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Journal, Day Three
A man who is tired of poetry is tired of life, so they say; but when I’m tired of poetry I take down Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poems and am often restored. Everyone knows “Jabberwocky,” and many know “The White Knight’s Ballad,” which may be the most hilarious poem in English. But how many know “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” which as far as I’m concerned constitutes the chief reason to be grateful that Longfellow ever existed?
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together,
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
And so on for another hundred lines. Pretty soon Carroll is sending up Ruskin.
Among those with a taste for nonsense, there is the Camp of Carroll and the Camp of Lear. I’m an Edward Lear fan, I admit it, but not of the verse. He was a clumsy poet, and I hope I’m not the only reader who finds the nonsense verse mostly oafish and the limericks mostly dreadful—in the very form he popularized he showed only a mild (if deranged) talent. His insistence on repeating the first end-word as the last, as he mostly did, made too many limericks seem anticlimactic. When I think of Lear’s limericks, I think of the sultan who offered a prize to the best poet in his land. Two poets came forward. The sultan heard the first poem and immediately awarded the prize to the other poet. In any contest with Lear, the other limerick writer would win. (I’m grateful for the non-limericks only because Eliot was provoked by one to that stylish piece of self-criticism beginning “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!”)
As an oil painter, Lear was so stilted, his paintings still turn people to stone. Why am I a Lear fan, then? He was a genius at water colors and drawings, and once you’ve seen his hand you can’t mistake it for anyone else’s. His landscapes are extraordinary and fresh, and he traveled much of his adult life to make them—to Venice, to India, to Greece, to Albania, getting up early in the morning and sketching ruins and rocks. He hoped to turn a lot of these sketches into oils, and sometimes time (mostly they were unsalable). He’s remembered for the drawings themselves, of which there were some ten thousand at his death. They have a vividness and an immediacy the oil paintings entirely lack. Lear was also, at a precocious age, an avian artist possibly more brilliant than Audubon.
Lear’s letters, too, are hilarious—if there’s affectation in Lear, it’s affectation of the most humane sort. While staying in Venice, he reads in the Times that a friend in England has obtained a high government position:
I threw the paper up into the air and jumped aloft myself—ending by taking a small fried whiting out of the plate before me and waving it round my foolish head triumphantly till the tail came off and the body and head flew bounce over to the other side of the table d’hôte room. Then only did I perceive that I was not alone, but that a party was at breakfast in a recess. Happily for me they were not English, and when I made an apology saying I had suddenly seen some good news of a friend of mine, these amiable Italians said—“Bravissimo, signore! We rejoice with you! And if only we had some little fish we would throw them about the room too, in sympathy with you!”
I hate hate speech, I hate hate speech so much I hate myself for hating it. I hate the haters of hate speech just as I hate the haters of haters of hate speech. I hate hate speech so much I even hate the words “hate speech,” and if I hate hate hate hate speech long enough, hate it with the hatingest kind of hatred, probably hate speech will go away. I’m sure of it.
I’m a believer in the Church of Lenny Bruce, which holds that the only way to defuse such language is to repeat it, not to give it power by making it taboo. If the word “hate” above didn’t become nonsense by the end of the paragraph, I wasn’t trying hard enough. Bruce had to use the words in order to offend, and it wouldn’t have been the same had he said, “If President Kennedy got on television and said, ‘I’m considering appointing two or three of the top n— words in the country to my cabinet’—if it was nothing but n— word, n— word, n— word—in six months n— word wouldn’t mean any more than good night, god bless you . . .—when that beautiful day comes, you’ll never see another n— word kid come home from school crying because some motherfucker called him a n— word.”
I have a colleague who lives to be offended. He told me that a Southern fiction writer who read at Florida some years ago (I happened to be out of town), prefaced a story by saying, “Well, this story was written a long time back, and we used to talk this way.” My colleague said, “That was an aggressive act.” I didn’t understand what he meant, and finally he said, “It was n— this and n— that, page after page.” (This is the way my colleague said it, “n— this and n— that,” and he lowered his voice, even though we were talking by telephone.) I still didn’t understand, and then I did (I thought he was saying, “It was en this and en that,” and I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.) “It was a very aggressive act,” my colleague whispered.
