Monday, October 31, 2011

Details, Whole

Thoreau’s “Neottia pubescens or veined Neottia Rattle-snake plantain”
In Curtis’s Botanical Magazine:
DESCR. Radical leaves five-nerved; ovate, acute, dark green tessellated with white bars: petioles sheathing the scape and one another. Scape erect, not at all twisted, pubescent, not six inches in length, clothed with alternate, linear bractes, or cauline leaves, somewhat twisted round the scape, the lowermost one broadest and tessellated like the radical leaves. Flowers white, scentless ? in a long straight spike, not secund. Bractes lanceolate, concave, one to each flower, equaling the german, which is pubescent, obsoletely three-cornered, with a projecting dorsal rib, a little incurved. The two superior internal petals connive so as to form a galea; the two lateral petals are patent, and equal to the labellum, which is concave above, and acuminate. Pollen masses 2-lobed: lobes nearly globular.
Thoreau to James Elliot Cabot (8 March 1848): “My book, fortunately, did not find a publisher ready to undertake it, and you can imagine the effect of delay on an author’s estimate of his own work. However, I like it well enough to mend it, and shall look at it again directly when I have dispatched some other things. . . . I esteem it a rare happiness to be able to write anything, but there (if I ever get there) my concern for it is apt to end. Time & Co. are, after all, the only quite honest and trustworthy publishers that we know. I can sympathize, perhaps, with the barberry bush, whose business it is solely to ripen its fruit (though that may not be to sweeten it) and to protect it with thorns, so that it holds all winter, even, unless some hungry crows come to pluck it.” “My book” refers to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), then making its futile rounds with various publishers and obliging, apparently, Thoreau’s repeated rewrites (Thoreau ended up, at Emerson’s counsel, paying himself for the printing of a thousand copies. Less than three hundred sold.) James Elliot Cabot assisted Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau periodically collected specimens. Sent with queries and field-notes: “Snapping turtles are perhaps as frequently met with in our muddy river as anything, but they are not always to be had when wanted . . . As no one makes a business of seeking them, and they are valued for soups, science may be forestalled by appetite in this market . . .” And:
      Suckers. The horned, which I sent first, and the black. I am not sure whether the Common or Boston sucker is found here. Are the three which I sent last, which were speared in the river, identical with the three black suckers, taken by hand in the brook, which I sent before? I have never examined them minutely.
. . .
      Lampreys. Very scarce since the dams at Lowell and Billerica were built.
      Shiners. Leuciscus chrysoleucas, silver and golden.
      What is the difference?
Details of use. Engagement with the ferocious and unstinting welter of the natural world, what lies beyond mad human striving. Larger sense of “Time & Co.” (effect of the Lowell and Bellerica dams on the lamprey population in the Concord). Cabot reports (c. 1 June 1847) that Agassiz’d found “one, and he thinks two, more new species” among Thoreau’s specimens: “one is a Pomotis,—the bream without the red spot in the operculum, and with a red belly and fins. The other is the shallower and lighter colored shiner.” I keep thinking of a line of Kenneth Burke’s—out of Counter-Statement (1931)—concerning the split between the rhetorical approach that “makes of literature the verbalization of experience, the conversion of diction into life” versus its opposite, that “would make of literature the verbalization of experience, the conversion of life into diction.” (Burke’s exemplar is Flaubert, whom he sees as “an admirer of Shakespeare, of Chateaubriand . . . attempting to write in the aesthetic of a Stendhal, . . . a novelist [who] despised the protrusion of art, [whose] greatest ambition was to write sentences which could make the reader forget them as sentences . . .”) Isn’t there something of that in Thoreau’s brave vacillatory medium? He writes: “As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things . . .” and proceeds (Walden, “Conclusion”) to succor pure outré verbalization in all its undeniable outbursting:
I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cow-yard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. Who that has heard a strain of music feared then lest he should speak extravagantly any more forever? . . . The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.
Something of the bon mot electricity there, something of the enigma-split of some of the sayings pulled out of the Journal—“When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.” Or: “He who resists not at all will never surrender.” The unspared indefinite body of the word itself: that “literal monument” left behind, shrugged off exoskeletal shriving cloth. Snake skin. Compare it with Thoreau’s worries in the Journal-entry for 19 August 1851:
Chicadees & jays never fail—The cricket’s is a note which does not attract you to itself. It is not easy to find one
      I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct & scientific–That in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope—I see details not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, & say ‘I know.’ The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine wood.
And thence is moved to consider the aptness of the “richly veined leaves of the Neottia pubescens or veined Neottia Rattle-snake plantain”: “I like this last name very well though it might not be easy to convince a quibbler or proser of its fitness. We want some name to express the mystic wildness of its rich leaves. Such work as men imitate in their embroidery—unaccountably agreeable to the eye—as if it answered its end only when it met the eye of man.” (The worry and upshot of the rude mechanickal’s continuous reading, unadroit, with few hints and faint feelers to the beyond: “I see details not wholes.”)

Friday, October 28, 2011

William Ellery Channing’s Thoreau

Pencil Box, J. Thoreau & Co.
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Emerson (“Eulogy, 1862”): “From a box containing a bushel or more of loose pencils, he could take up with his hands fast enough just a dozen pencils at every grasp.”

Cold morning. Up, dilatory, rebelling, at four (to light up the lamp at five). Odd sleeps. Perused William Ellery Channing’s Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist, the 1902 F. B. Sanborn-edited version of the 1873 original. One gathers something of the “somewhat mercurial Channing” (Krutch) through the rampant quotational jitters of the “Preface.” In part:
      In a biographic thesis there can hardly occur very much to amuse, if of one who was reflective and not passionate, and who might have entered like Anthony Wood in his journal, “This day old Joan began to make my bed,”—an entry not fine enough for Walpole. At the same time the account of a writer’s stock in trade may be set off like the catalogues of George Robins, auctioneer, with illustrations even in Latin or, as Marlowe says—
“The learned Greek, rich in fit epithets,
Blest in the lovely marriage of pure words.”
      Byron’s bath at Newstead Abbey is described as a dark and cellar-like hole. The halos about the brows of authors tarnish with time. Iteration, too, must be respected,—that law of Nature. Authors carry their robes of state not on their backs, but, like the Indians seen by Wafer, in a basket behind them,—“the times’ epitome.” But as the cheerful host says:—
“I give thee all, I can no more,
If poor the offering be,”
the best scraps in the larder, like Pip’s pork-pie.
. . .
      Claude Lorraine used to say, “I sell you my landscapes: the figures I give away.” So there are patch-work quilts made by the saints where bits of fine silk are sewed on pieces of waste paper,—that seems, madam, not that is. But recall the trope that “very near to admiration is the wish to admire” and permit the excellence of the subject to defray in a measure the meanness of the treatment . . .
Whew. Sanborn, regarding Channing’s re-drafting of an earlier (1863) manuscript, notes Channing’s “perversity of genius” in the redoing. And unsigned review in the New York Times dated 25 October 1873 reads in part:
The preface is an epitome of the book, which is written without order or method, and in a style oftentimes so obtrusively bad as to suggest the suspicion that Mr. Channing has purposely adopted it, the better to set off the simplicity and clearness of the extracts he gives from Thoreau. Of the latter he tells us that “for so learned a man he spared his erudition,” and that “there are so few obscurities in Thoreau’s writing, that his style has that ease and moderateness he appears to lack.” The exact reverse is true of his chronicler, amid whose clumsy inversions, deplorable Latinisms, and uncouth efforts at humor, Thoreau’s clear and clean-cut sentences shine like diamonds in a dust heap. Mr. Channing talks of “isolate houses,” or “at-length-deserted pathways,” and the “breathing aloofness”; a hen is the “origin of feathers,” ice is “shaggy enamel.” . . . What can be expected of a man who talks of “tadpoles beginning, like magazine writers, to drop their tails” . . .
Ah, the pleasures of vituperating. (Ah, the pleasures of a poverty of epithets . . .) One recalls Thoreau’s own sense of the stifling air of “poetry . . . collected into one alove”*:
When looking over dry and dusty volumes of the English poets, I cannot believe that those fresh and fair creations I had imagined are contained in them. English poetry from Gower down, collected into one alcove, and so from the library window compared with the commonest nature, seems very mean. Poetry cannot breathe in the scholar’s atmosphere. . . . I can hardly be serious with myself when I remember that I have come to Cambridge after poetry; and while I am running over the catalogue and selecting, I think it would be a shorter way to a complete volume to step at once into the field or wood, with a very low reverence to students and librarians. Milton did not see what company he was to fall into.
(Journal, 30 November 1841, quoted by Krutch.) Continuing: “On running over the titles of these books, looking from time to time at their first pages or farther, I am oppressed by an inevitable sadness.”

