone, like 'Catch-22,' 'The Monkey Wrench Gang,' or 'The Catcher in the Rye.' "  Please, Stephen King is no more the arbiter of fine literature than Hugh Hefner is the arbiter of fine art. Or, Ms. Kakutani, for that matter.

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April  14,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

They were lying on their backs, on their sides, on their faces, some in coils like pricked millipedes. They were lying on top of each other, arms and heads over their neighbors, as if for fun or in ritual. They were lying singly, in twos, or in bigger bunches. They were dressed, naked, half-naked, sheathed only in coats of blood. There were those who seemed to have dozed off midway in prayer, rapture, boredom, disgust, dirtied as if they had failed to find the time or patience to wash. There were the faceless, the half-faced, the ones daring you to blow their cover. There were the fresh ones, with heat seeping out, and the stone-cold, with collapsed skin coats betraying bones. He guided them through them, past them, over them. With his gloved hand he pulled, exposed, unveiled, rearranged. He went on and on, a conductor musically twitching; a surgeon rubbing, probing; a history teacher selling faces, fictions. At the end of the exercise, with his bloodied glove and impassive face, he spread his hands like a priest at mass beckoning the congregation to embrace the Lord and told them that he could do no more for them. He wished them well, studying their faces, as if checking as to who had vomited most, who mourned most, who couldn’t wait to get away. He brought his hands down by his sides, shrugged his shoulders like a doctor who has failed in his duties, and one by one the group turned around ready to get out of the forest and go to meet another appointment, another fisher of men.

--Snakepit by Moses Isegawa

 

The Oracle Orwell

Who disputes the mystical existence of serendipity—or at least the zeitgeist?  In my last post, I made a tongue-in-cheek allusion to George Orwell as the "Oracle Orwell."  I was referring to his propensity to make Solon-like pronouncements on any number of matters that had the twin virtues of sounding very wise and, yet, very fuzzy, at the same time.  Hence, his writings could be referred to as authoritative diktats on all sorts of recondite issues and conflicting viewpoints—as I have done in any number of my own posts (I pride myself on making a virtue of my consistent inconsistency).  Well, go figger, but here comes Catherine Bennett of The Guardian making the same point that George Orwell is the secularist’s soothsayer.  Ms. Bennett may be correct that St. George is the patron saint of the village atheist, but I wouldn’t limit his influence to such narrow-minded pedants.  Instead, let's open up the prosy gates of his paradise and let everyone frolic within [N.B.: Hmm, I think I violated a number of his rules on writing with those last couple of sentences; oh well, back to Big Brother.].

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April  13,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

There came a moment in this chill, palely green afternoon, as all the world was watery with running ponds, and the river boiling high and yellow, when I stood among the uncoiling fronds of the cinnamon ferns and listened to the first piping of the tree frog. I used not to distinguish him from the pond frogs, but my ear at last is attuned to the difference. A pond frog is a coarse and booming creature compared with the eerie, contented and yet lonely little tree frog thrilling the light airs with its song.

It is strange how a note that must assuredly bespeak contentment, almost in this case a hymn of domestic felicity, can so trouble the heart of the listener. For the song rises over the creak-crack of the swamp frogs with an unearthly soaring wail, a note of keening that the country folk will say foretells a coming rain. And they are right in this. The tree frog never cries but a soft, oppressive dampness hangs upon the air, and spring thunder speaks in the western sky. Just so, in summer, do the cicadas, early in the morning, foretell a blazing day, and crickets in the autumn grass predict their deaths of frost.

--An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie

[N.B.: This is a curious work written originally in 1935 as a kind of daily devotional for non-religious naturalists (the entry quoted above is for April 12th).  The work begins, appropriately enough, not on January 1st, but March 21st, traditionally the vernal equinox.  Each day describes the changing of the seasons for an unnamed locale—presumably somewhere in the American Northeast.  It is a beautifully written book that is designed to be read day by day.  Of course, because we live in the decadent period of late American Antiquity, it’s out of a print, but there are a few copies for sale here.]