I understood then, not why we hadn’t hired the writer (that was the result of those politics that make university life so sweet), but why there was general rejoicing when we didn’t. I’d have said the writer was trying not to whitewash the old days—until the mid-sixties, you heard the word “nigger” so often, even in the north, you hardly gave it a thought, just as you heard “mick,” “wop,” “guinea,” “kike,” “faggot,” and all the nastier denizens of American slang.
For years, I thought I’d heard what my colleague calls the “n— word” for the last time in casual speech. Then, just a few years back, I was asking a cousin about our great-grandfathers, who were brothers growing up in Pittsburgh; and he said, “Oh, Saturday nights your great-grandfather would say to mine, ‘Let’s go up to the Hill and beat up some niggers.’” The use was, you’ll note, historical; but I was shocked to hear it coming from a retired dentist’s mouth. Note, I’m not advocating hauling the word back into use, because if you use it around me I will beat your fucking brains out, you little cocksucker motherfucker. I’m suggesting that we have become so dainty and cautious about such words, we’ve invested them with more power than they deserve. That word, that terrible word, should be treated as a word than once had power and is now interesting only as a dead bug in the etymology tray of language.
I saw a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, published in Britain, with the following entry in the table of contents: “The Artificial Nigger [sic].” I’m not sure who would feel better after seeing that “[sic],” but I know I felt worse. The only way to give power to the past is to lie about it. You want to talk about Pound’s and Eliot’s anti-Semitism? Fine, but don’t make out that they were exceptions, the two bad-boy anti-Semites of American verse. If you want to talk about Pound and Eliot, I want to talk about Marianne Moore writing her brother that a “coon took me up in the elevator” and Sylvia Plath mentioning a girl’s “jewy” nose.
Some readers have asked questions. Let me answer them here. Steve Fellner introduced himself with compliments, then got down to the rough stuff: Sometimes I get disappointed by the predictability of your responses . . . . Sometimes though I do feel that you fall into a default cynicism, and make your target too easy: Sharon Olds, etc. I wish that you’re [sic] reviews exhibited a more TORTURED AMBIVALENCE: those sort of reviews are always the more interesting to read: it’s fun to watch the critic battling with himself.
Fair enough. I’d love to undergo more conversions, to find myself suddenly adoring Sharon Olds, say; and I agree that anyone who has smudged his hands at the coal face of criticism for more than three decades is likely to find certain of his tastes hard to dislodge, even with a pickaxe. I open a new book by most poets with a sense of hope; when I can’t muster at least that, I don’t review the poet any longer. There are poets whose work I find myself torturously ambivalent about, or ambivalently tortured by—Louise Glück, Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery, and Geoffrey Hill among them. Sometimes this torture comes in an odd way—the work as I remember it seems better than when I was reading it.
Fellner remarks about my remarks about blogs, and I don’t disagree that there are better blogs than the ones I was making fun of—but most are far worse. I hope I wasn’t denying what blogs strive for, at best (selling an interest to Google, perhaps); but I confess that for me the ratio of rubies to dirt is too low. Half an hour spent with Byron’s journals or Lear’s letters is far more instructive—that doesn’t mean I think a steady diet of any one thing is healthy. I worry that most bloggers are so eager to identify the Next Hot Thing before them, they ignore all the riches behind them.
Bryan Shoup asks: What’s the best poem you’ve read so far this year? What’s the best poem you’ve read this year from a new poet?
The best poem I’ve read this year is Don Juan. Byron, most of whose work I have little feeling for, found there the right form for his flickering epic wit. It’s rare that a poet so young (he was just thirty when he began it) finds a form so suited to his talent and energy. Rather than choose one poem by a younger poet, I’ll say that I’ve liked some work by Morri Creech, whose second book, Field Knowledge, was just published by Waywiser. Other young poets I could mention had the misfortune of being my students, and I have a terrible rule that prevents me from reviewing them or giving them grants or awards. Or mentioning them when it might seem that mere fondness guided me.