Alors, some few reading notes out of the Channing biography:
Henry retained a peculiar pronunciation of the letter r, with a decided French accent. He says, “September is the first month with a burr in it”; and his speech always had an emphasis, a burr in it.
. . .
When he was fourteen months old, his family removed to Chelmsford, where they were settled for two years . . . At Chelmsford he was tossed by a cow, and again, by getting at an axe without advice, he cut off a good part of one of his toes; and once he fell from a stair. After this last achievement, as after some others, he had a singular suspension of breath, with a purple hue in his face, owing, I think, to his slow circulation (shown in his slow pulse through life) and hence the difficulty of recovering his breath.
. . .
His own house is rather minutely described in his “Walden.” It was just large enough for one, like the plate of boiled apple pudding he used to order of the restaurateur, and which, he said, constituted his invariable dinner in a jaunt to the city.
. . .
For shoddy he had an aversion: a pattern of solid Vermont gray gave him genuine satisfaction, and he could think of corduroy. His life was of one fabric. He spared the outfitters no trouble; he wished the material cut to suit him, as he was to wear it, not worshipping “the fashion” in cloth or opinion. He bought but few things, and “those not till long after he began to want them,” so that when he did get them he was prepared to make a perfect use of them and extract their whole sweet.
. . .
Ever on the search for knowledge, he lived to get information; and as I am so far like Alfieri that I have almost no curiosity, I once said to him how surprised I was at the persistence of this trait in him. “What else is there in life?” was his reply. He did not end, in this search, with the farmers, nor the broadcloth world; he knew another class of men, who hang on the outskirts of society, those who love “grog” and never to be seen abroad without a fish-pole or a gun in their hands; with elfish locks, and of a community with nature not to be surpassed. They lived more out of doors than he did, and faced more mud and water without flinching, sitting all day in the puddles, like frogs, with a line in the river, catching pouts, or wading mid-leg in marshes, to shoot woodcock. One of these men, who called cherry-birds “port-royals,” he long frequented, though looked on in the town as by no means sacred; who, having a prejudice for beer, at times transcended propriety.
. . .
He was a natural Stoic, not taught from Epictetus nor the trail of Indians. Not only made he no complaint, but in him was no background of complaint, as in some, where a lifelong tragedy dances in polished fetters. He enjoyed what sadness he could find. He would be as melancholy as he could and rejoice with fate. “Who knows but he is dead already?" He voyaged about his river in December, the drops freezing on the oar, with a cheering song; pleased with the silvery chime of icicles against the stems of the button-bushes, toys of “immortal water, alive even to the superficies.”
. . .
So, through life, he steadily declined trying or pretending to do what he had no means to execute, yet forbore explanations; and some have thought his refusals were unwillingness. When he had grown to an age suitable for company, and not very fond of visiting, he could not give the common refusal, that it was not convenient, or not in his power, or he regretted, but said the truth, “I do not want to go.”
. . .
In Boston he . . . visited libraries, and the end of Long Wharf, having no other business there than with the books and that brief sight of the sea, so fascinating to a landsman. Thus he had no love at all for cities; those curious outcroppings of mortal ingenuity, called “institutions,” furnished him more than one good mark to shoot at. “One wise sentence,” he said, “is worth the State of Massachusetts many times over.”
. . .
Once walking in old Dunstable, he much desired the town history by C. J. Fox of Nashua; and, knocking, as usual, at the best house, he went in and asked a young lady who made her appearance whether she had the book in question. She had, it was produced. After consulting it, Thoreau in his sincere way inquired very modestly whether she “would not sell it to him.” I think the plan surprised her, and have heard that she smiled; but he produced his wallet, gave her the pistareen, and went his way rejoicing with the book, which remained in his small library.
. . .
He was by no means one of those crotchety persons who believe, because they set up Plato or Goethe or Shakespeare as the absolute necessities of literary worship, that all other students must so make idols of them. I never knew him say a good word for Plato, and I fear he had never finished Shakespeare. His was a very uncompleted reading; there being with him a pressure of engrossing flowers, birds, snow-storms, swamps, and seasons. He had no favorites among the French or Germans and I do not recall a modern writer except Carlyle and Ruskin whom he valued much. In fact, the pointed and prismatic style now so common, and the chopped-hay fashion of writing, suited not with his homely, long-staple vein. For novels, stories, and such matters, he was devoid of all curiosity; and for the works of Dickens had a hearty contempt. Usually, all the popular books were sealed volumes to him. But no labor was too onerous, no material too costly, if expended on the right enterprise.
. . .
Another faithful reading was those old Roman farmers, Cato and Varro, and musically named Columella, for whom he had a liking. He is reminded of them by seeing the farmers so busy in the fall carting out their compost. “I see the farmer now on every side carting out his manure, and sedulously making his compost-heap, or scattering it over his grass-ground and breaking it up with a mallet, and it reminds me of Cato’s advice. He died 150 years before Christ. Indeed, the farmer’s was pretty much the same routine then as now. ‘Sterquilinium magnum stude ut habeas. Stercus sedulo conserva, cum exportatis purgato et comminuito. Per autumnum evehito.’ Study to have a great dung-heap. Carefully preserve your dung. When you carry it out, make clean work of it, and break it up fine. Carry it out during the autumn.”
. . .
Abroad, he used the pencil, writing but a few moments at a time, during the walk; but into the note-book must go all measurements with the foot-rule which he always carried, or the surveyor’s tape that he often had with him. Also all observations with his spy-glass (another invariable companion for years), all conditions of plants, spring, summer, and fall, the depth of snows, the strangeness of the skies, all went down in this note-book. To his memory he never trusted for a fact, but to the page and the pencil, and the abstract in the pocket, not the Journal. I have seen bits of this note-book, but never recognized any word in it; and I have read its expansion in the Journal, in many pages, of that which occupied him but five minutes to write in the field. “Have you written up your notes in your Journal?” was one of his questions. Such was the character of his mind, to make what is called little become grand and noble, and thus to dignify life. “To have some one thing to do, and do it perfectly.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Put to the block . . .”