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April  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

As he rolled by, he would think back to 1942 when the last king was crowned. This man with titles such as the Professor of Almighty Knowledge, the Father of All Twins, the Cook with All the Firewood, the Power of the Sun, the Conqueror, had fled when he, Colonel Bazooka, had attacked his palace. The Conqueror had been in exile when Marshal Amin, King of Africa, created the new line of kings and princes now in power.

--Snakepit by Moses Isegawa

 

The New Sitwells

Once upon a time in a land faw, faw away, there lived the Sitwell siblings, a sister and her two bwothers, who ate only cabbage and scwaps of cheese in their bawonial pile high up in the wild heath. One day, the elder brother, Osbert, turned to his sister, Edith, and younger brother, Sacheverell, and noted, "I say, before we set the dogs on the valets today, I was thinking how nice it would be to have something to eat besides these scraps of cheese. Edith mused for a moment and exclaimed, "But Ozbie, we have no money, we must economize, that’s why we feed the dogs with the scrawny valets instead of the fattened groundskeepers in the first place." Sacheverell then piped in, "Besides, have you ever noticed how the dewy sun picks up the radiant tints of the cabbage when spring has sprung and the year is young?" Osbert then got huffy, "Oh, shut it, Sacky, I want some good English beefsteak, and I know just how to get it." "How’s that Ozbie?" "I have a plan, and if those fool kids don’t interfere, we’ll be rich, rich I tell you, living in a baronial pile high up in the heath . . . but with beefsteak!"

And so, dear readers, the Sitwells formed a gang, but not just any knock-about rock-about gang, they comprised the Literary Gang of Three who terrorized the world of literature for well nigh twenty years.  Callow reporters hung on their ever word, cringing at the shadow of a curled lip. The Sitwells knew everyone, did everyone, and then wrote about it. Osbert was the bon vivant, the man about town, the flannelled flaneur.  Edith, the tall gawky one, was the prophetess, the poetess, the mandariness.  And Sacheverell?  He was the artisté, the midwife for the fine arts, bringing truth and beauty to the masses. This trio banded together to fight for truth, justice and that baronial pile up in the heath against an array of super-villains. They faced Doctor Doom, otherwise known as Evelyn Waugh, a crypto-catholic with insidious plans to conquer the world (the literary world, that is) through a combination of his deadly catho-theo rays and sharp barbs of satiric humor.  They then squared off against, Brainiac a/k/a Aldous Huxley, a strange, analytical creature from another dimension who had no emotions and could shoot off spikes of crystalline prose from his finger tips.  Finally, they went down to defeat before the continued onslaught of the Titanic Twins: the Demon of Dublin, James Joyce, and the Oracle, George Orwell.  But the Sitwells have returned, like the Fisher King (and Queen) in the form of the new literary power family: The Foers.

Let’s see, we have the family patriarch, so to speak, Jonathan Foer, the Woo-Hoo Yawk wunderkind, the terror of the Upper-Upper-Upper East Side (that’s altitude-wise, boychiks) who frolics in the deep, turbid waters of post-modernism. Then there’s his burnished bride, Alison Krauss, who crafts pwecuss, pwecuss, and yet ferociously intelligent, mid-list love stories.  And not far behind this true literary power-couple is Jonathan’s brother, Franklin, who’s the new editor of The New Republic.  Now, when the Sitwells set out to conquer high falutin’ literary kultur, they each staked out a particular high-profile area: Osbert took belles-lettres (fiction, short stories, essays and, the one area where he truly did excel, memoirs), Edith colonized poetry while Sahcheverell planted his standard firmly in the rump of the fine arts and travel.  Well, in these deracinated literary days, the major areas—with the possible exception of the memoir—are decidedly not belles-lettres, poetry, travel writing or fine-art reviewing.  So, instead, we must be content with the doyen of the experimental novel, the mid-list novel and the "serious" periodical.  Oh well, although he doesn’t have a crumbling baronial pile, maybe Jonathan should think about crafting his memoirs about his deprived young life wrestling with and yet eventually triumphing over the depredations of the Upper-Upper-Upper East Side. Hold on, that’s been done in a lightly-fictionalized chronicle by Jay Mcinerney called Bright Lights Big City.  And where is he now?  That’s right, with the Sitwells, although it probably doesn’t sit well with him (har, har, har, that's a killer--of a literary reputation, that is).  

