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 . . .