Stud with nails, out of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

How soonish the books—examined with fealty sputtering, diligence caught up out of the day’s sloughs, moments thieved out of supposed industry—commence a nattering. Some smallish correspondence noted causes a veering, bookishness adding to bookishness, and the whole grope-intelligibility is put to the block. So Walter Pater, in “Style” (1888)—a piece beginning, “Since all progress of mind consists for the most part in differentiation, in the resolution of an obscure and complex object into its component aspects, it is surely the stupidest of losses to confuse things which right reason has put asunder, to lose the sense of achieved distinctions . . .”—says of the “literary artist”: “the material in which he works is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble.” Humph. So, a chance espying of some lines out of Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” (1802):
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
Isn’t that fons et origo for Thoreau’s Journal-chewing for February 2, 1841?
It is easy to repeat, but hard to originate. Nature is readily made to repeat herself in a thousand forms, and in the Daguerreotype her own light is amanuensis, and the picture too has more than a surface significance,—a depth equal to the prospect,—so that the microscope may be applied to the one as the spy-glass to the other. Thus we may easily multiply the forms of the outward, but to give the within outwardness, that is not easy.
Maybe. And maybe of an obviousness indiscernible here in my toolbox.* So the half-assed onslaught of bookishness, evidentiary mustering. Rooting in the compost. Leading precisely and invariably to a loss of “the sense of achieved distinctions.” That is, to a point where something arrives (“The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden . . .”) Somewhere Thoreau says (akin to Whitman’s “This Compost”—“It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions, / It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses, / It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor, / It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops, / It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last . . .”): “Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.” And, of a day spent in Cambridge Library (Journal, March 16, 1852):
The library a wilderness of books. Looking over books on Canada written with the last 300 yrs could see how one had been built upon another each author consulting & referring to his predecessors. You could read most of them without changing your leg on the steps . . . I saw that while we are clearing the forest in our westward progress we are accumulating a forest of books in our rear—as wild & unexplored as any of natures primitive wildernesses. The volumes of the 15th 16th and 17th centuries which lie so near on the shelf are rarely opened are effectually forgotten—& not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’ Pilgrims—it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp—10 feet deep with sphagnum where the monarchs of the forest covered with mosses & stretched along the ground were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility—an Ohio soil—as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bull frogs & the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book.
Pertinent to the daily news is Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1948 prescient assessment in Henry David Thoreau:
He disapproved of the way America was going and he refused point-blank to go along with it. Since his day, both America and the world have gone much farther along the road they chose, and they seem even less likely than they did in Thoreau’s day to heed his injunctions or even to see how they could possibly be heeded. But the dissatisfaction which he expressed with things as they are has come to seem more and more justified and his prophecies have in many respects been fulfilled.
      His contemporaries lived in an age of growing complexity and hope; we in an age of growing complexity and despair. “Progress” was not in his day a word of which even progressives were critical . . .
And Krutch quotes Thoreau’s succinct damning of sheepish human naïveté here in Walden:
Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts “All aboard!” when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over—and it will be called, and will be, “A melancholy accident.”
So the “melancholy accident” of the 99% . . .
* I am thinking of Thoreau’s only half-riotous talk (“Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but it cannot so be disposed of”) in the “Shelter” chapter of Walden regarding the possibility of dwelling in such a box:
I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free . . . You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“In isolate flecks . . .”

Daniel Ricketson, “H. D. Thoreau as he presented himself at the door of Brooklawn Dec 25th 1854—age 37,” 1854

Odd blatting thundershowers of short durance in the night, the dog nervously prowling. Warmish by morning. Pondering, aimlessly, what connects, and to what end. Wallace Stevens, writing of Marianne Moore, saying: “An aesthetic integration is a reality.” And: “To confront fact in its total blankness is for any poet a completely baffling experience. Reality is not the thing but the aspect of the thing.” (Sidling back, again, to Thoreau’s sense of poetry’s being “not recoverable thought, but a hue caught from a vaster receding thought.” A glancing blow, a ricochet, “some bearded meteor, trailing light.”) Stevens: “No fact is a bare fact, no individual fact is a universe in itself.” And: “An isolated fact cut loose from the universe, has no significance for the poet.” So Thoreau, out making connections in the inconstant welter, constantly “reminded of”—and serially: “reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds”—writes in the Journal (September 5, 1851): “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” In its context (initially “reminding of” John Keats’s flighty reply to Reynolds dated February 3, 1818: “Would we were a sort of ethereal Pigs, and turned loose to feed upon spiritual Mast and Acorns—which would be merely being a squirrel and feeding upon filberts, for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn? About the nuts being worth cracking, all I can say is, that where there are a throng of delightful Images ready drawn, simplicity is the only thing”—it’s possible Thoreau read the letter in the Richard Monckton Milnes-edited 1848 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats):
No doubt, like plants, we are fed through the atmosphere & the varying atmospheres of various seasons of the year feed us variously. How often we are sensible of being thus fed & invigorated! And all nature contributes to this aerial diet its food of finest quality. Methinks that in the fragrance of the fruits I get a finer flavor and in beauty (which is appreciated by sight—the taste & smell of the eye—) a finer still. As Wilkinson says “The physical man himself is the builded aroma of the world. This, then, at least, is the office of the lungs—to drink the atmosphere with the planet dissolved in it.” —— “what is the import of change of air, and how each pair of lungs has a native air under some one dome of the sky.”
      Wilkinson’s book to some extent realizes what I have dreamed of a reeturn to the primitive analogical & derivative senses of words— His ability to trace analogies often leads him to a truer word than more remarkable writers have found.— As when in his chapter on the human skin, he describes the papillary cutis as “an encampment of small conical tents coextensive with the surface of the body”— The faith he puts in old & current expressions as having sprung from an instinct wiser than science—& safely to be trusted if they can be interpreted.
      The man of science discovers no world for the mind of man with all its faculties to inhabit— Wilkinson finds a home for the imagination—& it is no longer out cast & homeless. All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.— we reason from our hands to our head.
Too, the previous day (September 4, 1851), Thoreau self-exhorts:
Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth. Improve the suggestion of each object however humble—however slight & transient the provocation—what else is there to be improved? Who knows what opportunities he may neglect. It is not in vain that the mind turns aside this way or that. Follow its leading—apply it whither it inclines to go. Probe the universe in a myriad points. Be avaricious of these impulses. You must try a thousand themes before you find the right one—as nature makes a thousand acorns to get one oak. He is a wise man & experienced who has taken many views— To whom stones & plants & animals and a myriad objects have each suggested something—contributed something.
Semblances pulled down out of the myriad. Somehow I think of William Carlos Williams’s notes (In the American Grain) concerning Benjamin Franklin’s “voluptuousness of omnivorous energy brought to a dead stop by the rock of New World inopportunity”: “His energy never attained to a penetrant gist; rather it was stopped by and splashed upon the barrier, like a melon.” Williams’s Franklin one of the many “pure products of America”—made “crazy” by the sheer surrounding “mass of impedimenta”: “His ‘good’ was scattered about him. This is what is called being ‘practical.’” Contra Thoreau’s implacable impracticality, all gist and saunter, the eye’s untoilsome traveling. Williams: “It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off . . .” Thoreau (Journal, July 16, 1858): “I suspect that such are the laws of light that our eye, as it were, leaps from one prominence to another, connecting them by a straight line when at a distance and making one side balance the other.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“The forms of the outward . . .”

Herbert W. Gleason, “Sand Foliage from Deep Cut,” March 17, 1900

Excess, what “lies broken and in heaps” (Emerson), ordered by choruses of correspondence. So Thoreau, in Walden, famously cuts loose a metaphorical volley anent the “thawing sand bank” of the railroad cut, a semi-vegetable current:
. . . in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.
The conversion into banks acceding to a fractal geometry.* The landscape photographer Herbert Wendell Gleason notes in the terrific 1917 Through the Year with Thoreau pares off the bodily excess (waters down the correspondent slurry) by eliding the whole sentence beginning “As it flows” and ending “excrements of all kinds”—offering in lieu a photograph, a note, a corresponding Journal entry:
March 2, 1854.   The sand foliage is vital in its form, reminding me [of] what are called the vitals of the animal body. I am not sure that its arteries are ever hollow. They are rather meandering channels with remarkably distinct sharp edges, formed instantaneously as by magic. How rapidly and perfectly it organizes itself! . . . On the outside all the life of the earth is expressed in the animal or vegetable, but make a deep cut in it and you find it vital; you find in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder, then, that plants grow and spring in it. The atoms have already learned the law. Let a vegetable sap convey it upwards and you have a vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, which labors with the idea thus inwardly. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
(The apparently squeamish Gleason omits Thoreau’s final sentence: “The earth is pregnant with law.”) Of the photograph Gleason says nothing (though, in the book’s “Preface,” Gleason too humbly allows that they “were taken by the author with the sole purpose of securing, in every case, as close a correspondence as possible with Thoreau’s description,” adding: “Artistic considerations were wholly secondary.”) Of the railroad embankment itself Gleason notes: “The ‘Deep Cut’ was despoiled of its magnitude some years ago, a large section of its easterly bank being removed for grading purposes elsewhere. Sufficient of the original sand-and-clay formation still remains, however, to furnish annually the same unique phenomenon in which Thoreau delighted.” Gleason’s hardly needed justificatory memo in the form of a Thoreau Journal entry under the date of December 10, 1856:
It is remarkable how suggestive the slightest drawing as a memento of things seen. For a few years past I have been accustomed to make a rude sketch in my journal of plants, ice, and various natural phenomena, and though the fullest accompanying description may fail to recall my experience, these rude outline drawings do not fail to carry me back to that time and scene. It is as if I saw the same thing again, and I may again attempt to describe it in words if I choose.
While Gleason toes to the prevalent and longstanding line of the Journal’s being “largely a commonplace-book,” a thing “never considered by Thoreau as finished literature,” he aptly notes, too, how the hurriedly writ and provisional “adds a flavor of sincerity and piquancy” to the writings, and quotes Thoreau’s remark of January 27, 1852: “I do not know but thoughts written down thus in a journal might be printed in the same form with greater advantage than if the related ones were brought together into separate essays.” (The entry continues: “They are now allied to life, and are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched. It is more simple, less artful. I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches. Mere facts and names and dates communicate more than we suspect. Whether the flower looks better in the nosegay than in the meadow where it grew and we had to wet our feet to get it! Is the scholastic air any advantage?”)
* Pertinent, too, Thoreau’s lines out of the Journal’s entry for February 2, 1841: “It is easy to repeat, but hard to originate. Nature is readily made to repeat herself in a thousand forms, and in the Daguerreotype her own light is amanuensis, and the picture too has more than a surface significance,—a depth equal to the prospect,—so that the microscope may be applied to the one as the spy-glass to the other. Thus we may easily multiply the forms of the outward, but to give the within outwardness, that is not easy.”