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April  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Uganda was a land of guilt, where sons were sometimes held accountable for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. Guilt was not altogether negative. Admitting it could help you work out a plan of survival. Right now innocence was the foe. It tempted you down the slippery road of sentimentality and self-pity, a lethal combination at the best of times.

--Snakepit by Moses Isegawa

 

The Problem with Poetry

Is it’s a scam. Some argue that the liberation of poetry from old, fusty rules opened the practice of poetry up to new visions, new interpretations and breathed new life into an old, decaying carcass. Perhaps. But it also allowed folks to prey upon the gullibility of others—legitimately, mind you—through the proliferation of vanity poetry contests. Ironically, the legitimate poetry contests (to the extent the judges don’t rig the outcomes as discussed at www.foetry.com) are the ones that charge an up-front fee to evaluate the submitted work. The others announce to whomever sends in a poem that he or she has been chosen to be featured in the next upcoming anthology for a modest per-book fee. I found out about this because my babysitter was so happy to be featured on the first page of an anthology called "Twilight Musings" published by the good folks at www.poetry.com (Nothing like having the best internet real estate for attracting marks . . . errr . . . discriminating clients and poets). She had to pay only sixty dollars for a fine, hardback edition of roughly six inches by four inches published in acid-full paper which, I speculate, is guaranteed not to yellow by the end of the year—and that same iron-clad guarantee extends to the appearance of cracks in the binding. Sixty dollars. And this operation is decidedly not a scam—as explained here which notes that the Better Business Bureau regards this outfit, which operates variously under the monikers poetry.com, the National Library of Poetry, the International Library of Poetry and the International Society of Poets, as being in good standing. People want their poems published and, by gum, poetry.com will publish ‘em.

So you can pick your poem poison. You can pay up front to enter "legitimate" university sponsored contests where, if you aren’t networked in with the judges, you probably won’t win and won’t be published. Or, you can enter the contests sponsored by the likes of the International Society of Poets (how prestigious sounding, it glitters just like gold . . . fool’s gold, that is, Bogie Bullion) where you’ll at least receive a book out of the deal. And poets wonder why, when anyone does think of them, they’re regarded as an irrelevance. Sure, sure, we still have the likes of Richard Wilbur and Geoffrey Hill, but they are formalists who necessarily give the lie to the rest of the poetic establishment (if that is the right word, "anarchy" would be a more apt term).  Indeed, poetry is in such a sorry state that there is no coherent reason to reject this  in favor of that.  Remember: reject craft, invite graft.

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April  10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is plain now that my life, for what it is worth, is finished, and that nothing I can do can perceptibly increase or diminish its value. It is very difficult to be dispassionate, but I count it a ‘success’; I have had more reward and not less than was due to a man of my particular grade and ability. I have held a series of comfortable and ‘dignified’ positions. I have had very little trouble with the duller routine of universities. I hate ‘teaching’, and have had to do very little, such teaching as I have done having been almost entirely supervision of research; I love lecturing, and have lectured a great deal to extremely able classes; and I have always had plenty of leisure for the researches which have been the one great permanent happiness of my life. I have found it easy to work with others, and have collaborated on a large scale with two exceptional mathematicians; and this has enabled me to add to mathematics a good deal more than I could reasonably have expected. I have had my disappointments, like any other mathematician, but none of them has been too serious or has made me particularly unhappy. If I had been offered a life neither better nor worse when I was twenty, I would have accepted without hesitation.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

[N.B.: I wonder how many modern academics would agree with this assessment—probably quite a few. They would note, however, that it is much harder nowadays to avoid "the duller routine of universities."]

