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Journal, Day Four
Logan the Blog Hostage, Day 4.
The printing press gave any man who owned one the power of a scriptorium without the interruption of prayers. Better, he could print the Bible in the vernacular, which any man who could read (or be read to) could understand. (We owe much to an early translator like Tyndale, whose work underpinned the King James Bible.) The church was upset by this attack upon its monopoly—it didn’t matter to the priests if the Bible was in Latin and the flock spoke only German. Who cared what the sheep were speaking?
The typewriter gave every man who owned one a cheap printing press. The Internet makes every man his own printer and distributor, at a cost only of his time. We live now in Babel and it’s cheap.
Geoffrey Brock has convinced me that I’m wrong about the weir in Robinson’s “The Mill” (see the Monday entry). He pointed out something that had bothered me about the line “Black water, smooth above the weir.” In tidal waters, smooth water would be unusual, but it wouldn’t strange at all if this were a mill dam—a different kind of weir entirely. The woman, seeing her husband hanging from a mill rafter, goes outside and drowns herself in the calm waters above the mill weir; that is, in the pond above the spillway. I had taken “above” in the wrong sense. The reading must be revised in this way, too—her body won’t be discovered in a few hours. She’s trying to efface herself entirely, to vanish as if she had never lived. Decay being what it is, of course, in some days or weeks the body will probably surface, bloated with gas.
We agreed that the “foamless weirs / Of age” in “Eros Turannos” are probably ocean weirs. He asked about “foamless,” a word that had bewildered me a little; I suggested that Robinson is using the old metaphor of life as a tide—maturity is high tide, but by old age the tide has withdrawn. All that remains are weirs left on the dry shore. (Arnold uses a similar image in “Dover Beach”—the Seas of Faith were full, but now one hears the “withdrawing roar” of the tide retreating across the “naked shingles.”)
Sometimes a kind soul praises my criticism and asks me to comment on a manuscript. I’m not sure my counsel has ever done anyone any good but, faced with this awkward situation, the only sensible thing for me to do is run like hell. The few times I’ve weakened in my resolve, I’ve regretted it. There was a pharmacist—at least, I think he was a pharmacist—who, when I had been insufficiently robust in my refusals, sent me a batch of a dozen or so poems. The next day, another batch of poems hit the doormat, poems he’d written since mailing me the manuscript the day before. The third day, a new batch arrived, this time with pictures of the man and his little son. I returned all three batches, told him he was a genius and that he should lose my address before I called the cops. After that, I adopted an invariable rule. An Edmund Wilson rule. I don’t look at manuscripts.
Once a lawyer asked if I’d comment on a few of his poems. I said I’d be glad to, if he’d give me a retainer of $1000 and allow me to bill him at $250 per hour, with a minimum charge of four hours. He was shocked. My temerity served its purpose—I didn’t have to look at the poems. Think about the curiosity. A lawyer doesn’t like to hand out free legal advice. He charges somewhere between $150 and $500 an hour for his time. If you call him up, he’ll bill you for a quarter-hour, even when the phone call takes three minutes. Yet he wants some poor schmuck of a poetry critic, who’s lucky to get $500 for a book review that takes three weeks to write, to pronounce on his poems gratis.
When people send me books, I put them on the shelf and read them when preparing the next chronicle. I don’t read every book all the way through. I look at about 150 a year, and I read them until I know whether I’m going to review them or not. I read at least ten pages, and in most get halfway through. I read half the books cover to cover.
I don’t refuse to look at manuscripts because I like being unkind. I refuse because I’m incapable of lying about poetry. (Poetry is far too trivial to lie about.) Poets who send you manuscripts never really want you to be honest. They want to hear that they are undiscovered geniuses. I don’t think my refusal praiseworthy, however; indeed, it’s despicable.
The critic’s nightmare is named Thomas Wentworth Higginson. What if, in your kindness, you agreed to look at a few verses by a young poet? Would you know if they were works of genius, or would you go down in literary history as the critic who read but could not see? Higginson was a kind man, an honest man. He wasn’t capable of seeing that Emily Dickinson was something entirely new. Indeed, there may not have been a poet of any standing who could have seen what she was. Every critic fears he is a Higginson and every poet hopes to be a Dickinson. There may be, once a century or so, a Dickinson born to blush unseen; but that means about twelve hundred acres of flowers with no sweetness to waste on the desert air.
In the Internet age, with every man his own printing press and press agent, every man capable of plastering his poems across the screens of thousands or tens of thousands of readers, you have to work very hard to be entirely unseen.
I saw the movie Running with Scissors this week, which had some appalling performances by actors I respect, Gwyneth Paltrow (cold and pouty, her worst manner) and Brian Cox (who had the rags of scenery stuck between his teeth). Watching it was more painful than watching a vivisection; indeed, rather than see it again I’d volunteer to be vivisected myself. The one actor who emerged ennobled by this self-indulgent exercise in film was Annette Bening, who could have graced another twenty movies in the past decade, had she wanted to work. She played a woman convinced that she is destined to become a famous poet. The world’s silence merely encourages her, her rejection letters an excuse—she’s found by her son cutting them into abstract shapes—to decoupage the kitchen table. Later in the film, she starts a poetry group of housewives, which gives her the chance to be unremittingly cruel about her neighbors’ poems. I know, I know. She sounds like a poetry critic.
Movies often make trivial historical mistakes—there’s a mean pleasure in catching a hairstyle too bouffant for its period or noting that a movie about the Depression uses dollar bills printed after 1963, when the design of the obverse changed (another thing prop designers forget is that until 1929 dollar bills were larger in size). At the movies, a dentist looks at the actors’ teeth (Annette Bening’s lowers are so crooked she might secretly be British—they’re as cross-rigged as Keira Knightley’s), and a carpenter at baseboards. Myself, I try to read the titles on a set’s bookshelves; and I watch details like the rejection letter Bening receives from The New Yorker.
Howard Moss was poetry editor of The New Yorker in the early ‘70s, when part of the movie is set. The envelope Bening opened contained no manuscript, and it wasn’t a self-addressed envelope—it was a New Yorker envelope. The first is an error, the second perhaps not. Moss was a very kind man who generally returned a manuscript two weeks after it was sent. When he accepted my first poem, I thought it meant I didn’t have to send self-addressed stamped envelopes any more. In the months during which I labored under this delusion, my rejected poems arrived in New Yorker envelopes, with a letter that ended, “I can’t seem to find your envelope.” Eventually I took the hint. Moss’s letters were on small pieces of stationery, probably so he didn’t have to write longer letters. He would never have forgotten to include a poet’s manuscript; but, had someone like Bening not included a self-addressed stamped envelope, he would no doubt have used the house stationery.
The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Steven Wright said that.
The poet isn’t the second bird. The poet is the first mouse. He dies looking forward to a bite of cheese.