Herbert W. Gleason, “Great Meadows from Flint’s Bridge,” June 30, 1917

Herbert W. Gleason, “Yellow Water Crowfoot in Conantum Pool (Ranunculus delphinifolius multifidus),” May 14, 1919

Herbert W. Gleason, “Overlooking Walden Pond toward Mt. Wachusett, from Pine Hill,” April 28, 1906

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reading Notes, &c. (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)

Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus)

William Carlos Williams (out of the Autobiography) singe-ing (attempted bi-lingual pun: “burning” and “monkey-shining about”) the novel:
The novel, a form I have never respected, is in effect a strip-tease. You take off the garments a chapter at a time, beginning with the front. As you get deeper your subject begins more and more to reveal itself . . . but at the last, the form being not serious but a romantic subterfuge, there is a blackout, the war is won or lost or someone loses his live one way or another and that’s the end.
Per contra: “if and when you get down to nothing more than the sheer (nylon) panties, or shall we say, jock strap, slip a finger under the edge and snap it off, we have, hopefully, the poem”:
In a novel something is always bared—to a point. The hidden talent, the hidden crime . . . the unapparent firmness not at first disclosed. But never the fact, never the underlying nudity of patriotic or economic stress, or reality of other sort. It can’t be so. This is a novel, a romantic, subtle frieze.
Henry David Thoreau, too, skeptical-contemptuous of the novel: “I never read a novel, they have so little real life and thought in them.” And:
He who resorts to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if he took a nap. The front aspect of great thoughts can only be enjoyed by those who stand on the side whence they arrive. Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,—such call I good books.
The myriad exempla of Thoreau’s “slant” thinking: to “stand on the side whence [great thoughts] arrive” akin to poetry’s “recoverable thought” available only as “a hue caught from a vaster receding thought.”

If, out of the inconstancy of the weekend’s doings, I found myself sitting in a car frowning and doggish with a book for company, that book’d be Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, astounding compendium, a commons hardly reaped for the gleaning. What I marked in my inadequate expenditures:

Of men “rude and sturdy . . . fuller of talk . . . than a chestnut is of meat,” men who “never took to the way of writing”:
Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and ploughing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.
Of the ubiquitous bullhead: “The Horned Pout, Pimelodus nebulosus, sometimes called Minister, from the peculiar squeaking noise it makes when drawn out of the water, is a dull and blundering fellow, and like the eel vespertinal in his habits, and fond of the mud.”

Of the regular (obligatory, staid) furrow:
. . . as for farming, I am convinced that my genius dates from an older era than the agricultural. I would at least strike my spade into the earth with such careless freedom but accuracy as the woodpecker his bill into a tree. There is in my nature, methinks, a singular yearning toward all wildness. I know of no redeeming qualities in myself but a sincere love for some things, and when I am reproved I fall back on to this ground. What have I to do with ploughs? I cut another furrow than you see. Where the off ox treads, there is it not, it is farther off; where the nigh ox walks, it will not be, it is nigher still.
Of fabulous musickings athwart mere comprehending: “When we read that Bacchus made the Tyrrhenian mariners mad, so that they leapt into the sea, mistaking it for a meadow full of flowers, and so became dolphins, we are not concerned about the historical truth of this, but rather a higher poetical truth. We seem to hear the music of a thought, and care not if the understanding be not gratified.” (And, a page or two later: talk of fables—“the mythus”—made “hieroglyphics to address men unborn” and the poet’s uncouched “morning work”: “In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun's rays. The matutine intellect of the poet, keeping in advance of the glare of philosophy, always dwells in this auroral atmosphere.”)

Of Virgil’s line Strata jacent passim sua quaeque sub arbore poma (“The apples lie scattered everywhere, each under its tree”), telling proof that “man is still man in the world”: “These are such sentences as were written while grass grew and water ran. It is no small recommendation when a book will stand the test of mere unobstructed sunshine and daylight.”

Of the individual versus the (state, corporate, “poetic”—all zombified and legion, see Thoreau’s “The wisest definition of poetry the poet will instantly prove false by setting aside its requisitions”) “institutions of the dead”:
I have not so surely foreseen that any Cossack or Chippeway would come to disturb the honest and simple commonwealth, as that some monster institution would at length embrace and crush its free members in its scaly folds; for it is not to be forgotten, that while the law holds fast the thief and murderer, it lets itself go loose. When I have not paid the tax which the State demanded for that protection which I did not want, itself has robbed me; when I have asserted the liberty it presumed to declare, itself has imprisoned me.
Of “light” and its vestiges, the gods:
There has always been the same amount of light in the world. The new and missing stars, the comets and eclipses, do not affect the general illumination, for only our glasses appreciate them. The eyes of the oldest fossil remains, they tell us, indicate that the same laws of light prevailed then as now. Always the laws of light are the same, but the modes and degrees of seeing vary. The gods are partial to no era, but steadily shines their light in the heavens, while the eye of the beholder is turned to stone. There was but the sun and the eye from the first. The ages have not added a new ray to the one, nor altered a fibre of the other.
Thence one vaulted home, jockeying the car between the road’s lightless “banks” riverine, the car itself swallowing its own tongue of light . . .

Friday, October 21, 2011

“Without purchase . . .”

Kenneth Burke, 1897-1993

Lengthy sleeplessness in the wee hours, whatever the overworked clerks of sentience use for pincers (or forceps) roving the void (or surge) without purchase. Or gripping some solitary thing, some small outcrop (or plum) of the sheer blankness (or welter), and putting it to the scale. Niggling it, worrying it endlessly the way the blunt tongue returns to rout about in a cavity, its rough expository surface become a seeming continent. Kenneth Burke, in “The Status of Art” (out of the 1931 Counter-Statement), talking of Kant’s proposed “‘purposiveness without purpose’ (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck) as a formula for the aesthetic” and how the formula marks “the emergence of a ‘use’ criterion” for art. Burke points to Remy de Gourmont’s “complete reversal of standards” against “use”: “ridiculing the ‘serious’ as a democratic preference, and insisting that the things of essential human value were gratuitous, hardly more than unforeseen mutations, qualities obtained in spite of society, and worthy of cultivation even though they might be found, not merely useless, but positively subversive to social ends.” Solitary ludic outlawry against earnest societal toil. Though Burke points out, too, how such “ironic detachment is a difficult position to uphold when men are being copiously slaughtered”:
Disciples of Art for Art’s Sake might advocate art as a refuge, a solace for the grimness about them but the spirit of social mockery could no longer fit the scene. One can mock death, but one cannot mock men in danger of death . . .
Earlier, though, in “Three Adepts of ‘Pure’ Literature,” Burke had quoted de Gourmont (who, he writes—in a lovely line—“never forgot that a man is of no more important in relation to the stars than a grasshopper”) saying “Man is not at the pinnacle of nature; he is in nature, one of the units of life, and nothing more” and noted de Gourmont’s declaring the sufficiency of the theorem: “What is useful to the bee is useful to the hive.” Ambivalence of the removed, the un-ironically detached, the hardly wholly removed. See, too, Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers):
Let not the poet shed tears only for the public weal. He should be as vigorous as a sugar-maple, with sap enough to maintain his own verdure, beside what runs into the troughs, and not like a vine, which being cut in the spring bears no fruit, but bleeds to death in the endeavor to heal its wounds. The poet is he that hath fat enough, like bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow. We love to think in winter, as we walk over the snowy pastures, of those happy dreamers that lie under the sod, of dormice and all that race of dormant creatures, which have such a superfluity of life enveloped in thick folds of fur, impervious to cold. Alas, the poet too is, in one sense, a sort of dormouse gone into winter quarters of deep and serene thoughts, insensible to surrounding circumstances; his words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience. Other men lead a starved existence, meanwhile, like hawks, that would fain keep on the wing, and trust to pick up a sparrow now and then.
The enclosing white burr of fatigue is the hibernaculum wherein I suck, and claw . . .