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April  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Many people, of course, use ‘sentimentalism’ as a term of abuse for other people’s decent feelings, and ‘realism’ as a disguise for their own brutality.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

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April  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is useful to be tolerably quick at common arithmetic (and that, of course, is pure mathematics. It is useful to know a little French or German, a little history and geography, perhaps even a little economics. But a little chemistry, physics, or physiology has no value at all in ordinary life. We know that the gas will burn without knowing its constitution; when our cars break down we take them to a garage; when our stomach is out of order, we go to a doctor or a drugstore. We live either by rule of thumb or on other people’s professional knowledge.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

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April  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

A Mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patterns with shapes and colours, a poet with words. A painting may embody an ‘idea’, but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated: ‘I cannot satisfy myself that there are any such things as poetical ideas…. Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it.’

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed King.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

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April  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is also what I called the ‘humbler variation’ of the standard apology; but I may dismiss this in a very few words.

(2) ‘There is nothing that I can do particularly well. I do what I do because it came my way. I really never had a chance of doing anything else.’ And this apology too I accept as conclusive. It is quite true that most people can do nothing well. If so, it matters very little what career they choose, and there is really nothing more to say about it. It is a conclusive reply, but hardly one likely to be made by a man with any pride; and I may assume that none of us would be content with it.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

 

How to Write Like Stefan Zweig

The burr under my saddle lately has been about the false distinctions that have cropped up in the field of literature.  As I have endeavored to explain, all works—history, fiction, biography—are works of literature (this point is underscored, in a very muddled sort of way, in yesterday’s New York Times).  At least with respect to fiction (not counting genre works—which, I admit, is sort of like General Custer noting that he’s got the enemy whipped at Little Bighorn, not counting the Indians) the author understands that basic fact.  And for the enduring works of non-fiction, this is also the case.  No one reads Herodotus in order to find out what actually happened in the Persian Wars.  Herodotus is jingoism personified:  Put the black hat on Xerxes and the white hat on Themistocles and let’s call it a day.  But, and here’s my little teensy-weensy, point—who cares?  Herodotus is a cracking good read.  And that’s all I need.

Stefan Zweig understood the need for a cracking good read.  Here’s his description (taken from his wonderful memoir, The World of Yesterday) of his technique when embarked upon crafting a biography:

As a biographer and essayist I had always felt it incumbent on me to study the causes of the influence or lack of influence of books or personages within their own time, and I could not but ask myself, in hours of reflection, to what particular characteristics my books owed their, to me, unexpected success. In the final analysis, I believe it sprang from a personal bad habit of mine, namely, that I myself am an impatient and temperamental reader. Every redundance, all embellishment and anything vaguely rapturous, everything nebulous and unclear, whatever tends to retard a novel, a biography, an intellectual discussion, irritates me. Only a book that steadily, page after page, maintains its level and that seizes and carries one breathlessly to the last line, gives me perfect enjoyment. Nine-tenths of the books that happen into my hands are too greatly expanded by superfluous description, talky dialogue, and unnecessary minor characters, hence fail in magnetism and dynamic power.

That paragraph should be tacked above every writer’s desk.  The failure to heed it shall as surely doom the writer to obscurity as the gates of hell shall clang behind freshly dead souls, reverberating with the screams of the damned.  Very few works survive which lack literary merit.  Even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although written in perhaps the most execrable prose every devised by the hand of man (or woman), lives on—primarily, of course, for endogenous reasons that have nothing to do with literature; something about being one of the causes of some minor dust-up, otherwise known as the American Civil War—through the author’s carefully crafted characters such as Topsy, Simon Legree and, of course, the eponymously named hero.

So, how does one avoid the screams of the damned?  Let’s go back to Zwieg’s exposition concerning the composition of his biography on Marie Antoinette:

Similarly, in a biography, in the beginning I use all available documentary details of every kind; preparing for my Marie Antoinette I actually checked every single account in order to determine her personal expenditure, I pored over contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, ploughed through legal documents to the last dot. But in the printed book not a single line of that remains, because hardly is there a fair copy of the first approximate version of a book before my real work begins, that of condensing and composing, a task I cannot do too thoroughly from version to version. It is an unrelenting throwing overboard of ballast, an ever-tightening and clarifying of the inner structure; where many others cannot bring themselves to withhold something that they know and, with a sort of infatuation for every rounded period, seek to display a greater breadth and depth than they possess, it is my ambition always to know more than the surface discloses.

This process of condensation and dramatization repeats itself once, twice and three times in the proof sheets; in the end it becomes a kind of joyful hunt for another sentence or even merely a word the absence of which would not lessen the precision and yet at the same time accelerate the tempo. The task of cutting is the one that really affords me the most enjoyment. And I remember that one day, when I got up from my work particularly pleased and my wife remarked that I must have hit something off very well today, I answered proudly, "Yes, I was able to kill another whole paragraph and consequently to achieve a much more rapid continuity." If, then, the sweeping pace of my books is sometimes, lauded, this characteristic owes nothing to a native heat or an inner excitation, but only to that systematic method of steady elimination of all superfluous stops and starts, and if I am aware of any art of my own it is that of being able to forgo, for I make no complaint if of a thousand manuscript pages eight hundred make their way into the waste-paper basket and only two hundred—the essence—survive the sifting.

In quoting Zweig here, I am in no way exalting the art of the likes of Elmore Leonard who also adhere to this rule for purposes of crafting their genre thrillers. This rule will benefit any writer—even he that labors in the forgotten hedgerows of bodice rippers and whodunnits—except, perhaps, that most wretched of scribblers, the creative writing graduate who is encouraged to plump up their meager fare of lightly-crusted slightly-fictionalized memoirs and character-sketch short stories with a spicy sprinkling of action verbs ("galumphing," "squiggling," "doodling," ad nauseum—Winnie the Pooh, j’accuse!) and colorful adjectives ("keening," "dodgy," "grotty," ad nauseum—Peter Pan, j’accuse!).  Only through condensation can one burn off the greasy fat from one’s writing to reveal the hard diamond underneath.  And, my friends, as Ian Fleming would put it, Diamonds are Forever.

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April  4,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

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April  3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

 

Bury the Bishop

You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces—Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray—but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-1979). That she worked in one of our country’s least popular fields, poetry, doesn’t matter. That she was a woman doesn’t matter. That she was gay doesn’t matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan—none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever." The publication of "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," which gathers for the first time Bishop’s unpublished material, isn’t just a significant event in our poetry; it’s part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, stand in awe of that paragraph of purple prose, the likes of which you will not see again in your lifetime.  It is the apotheosis—nay, the iceberg—of bad criticism.  The condensation, exposing "the cracks that could form on those crystalline surfaces," of so many bad habits, piling one on top of another like a mountain of worn-out shoes masquerading as meaningful metaphors, which, on closer examination contain not one foot or even little pinky-toe, but rather, the great void, King Nada, Emperor Jones of the Emptiness. So let us pause a moment and cast a tear for Elizabeth Bishop.  She was a great poet.  She was admired. She was not some secret fetish of a few scattered  graduate students and their mentors-cum-thesis advisors-cum-professors-cum-witch doctors.  And yet David Orr, in the lead review of this week’s New York Times Book Review, saw fit to desecrate her corpse with his little essay of critical nothingness.

Let’s begin dissecting that lead paragraph. The first sentence could be bettered (or worsened) only by substituting "universe" for "world."  Everyone knows that sentiment isn’t true, but how else can a reviewer convey—in today’s world of false superlatives—that he really, really, really, really, really, really likes Elizabeth Bishop.  Actually, that sentence accomplishes the exact opposite of what the reviewer intends.  The jaded reader knows that one uses such grandiose assertions in order to frantically wave for attention regarding some minor, forgotten artist.  But that is not Elizabeth Bishop.  She need not be compared to having the same impact as "Hollywood" or "Microsoft"—again, a ridiculous assertion.  Oh, or "Rachael Ray"—which brings me to my second error:  The false conflation.