Thursday, October 20, 2011

“The Concord Sonata”

Guy Davenport, 1927-2005

Rain, cold, the chuck-chuck of its drippings off the eaves, the tympanic wash of its suddenly stunned innumerable mutterings if a gust ups to throw a sheaf of it against the window. All night rain, skittering off toward morning. Rain permeating the yellow slicker in its bicyclist’s dash through the gleaming streets . . . (Thoreau called A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers an “unroofed book”: “I trust it does not smell of the study & library—even of the Poets attic, as of the fields & woods.— that it is a hypaethral or unroofed book—lying open under the ether—& permeated by it. Open to all weathers—not easy to be kept on a shelf.” Nailing down hypaethral: “an epithet applied to those Egyptian temples which are open to the heavens above—under the ether—” How little the “unroofed”—the scuffle through the downed leaves of the woodlot, the scissory snip and flit of the ckickadees—importunes one of late . . .) Charles Ives, under “Thoreau,” out of Essays Before a Sonata, written to accompany “The Concord Sonata”:
It was the soul of Nature, not natural history that Thoreau was after. A naturalist’s mind is one predominantly scientific, more interested in the relation of a flower to other flowers than its relation to any philosophy or anyone’s philosophy. A transcendent love of Nature and writing “Rhus glabra” after sumach doesn’t necessarily make a naturalist. It would seem that, although thorough in observation (not very thorough according to Mr. Burroughs) and with a keen perception of the specific, a naturalist—inherently—was exactly what Thoreau was not. He seems rather to let Nature put him under her microscope than to hold her under his. He was too fond of Nature to practice vivisection upon her. He would have found that painful, “for was he not a part with her?”* But he had this trait of a naturalist, which is usually foreign to poets, even great ones: he observed acutely even things that did not particularly interest him . . .
“According to Mr. Burroughs” (John Burroughs, out of Indoor Studies) Thoreau:
. . . hesitated to call himself a naturalist; probably even poet-naturalist would not have suited him. He says in his journal: “The truth is, I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot,” and the least of these is the natural philosopher. He says: “Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone.” It is not looking at Nature that turns the man of science to stone, but looking at his dried and labeled specimens, and his dried and labeled theories of her. Thoreau always sought to look through and beyond her, and he missed seeing much there was in her; the jealous goddess had her revenge. I do not make this remark as a criticism, but to account for his failure to make any new or valuable contribution to natural history. He did not love Nature for her own sake, or the bird and the flower for their own sakes, or with an unmixed and disinterested love . . .
Too, Burroughs here quotes Thoreau’s Journal line about a thing’s “fine effluence”: “The ultimate expression or fruit of any created thing is a fine effluence, which only the most ingenuous worshiper perceives at a reverent distance from its surface even.” Again that slant-approachable percept, akin to the poem as “not recoverable thought, but a hue caught from a vaster receding thought.” (In “The Concord Sonata” Guy Davenport quotes another pertinent line out of A Week: “Give me a sentence which no intelligence can understand.” It continues: “There must be a kind of life and palpitation to it, and under its words a kind of blood must circulate forever . . .”) Davenport is pursuing therein (and claiming to find) the origin and meaning of Thoreau’s mysterious lines (out of Walden, or Life in the Woods) “which no intellect can understand”:
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
He quotes Burroughs: “This fine effluence he was always reaching after, and often grasping or inhaling. This is the mythical hound and horse and turtledove which he says in Walden he long ago lost, and has been on their trail ever since. He never abandons the search, and in every woodchuck hole or muskrat den, in retreat of bird, or squirrel, or mouse, or fox that he pries into, in every walk and expedition to the fields or swamps or to distant woods, in every spring note and call that he listens to so patiently, he hopes to get some clew to his lost treasures, to the effluence that so provokingly eludes him.” Davenport provided a succinct (and possibly leg-pulling?) summary of the makings of “The Concord Sonata” in an interview conducted by B. Renner. Davenport:
“The Concord Sonata” is a suite for piano by Charles Ives. Its technical name is “Second Pianoforte Sonata: Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860.” The parts of this sonata are “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau.” In the “Emerson” the Yale marching band suddenly breaks into the thorny, un-lyrical, revolutionary “new” music that can still dismay people who think they like music, and in “The Alcotts” there are stumbling notes of Beethoven’s Fifth—Louisa May Alcott trying to play Liszt’s piano version of Beethoven. In the “Thoreau” there’s a flute. The flautist is instructed by the score to “play ad lib.” Ives in a set of introductory essays claims that Thoreau was a composer, and that his walks around Concord (were) “the true American music.”
      So the seed of my “Concord Sonata” was Ives’s piano suite. The immediate instigation was a search for the source of the mysterious passage in Walden (about losing a dog, a horse, and a dove). I found it in Mencius (whom Thoreau read in a French translation in Emerson’s library). My first thought was to write a “found at last!” essay, as no scholar of Thoreau had found the source. I read enough of them to see that the scholars didn’t know. (Actually, Thoreau gives us the source in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—but only to wide-awake readers paying close attention.)
      So, following Ives, I made a collage of “the essence of Thoreau.” I’d just spent three years reading the fifteen volumes of the Journal.
      As with most of my “assemblages” I put in what seemed good images and quotations, and hoped that they’d work. The Mencius caught the eye of a Chinese translator, who designated a whole series of my fiction as “Kang Kede Sonatas” (by Dai Wen Po), published by the University of Beijing Press in their series of “Aromatic Belles Lettres by Barbarian Writers.”
Davenport’s find (out of “The Concord Sonata”):
In A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers Thoreau wrote: Mencius says: If one loses a fowl or a dog, he knows well how to seek them again; if one loses the sentiments of the heart, he does not know how to seek them again. The duties of all practical philosophy consist only in seeking after the sentiments of the heart which we have lost; that is all.
The end of “The Concord Sonata” (out of Walden): “Fear not, thou drummer of the night, we too will be there.” Out of Walden. According to Ives: “Throughout Walden, a text that he is always pounding out is ‘Time.’ Time for inside work out-of-doors . . . Time to show the unnecessariness of necessities which clog up time. . .” Thus Ives’s “Thoreau”:
As he stands on the side of the pleasant hill of pines and hickories in front of his cabin, he is still disturbed by a restlessness and goes down the white-pebbled and sandy eastern shore, but it seems not to lead him where the thought suggests—he climbs the path along the bolder northern” and “western shore, with deep bays indented,” and now along the railroad track, “where the Aeolian harp plays.” But his eagerness throws him into the lithe, springy stride of the specie hunter—the naturalist—he is still aware of a restlessness; with these faster steps his rhythm is of shorter span—it is still not the “tempo” of Nature, it does not bear the mood that the genius of the day calls for—(it is too specific)—its nature is too external—(the introspection too buoyant)—and he knows now that he must let Nature flow through him and slowly; he releases his more personal desires to her broader rhythm, conscious that this blends more and more with the harmony of her solitude; it tells him that his search for freedom on that day, at least, lies in his submission to her, for Nature is as relentless as she is benignant.
Ives’s own drumming, time and its efflorescent upheavals, its writing. Thoreau’s quoting John Gower (Confessio Amantis) in an epigraph to the “Monday” chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:
I thynke for to touche also
The worlde whiche neweth everie daie,
So as I can, so as I maie.
Daily the rain’s chuck-chuck, daily the world’s sundry permeating gloss . . .
* See, in Walden, under “Solitude”: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.”

“The Concord Sonata: IV. Thoreau”
John Kirkpatrick, piano

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Henry David Thoreau, in the Journal (1851): “It is fatal to the writer to be too much possessed by his thought. Things must lie a little remote to be described.” That slant barely-penetrable veil quasi-robotic, one distancing oneself nearly out of one’s own doings, whence the coalescent unconvened force of poetry. The writerly receivership. “Often I feel that my head stands out too dry, when it should be immersed.” (I think of Pound’s lines in a letter [c. 10 November 1917] to Williams: “The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don’t you forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabble and verbiage, these are echt Amerikanish.” Repeated, by Williams, in the feisty “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Letting fly the uncut stone into the ell-square pitkin, irregular, “saw-horned,” full. And Williams, in “A Unison”: “There it is / and we can’t shift it or change / it or parse it or alter it / in any way. Listen! Do you not hear / them? the singing? There it is and / we’d better acknowledge it and / write it down that way . . .”) Akin to Thoreau’s odd, stately sense of detachment, the writer in receipt of a full-blown music un-analyzable. Out of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:
      Poetry is the mysticism of mankind.
      The expressions of the poet cannot be analyzed; his sentence is one word, whose syllables are words. There are indeed no words quite worthy to be set to his music. But what matter if we do not hear the words always, if we hear the music?
      Much verse fails of being poetry because it was not written exactly at the right crisis, though it may have been inconceivably near to it. It is only by a miracle that poetry is written at all. It is not recoverable thought, but a hue caught from a vaster receding thought.
      A poem is one undivided unimpeded expression fallen ripe into literature, and it is undividedly and unimpededly received by those for whom it was matured.
      If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things.
(The poem a wild fruit plucked.) Just to place another stone up against the structure, there’s Williams writing to Kenneth Burke (21 November 1921), rather facetiously (pragmatically and sassily) “mystic”:
      I suppose I am at heart a mystic. But who isn’t until he clarifies his meaning or dies trying to. Even the Arabs or the Phoenicians, or whoever it was that invented the rule of three, were mystics until they found out pretty damned early that they were fooling themselves and so had to invent the science of mathematics to save their faces. Contemplate that last sentence awhile and you’ll know a hell of a lot more than I knew—once.
      I like your theories—they’re so puerile that they don’t count, so you have plenty of opportunity to write and save your face . . . Because you CAN write.
( Probably a whole furtive history of American letters could be assembled, divided between those who spouted “so puerile that they don’t count” theories and wrote, and those whose supposedly “do count” theories disallowed any such grace . . .) Later in the letter Williams, lamenting Paul Rosenfeld’s lack of “flare or flaire or insanity to temper his bricklaying” says, maybe a little peevishly [?], “Yes, writing is bricklaying”:
      L’architecture c’est poser un cailloux sur un autre.
      You like that? My brother handed it to me.
(“Architecture is putting one stone on another.”) Example of the “puerile” at work—not impossibly (though not likely) responding to Williams’s quoted line: A. R. Ammons’s tiny piece called “Their Sex Life”:
One failure on
Top of another.
Thus goeth today’s sermon: call it “hues uncaught from vaster receding thoughts . . .”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ashbery / Von Doderer

Heimito von Doderer, 1896-1966

Henry David Thoreau, quoted by Guy Davenport in “The Concord Sonata” (out of the Journal, 1 April 1860):
The fruit of a thinker is sentences: statements or opinions. He seeks to affirm something as true. I am surprised that my affirmations or utterances come to me ready-made, not fore-thought, so that I occasionally wake in the night simply to let fall ripe a statement which I never consciously considered before and as surprisingly novel and agreeable to me as anything can be.
Lines that—in Thoreau’s sheer effortlessness of contact and lack of “any irritable reaching after fact & reason”—seem akin to Keats’s vaunted (1817) “Negative Capability” (or—mieux—that terrific pointing toward poetry’s simple innate grace in Keat’s [1819] “vale of Soul-making” letter: “May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind may fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer?”) Too, Thoreau’s note recalls John Ashbery’s recently-noted talk of how “poetry is going on all the time inside, an underground stream. One can let down one’s bucket and bring the poem back up.” Ashbery’s casual reference there to “Heimito von Doderer’s novel The Demons” fetched me up out of my torpor. Sure enough: von Doderer’s pure Ashbery:
For we are all of us stupid and ignorant in the face of life as it unrolls before us; we have no way of recognizing the prolongation or line of flight of any given set of circumstances. . . .
      And yet—in fact you need only draw a single thread at any point you choose out of the fabric of life and the run will make a pathway across the whole, and down that wider pathway each of the other threads will become successively visible, one by one. For the whole is contained in the smallest segment of anyone’s life-story; indeed, we may even say that it is contained in every single moment; start up your dredging machine and you take it all up, no matter whether ecstasy, despair, boredom, or triumph happens to fill the moving buckets on their endless chain of ticking seconds.
That out of the “Overture” to The Demons (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), translated by Richard and Clara Winston, a mere dozen or so pages fronting the onslaught of the thousand or so that make up von Doderer’s ambling, witty, and stunningly overlooked novel. Von Doderer is capable of perfectly Ashberyean dithyrambs avant la letter:
And in the final analysis real life stands upon very frail feet, and its ultimate supports—if we sweep away all the alleged and accumulated rubble that has floated up around—its taproots which it sinks deeply into the soil of a reality incomprehensible to us in its details, would bear odd and almost absurdly simple names, if we wanted to and could honestly specify what they are—certain names by no means high-toned or solemn: the after-image of a color in the dark inner eyelid; the smell of a freshly varnished play table in our old nursery; the run in a stocking stretched over the delicate shaping of an ankle.
And odd, rather Giorgio de Chirico’d pastoral architectonics:
But for me there rises, beyond the horizon of a narrow life too fettered to the ever-recurrent same things, troubles, questions—for me there rises beyond the foreground of this mass of trash and secondhand goods and beyond the immediate view of roof and gardens, a great way beyond the massive towers of the Romanesque church which already lay claim upon the empty sky, seizing it for themselves as their appropriate background—far, far away, over a landscape already iridescent and blurred by distance, beyond even the cathedral with its “finger pointing toward the sky”—no, rather against the farthest blue fringe of the heavens, I discern a gigantic hand. It is a human hand, immensely far away and yet sharply and distinctly delineated, its every curve revealed, its every vein plainly visible—a human hand the size of towers or hills against the blue, above the dwarfed towers of the church and the toy building-blocks of houses and gardens. And this hand points for me beyond the ridiculous boundaries of an individual life, and above all these husks and boundaries, points like the outstretched hand of a gigantic clock whose extension in space is like a shot and rolls like the boom of a cannon through all my chambers.
An easily-quota’d plethora of detached limbs seemingly pervades the book: there’s “Mary K., a widow who has lost a leg in a streetcar accident”—she’s found listed amongst other principal characters (including one “Dwight Williams, an American lepidopterist”) in the book’s opening pages. Or consider what the narrator calls “the kind of diffuse plankton that drifts through one’s brain when one sits alone in a bistro, eating goulash and drinking beer” (and, in the next phrase, “the thread-pulling of association”) after noting the Beisl proprietor’s one-leggedness:
He was a well-set-up figure of a man but had only one leg. Nevertheless, he was afraid of nothing and no one. I was present once when he flatly refused to hand out playing cards to three drunken rowdies—as rare a phenomenon in this part of Döbling as crawfish in the ornamental pools of a park . . . But then anything can happen anywhere, though perhaps only once. On Daponte Gasse I once actually found a little scorpion in the bathroom, in good condition and very much alive. I hailed it as an emissary from the south, from the lands of the classics, cajoled it into a box with air holes and let it free at a lonely spot in the Prater meadows. Incidentally, specimens of the praying mantis (Mantis religiosa L.), a preposterously large insect of southern Europe, are also found in, of all places, the vicinity of Frankfurt am Main. . . .
Von Doderer’s half-bemused, half-melancholy willingness to follow along the aimlessly inquisitive sentence’s own unfolding, its “fall ripe.” And humankind itself somehow akin to a donkey, affably saturnine. (“Once . . . change is accomplished, a light depression may well ensue when, between freshly painted walls and newly varnished floors, surrounded by a host of hitherto unknown practical comforts, our good friends find the same old donkey who would, if he were a cow, stand before all the new splendor bellowing with unhappiness, as that animal stands moodily before the barn door when it is first let out in the spring. But as it is a donkey, it only wags its long ears slightly.”)