Fourth-Rate (oh wait, I need a stronger anti-superlative, "Google-Rate") reviewers try to assert their literary wisdom by listing three writers, two of which are well known, but, invariably, the third is an obscure taste that the reviewer wishes to simultaneously plump for as well as nekkidly exhibit as his superior taste over the benighted viewer’s:  "Miss X belongs in the same company as Shakespeare, Dickens and Pym [N.B.: Barbara Pym is an excellent writer definitely worth seeking out, but she does not belong in such an exalted list].  Mr. Orr, however, goes one better, and conflates the movie industry, a manufacturer of software operating platforms and one Rachael Ray.  And who is Rachael Ray you might ask?  Why, she’s every bit as important as Hollywood or Microsoft or Elizabeth Bishop, for that matter. Rachael Ray, too, has created the world in which you live in—you’re just too ignert to know it. Actually, I had no idea who Ms. Ray was until I "googled" her.  She apparently has some kind of a cooking program on the idiot box.  f I had to guess, Mr. Orr is one of those annoying "foodies" who probably has a personal connection to Ms. Ray and wanted to "scratch her back" so to speak (yet another cardinal sin committed willy-nilly by reviewers).

My oh my, I’ve blathered on quite a bit here and still have not gotten to the last clause of the second sentence of that lead paragraph where we learn that "in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop."  This, of course, is an assertion that we are supposed to take at face value, even though, as Mr. Orr points out later in his review, Bishop published only ninety or so poems in her lifetime. That, of course, merely serves to enhance her reputation.  Imagine if she had published only one poem, but that poem was so powerful, so prophetic, so creative, so, so, so—epoch changing and world shattering—that she would still be an American artist with no superiors.  Oh my. I’m getting a bit hot and bothered here can someone please open a window?

Wait, you better close the window, you’re letting in a draft . . . of a succession of transgressive bona fides. Mr. Orr can’t just have a gushing review without exhibiting like a carnival barker Bishop’s stigmata of secular saintliness:  "Step right up ladies and gentlemen and see the Amazing Bishop.  She’s a woman.  She’s gay. She’s an alcoholic.  She’s an expatriate.  Heck, she’s even essentially an orphan." I’m getting the creeps; let’s move on to the quotation from an obscure but revered "difficult" European writer whose pronouncement on literature, when taken out of context, means essentially nothing.

I love Italo Calvino and think his literary criticism is important, as opposed to Mr. Orr’s.  But the heck if I know what "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever" means.  Perhaps that paradox is referring to the concept articulated by George Orwell that a writer’s style should be unobtrusive, like looking through a pane of glass, a difficult achievement for a poet, though, since poetry necessarily requires attention to be paid to the poet’s ability to situate each word in a mosaic-like matrix.  Of course, ripping this one bloody bit from Calvino’s work makes it impossible to discern what he actually meant.  Which is all well and good since Mr. Orr moves on immediately without any elucidation. He’s just citing to Calvino—the way the chancery court in Bleak House would cite obscure precedent—in order to show you that he’s the wise old man of the mountain and you young whipper-snappers and whistle-britches should just pipe down and listen respectfully as he tells you about the charge at Cold Harbor.  Are those birds chirping?  I think it’s time for me to get my fishing pole and head on down to the crick out back.  If Mr. Orr comes this way tell him I’m out crystallizing some poetic icebergs and will be back in a jiff.

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April  2,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is never worth a first class man’s time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.

--A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

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April  1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that "serious" literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textural self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be "serious."

*           *           *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

So he—we, ficiton writers—won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. The project would be like Menard’s Quixote. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How—for a writer today, even a talented writer today—to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models. Frank’s books make one of them concrete and alive and terribly instructive.

--Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

[N.B. If I’m reading this right, DFW has not published a serious novel since Infinite Jest in about a decade because he’s afraid of what the modern "culture"—whatever that is—might think of his next "meaty" book.  To heck with ‘em and let posterity sort it out (see Joyce Carol Oates).]

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