Monday, October 17, 2011

“Werra roughish . . .”

A blustery Saturday, a lazy Sunday. I read—looking for something or other, unfound—“A few frayed nerves count for nothing is this swift world.” Guy Davenport writing to Jonathan Williams, 26 May 1966, in A Garden Carried in a Pocket, Guy Davenport / Jonathan Williams Letters 1964-1968, edited by Thomas Meyer (Green Shade, 2004). He’s assuaging Williams’s battered heart (who’s momentarily “on the outs” with Ronald Johnson):
You have entered into a Utopian idealistic millennial transcendental attempt to live like the blessèd angels—hoi makairioissi angkelloi, if the tongue of Iamblichos and Diodorus Sikulos will add a little honey to the Saxon vocables here—and until the Great Beast comes, with its rivers of light and forms perfected in the splendor of God’s Hand itself, you are going to squabble and bypass total happiness, in short, suffer, as do we all, from the mortal wound Adam left us for inheritance.
      The selfhood, said Master Blake, izza whore.
(I think of Krazy Kat hiding behind an enormous newspaper whilst Offissa Pupp marches Ignatz Mouse off to the slammer for attempting—again—to hit K. K. with a brick, and he, K. K., rather self-referentially reading: “Ooy, he’s saying something at you—ooy, it sims to be something in werra roughish, and werra uncootish lengwidge.”) Weekend bunged up by quotables, readables supped for some inchoate conglomerate nurture. Talking of Ronald Johnson (“I complained that Ronald Johnson was the vaguest human being I’d even met.”), Davenport once wrote (in Angle 5 “The Ronald Johnson Issue”): “The only mention of his sexuality was his telling me that as a boy in Kansas he had so loved his gym teacher that he broke into his house, stole his pyjamas from under his pillow, and ate them.” See, too, Emerson’s “Quotation and Originality”: “Whoever looks at the insect world, at flies, aphides, gnats, and innumerable parasites, and even at the infant mammals, must have remarked the extreme content they take in suction, which constitutes the main business of their life. If we go into a library or news-room, we see the same function on a higher plane, performed with like ardor, with equal impatience of interruption, indicating the sweetness of the act . . .” The “selfhood” may well be a whore, but according to Emerson such “mischief is quickly punished”:
Admirable mimics have nothing of their own. In every kind of parasite, when Nature has finished an aphis, a teredo, or a vampire bat,—an excellent sucking-pipe to tap another animal, or a mistletoe or dodder among plants,—the self-supplying organs wither and dwindle, as being superfluous. In common prudence there is an early limit to this leaning on an original.
“There remains the indefeasible persistency of the individual.” Davenport, concerning Johnson’s invidious (individual) persistency:
To the lament that Ark isn’t autobiographical (that is, not sheepishly trendy), I can hear Ron saying, “Well, it’s my eye that saw it all, my reading and looking that found it.” The ringing paradox of art is that the artist disappears when the work of art is successful. The girl in the field, singing in Gaelic as she binds sheaves, is there, before us, the magician Wordsworth nowhere about. It is a sparrow, not Ronald Johnson, watching the sun rise at the beginning of Ark.
Pertinently (reading inevitably makes its own indefeasible pertinences), there’s Pound writing to Williams (c. October 21. 1908):
No art ever yet grew by looking into the eyes of the public ruthless or otherwise.
      You can obliterate yourself & mirror God, Nature, or Humanity, but if you try to mirror yourself in the eyes of the public woe be unto your art.
“Werra uncootish,” the playing to the crowd, the propensity to niggle the crowd’s negotiables, and return them to it (see “flarf”). Davenport again: “I once remarked to Ron that many sections of Ark read just as well backward as forward. This pleased him immensely. He then wrote a section that has to be read backward. He was ecstatic when I told him about Ernst Mach’s dream of a candle burning inside a beaker of water.” (Ernst Mach: “I saw in my laboratory a beaker filled with water, in which a candle was serenely burning. ‘Where does it get its oxygen from?’ I thought. ‘It is absorbed in the water,’ was the answer. ‘Where do the gases produced in the combustion go to?’ The bubbles from the flame mounted upwards in the water, and I was satisfied . . .” Sexual exchange comme continuum.)

I spent an unfructifying period looking into Ark in search of Davenport’s “section that has to be read backward” and concluded that he’d constructed a perfectly unverifiable vignette (rather like saying a “vignette” originally referred to “something that may be written on a vine-leaf”), the piece is hid amongst its models. Davenport in “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg” (beginning, in wily and imitant Walsersprache, “For a man who had seen a candle serenely burning inside a beaker filled with water, a fine spawn of bubbles streaming upward from its flame, who had been present in Zürich when Lenin with closed eyes and his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his waistcoat listened to the baritone Gusev singing on his knees Dargomyzhsky’s In Church We Were Not Wed, who had conversed one melancholy afternoon witt Manet’s Olympia speaking from a cheap print I’d thumbtacked to the wall between a depraved adolescent girl by Egon Schiele and an oval mezzotint of Novalis, and who, as I had, Robert Walser of Biel in the canton of Bern, seen Professor William James talk so long with his necktie in his soup that it functioned as a wick to soak his collar red and caused a woman at the next table to press her knuckles into her cheeks and scream, a voyage in a hot-air balloon at the mercy of the winds from the lignite-rich hills of Saxony Anhalt to the desolate sands of the Baltic could precipitate no new shiver from my paraphenomenal and kithless epistemology except the vastation of brooding on the sweep of inconcinnity displayed below me like a map and perhaps acrophobia . . .”) writes, too, of Mach thus:
      It says in the pages of Mach that the mind is nothing but a continuity of consciousness. It is not itself a thing. It is its contents, like an eye and what it sees, a hand and what it holds. Mach’s continuity, like Heraklit’s river, defines itself by its flow.
. . .
      —It is so obvious, I persisted, once you have seen it. The mind is what it knows. It is nothing else at all, at all.
Izza, that is, whore.

George Herriman, “Krazy Kat,” April 4, 1922

Friday, October 14, 2011

1% Poetry

Rodrigo Toscano’s call for the hanging up of a slice of American poetry “by two pieces of string, like a mobile.”

“All it requires is a sharp X-acto knife, good aim, a sense of proportion, and a spark of artistic flare.”

“Sunk by an operatic greyhound . . .”

Charles Ives, 1874-1954

Thinking of Charles Ives’s splendid contempt for the institutional trappings* of art, how he muttered that “prizes are the badges of mediocrity” and gave away the five hundred dollar Pulitzer Prize in Music (awarded twenty or so years after he’d quit writing music): “Prizes are for boys. I’m grown up.” How Ives put together a volume called 114 Songs (1922), “privately printed and distributed without copyright and free of charge,” thinking maybe “the average person able to tinker a little at the keyboard” would play the songs. “No one was expected or allowed to pay for them. They were sent to libraries, music critics and musicians, and to anybody else who asked for them.” Out of the terrific postscript to 114 Songs:
Some have written a book for money; I have not. Some for fame; I have not. Some for love; I have not. Some for kindlings; I have not. I have not written a book for any of these reasons or for all of them together. In fact, gentle borrower, I have not written a book at all—I have merely cleaned a house. All that is left is out on the clothes line; but it’s good for a man’s vanity to have the neighbors see him—on the clothes line.
A housecleaning then. Or is it the work of a pragmatist? (Ives earlier suggests how he’d assumed the printing of the book “primarily in order to have a few clear copies that could be sent to friends who from time to time have been interested enough to ask for copies of some of the songs,” admitting, though: “the job has grown to something different; it contains plenty of songs which have not been and will not be asked for.”) Or is it something somewhat feistier, a challenge and a defiance?
For some such or different reasons, through some such or different process, this volume, this package of paper, uncollectable notes, marks of respect and expression, is now thrown, so to speak, at the music fraternity, who for this reason will feel free to dodge it on its way—perhaps to the paper basket . . .
Ives’s final harangue is a marvel, the song itself declaring its sovereignty, its refusal “to swallow ‘hook and bait’”—rejoice for all the demands licit and illicit of any art that girds up in its own duds and attempts to climb up in the American tree (a “lieu” routinely guarded by even the meagrest of its habitués, call it the American coop) . . .
Some of the songs in this book, particularly among the latter ones, cannot be sung, and if they could, perhaps might prefer, if they had a say, to remain as they are; that is, “in the leaf”—and that they will remain in this peaceful state is more than presumable. An excuse (if none of the above are good enough) for their existence which suggests itself at this point is that a song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of the street, passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet’s castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a “breve gaudium,” a ribbon to match the voice? Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm, the ear, and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around in the park, should it not have immunity from a Nemesis, a Ramses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?—to enjoy itself without making a bow, if it can’t make a bow?—to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow “hook and bait,” or being sunk by an operatic greyhound? If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it?
—In short, must a song
always be a song!
*Ives: “If for every thousand dollar prize a potato field be substituted, so that these candidates of Clio can dig a little in real life, perchance dig up a natural inspiration, art’s air might be a little clearer—a little freer from certain traditional delusions: for instance . . . that atmosphere and diligence are synonymous. To quote Thoreau incorrectly: ‘When half-Gods talk, the Gods walk!’”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Roberto Bolaño’s Tres

That giddy delirium of the belly’s veriest reaches seemingly erupting through the mouth—maybe you know the sensation? Half-reversing oneself with pleasure, like a sock peeled off a narrow (though somewhat spatula-shaped) foot? I think I experienced it reading Joe Brainard’s collected I Remember (1975) in the original Full Court Press edition (“I remember the several rather unusual ways ‘Pouilly-Fuissé’ has come out of my mouth, trying to order a bottle of wine in restaurants . . .”) Maybe, too, with Edwin Denby’s 1975 Full Court Collected Poems (“The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig . . .” is a line still liable to make me un-torque with glee). Or there’s George Hitchcock’s Kayak-printed James Tate volume called Row with Your Hair (1969), with the Mel Fowler woodcuts. Yuri Olesha’s Envy (“A huge cloud with the outline of South America loomed over the city . . .”) Countless, the fevers. Is it, the unleashed bursting glee, the result of mounting admiration and undiminished anticipation warring with each other? One cannot read quickly enough to assuage a ravenous need. I sense something of that untamable and foolish cupidity—it is what makes poetry a dangerously fleet and uncompromising force—in opening Roberto Bolaño’s Tres (New Directions, 2011) and reading “around in” its final sequence, Un paseo por la literature (translated by Laura Healy as “A Stroll through Literature”):
. . .

9. I dreamt that Macedonio Fernández appeared in the sky over New York in the form of a cloud: a cloud without nose or ears, but with eyes and mouth.

. . .

18. I dreamt that Archibald MacLeish was crying—just three tears—on the terrace of a Cape Cod restaurant. It was after midnight and even though I didn’t know the way back we ended up drinking and toasting the indomitable New World.

. . .

25. I dreamt that Archilochus was crossing a desert of human bones. He was encouraging himself: “Come on, Archilochus, don’t falter, keep going, keep going.”

26. I dreamt I was fifteen and was going to Nicanor Parra’s house to say goodbye. I found him standing, leaning against a black wall. Where are you going, Bolaño? he said. Far from the Southern Hemisphere, I answered.

27. I dreamt I was fifteen and was, in fact, leaving the Southern Hemisphere. When I put the only book I had (Trilce by Vallejo) in my backpack, the pages went up in flames. It was seven p.m. and I chucked my scorched backpack out the window.

. . .

29. I dreamt I was translating Virgil with a stone. I was naked on a big basaltic flagstone and the sun, as fighter pilots say, hovered dangerously at 5 o’clock.

. . .

31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the death. From a wrought-iron bench in Central Park, Kafka was watching the world burn.

. . .

36. I dreamt I was 69ing with Anaïs Nin on an enormous basaltic flagstone.

. . .

40. I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was the only thing left of human beings three billion years after Earth ceased to exist.

. . .

43. I dreamt I was a prisoner and Boethius was my cellmate. Look, Bolaño, he said extending his hand and his pen in the shadows: they’re not trembling! they’re not trembling! (After a while, he added in a calm voice: but they’ll tremble when the recognize that bastard Theodoric.)

44. I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade with axe blows. I’d gone crazy and was living in the woods.

. . .
Excerpts, out of fifty-seven total (number of Heinz’s varieties of tomatoes, and isn’t there a scene in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) where Sen. John Yerkes Iselin spies at a catsup bottle and uses it for the number of “card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense”?). Bolaño’s piece is dated “Blanes, 1994.” “A Stroll through Literature” is, in some sense, written under the sign of Georges Perec (it begins: “1. I dreamt that Georges Perec was three years old and visiting my house. I was hugging him, kissing him, saying what a sweet boy he was.” And ends with Perec again, “three years old and crying inconsolably.” Formally, I suspect Bolaño’s riffing off Perec’s Je me souviens (that Perec took off Brainard, that may “explain” my initial outburst . . .) Bolaño’s “I dreamt” (Soñé que), compared with either of the Perec / Brainard confabs, is less quotidian in its riches, more literary in its thrust: it works to insert its writers into elemental, quasi-mythic landscapes; there’s a chilly godliness (and god-awfulness) behind the muttering humor of it all. I think of some of early Dylan: isn’t the rather sere rambunctiousness and primal insistence of “A Stroll through Literature” akin to both “And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them / And fishermen hold flowers . . .” (“Desolation Row”) and “I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ / I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’ / I saw a white ladder all covered with water / I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken . . .” (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)?

Tres contains two other early Bolaño pieces: the 1981 Prosa del otoño en Gerona (“Autumn Prose in Gerona”) and the 1993 poem Los neochilenos (“The Neochileans”), the narrative of a band (Pancho Relámpago y los Neochilenos becoming, mid-tour Pancho Misterio y los Neochilenos) relentlessly going north, playing small towns in Chile, into Peru, into—road doings left behind (“And dawn would find us / At a table in the back / Discussing the kilo and a half of gray matter / In the adult / Brain”) finally, Ecuador: “One happy day in January / We crossed / Like children of the Cold, / Of the Unstable Cold / Or of the Ecce Homo, / The border of Ecuador.” One notes here Bolaño’s mounting sense of capaciousness, writing’s pouch capable of stretching to contain anything, an ever-unconsummated and workable zone of resistance. In two of the pieces he writes the phrase nec spes nec metus (“without hope, without fear,” said to be Caravaggio’s motto). A woman’s perfume is called Carnicería fugaz (“Fleeting butcher shop”). Someone asks what the relationship is “Between Morpheus, god / Of Sleep / And morfar, slang / To eat?” I think of Bernadette Mayer’s often-quoted and rarely-heeded “Work your ass off to change the language & don’t ever get famous,” and think of the twenty-eight year old Bolaño of “Autumn Prose in Gerona”—“a Chilean with permission to live in Spain, without working, for three more months”—writing, persistently, devilishly, foolishly writing:
It makes no sense to write poetry, old men speak of a new war and sometimes the recurrent dream comes back: author writing in dim lit room; faraway buzz of rival gangs fighting for a supermarket; rows of cars that will never run again.

Roberto Bolaño, 1953-2003