Tuesday, September 19, 2017

`Aye Better Than the Chilly Green of Spring'

“It is picture and no more.”

What an odd thing to say about a poem, even one written by an Imagist. In fact the observation was made by an Imagist about a sturdily non-Imagistic poem, John Keats’ “To Autumn.” You’ll find it in Amy Lowell’s two-volume biography of the poet, John Keats (1925). Lowell is quite smitten by Keats, but about the ode she writes:

“Its emotion, so far as it has any, is the mere delight of sensation received through the eyes, ears, nose, and even touch, the touch of wind and sun on an eager skin. To Autumn is an almost completely impersonal poem. The poet himself is merely an exquisitely sensitive recording medium. The charm of the poem lies in just this fact, that nothing comes between us and the day Keats wished us to see. There are no echoes, no literary images, all is clear, single, and perfectly attuned.”

One seldom encounters so blindly mistaken a reading of a poem. Lowell seems to unquestioningly accept the Romantic claptrap about inspiration. That Keats was inspired, I have no doubt. That he labored at his ode and didn’t merely transcribe it from on high is also true. On this date, Sept. 19, in 1819, Keats wrote “To Autumn,” the last and greatest of his odes. That day he had walked along the River Itchen near Winchester. Two days later, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he describes the experience:

“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.”

That is, he wrote “To Autumn.” Keats was not yet twenty-four years old, and would be dead in another seventeen months. It is his last indisputably great poem, and is in no way “impersonal.” My favorite memory from my return to the university to complete my B.A. occurred in the fall of 2002. I was doing independent study in Henry James. My professor’s office was on the third floor of a building in upstate New York, on a campus thick with red and black oaks. Most of the leaves had turned dark red. We chatted about the view and she recited the opening line of the ode, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” I joined her and promptly garbled the final two words: “fruitful mellowness.” I mentioned that Nathan Zuckerman quotes the poem in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and we resumed, limping through the rest of the poem, filling in when the other blanked on the next phrase, getting only the first stanza complete.

Monday, September 18, 2017

`Pigwiggen Was This Fayrie Knight'

One of the great charms of our language is the mystery of so many word origins. When I was young and reading the Oxford English Dictionary, and happened on the phrase “origin unknown,” I felt cheated. I was naïve, and assumed all knowledge was rooted in mathematical certainty. I deferred disproportionately to authorities. Now that I know even less about the world, and little with certainty of any sort, I admire honestly earned expressions of ignorance.  

Consider pigwidgeon. The unholy union of a pig, a pigeon and a widget? A marker in some obscure game? Perhaps one of those faintly comic words, like thingamajig, for an object forgotten or defying description. The OED pleads ignorance but speculates that the first syllable comes from pug, meaning “a term of endearment for a person” (and later, prostitute). The first definition of pigwidgeon is “fairy, dwarf, imp, or elf.” The second, labeled “derogatory,” is “a small or insignificant person or thing; a stupid or contemptible person.” (We’ll never run out of uses for that.)

I consulted the OED this time by way of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. His definition of pigwidgeon amounts to a one-sentence essay: “This word is used by Drayton as the name of a fairy, and is a kind of cant word for anything petty or small.” The OED cites Michael Drayton’s “Nymphidia” (1627): “Pigwiggen was this Fayrie knight, / One wondrous gratious in the sight / Of faire Queene Mab, which day and night, / He amorously obserued.”

This writer longs to find the appropriate context for such a delicious word. Also, for the word that precedes it in Johnson’s Dictionary: pigsney. His definition, ripe with misunderstanding: “A word of endearment to a girl.”

Dr. Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

`Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur'

My review of Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg appears in issue #49 of The Quarterly Conversation.

`We Are Alone'

On this date, Sept. 17, in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, sixteen days after Nazi Germany invaded the country from the west. The invasion had been secretly agreed upon less than a month earlier with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The battle was over, Poland subdued, by Oct. 6. The Soviets were driven out of Poland by the Germans in the summer of 1941, and the Germans were driven out in turn by the Red Army three years later. Zbigniew Herbert published “September 17” in Paris in 1982, during the rise of Solidarity, when Poland was yet again threatened with invasion from the east. Herbert dedicates the poem to Józef Czapski, who survived the Katyn massacre in 1940 and whose memoir, The Inhuman Land, was published in English in 1951. Here is “September 17” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, Report from the Besieged City, 1985):

“My defenseless country will admit you invader
where Jaś and Mary went walking to school
the path won’t be split into an abyss

“Rivers are too lazy not quick to flood
knights sleeping in the mountains continue to sleep
so you will enter easily uninvited guest

“But sons of the earth will gather at night
funny carbonari plotters of freedom
they will clean old-fashioned weapons
will swear on a bird on two colors

“And then as always—glows and explosions
boys like children sleepless commanders
knapsacks filled with defeat crimson fields of glory
the strengthening knowledge—we are alone

“My defenseless country will admit you invader
and give you a plot of earth under a willow—and peace
so those who come after us will learn again
the most difficult art—the forgiveness of sins”

In their notes to the poem, the Carpenters report: “The carbonari were a secret political association organized in Italy in the nineteenth century to establish a republic.”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

`Reading Chekhov Helps'

“That question which Chekhov brings out in all his stories is `What is to be done?’ What is life for? Chekhov’s conclusion is that we are here to work, to serve our brothers. He himself was a doctor and wrote on the side in order to support himself through medical school and to support also his father, mother, and brothers.”

Dorothy Day was an intelligent woman who probably realized she was quoting the title of a pamphlet written in 1901 by Lenin, who in turn was quoting the title of an 1863 novel, What Is To Be Done?, by the Russian revolutionary Nikolay Chernyshevsky, that was later adopted as the title of a screed by Tolstoy, What Is to Be Done? (1886). The genealogy of the question is even older: “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?”(Luke 3:10, KJV). Day's choice is unfortunate: every expression trails a cloud of contexts and associations. The Lenin link is strengthened two paragraphs later in the same December 1961 column from The Catholic Worker (Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsburg, 2015) when she says: “And we see Castro dealing with the problem of unemployment and poverty and illiteracy . . .” On Dec. 2, 1961, Castro said in a televised address: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life.”

No, Day was not a Communist, but all of that is mostly beside the point. More fundamental is her misunderstanding of Chekhov the writer. She would turn him into a social-justice warrior, an earlier incarnation of Dorothy Day. The characterization irked Chekhov. In his well-known letter to Aleksey Pleshcheyev on Oct. 4, 1888, Chekhov writes:

“The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one.”

Further evidence is supplied by the Russian painter Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939), who wrote a brief memoir, “My Encounters with Chekhov,” published in English in 1973 (trans. Tatiana Kusubova) and included in The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West 1922-1972 (1977), edited by Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel Jr. The scene is a Moscow hotel room in 1883. The players are Korovin, Chekhov (twenty-three and studying for his final exam to become a doctor) and other students. The exchange could have been recorded this morning on an American college campus:

“The students were different from Anton Pavlovich. They loved to argue, and they were in some peculiar way opposed to just about everything.

“`If you have no convictions,’ said one student turning to Chekhov, `you can’t be a writer.’

“No one can say, `I have no convictions,’ said another. `I can’t understand how anyone could not have convictions.’

“`I have no convictions,’ replied Chekhov.

“`You claim to be a man without convictions, but how can you write a work of literature without any ideology? Don’t you have an ideology?’

“`I have no ideology and no convictions,’ answered Chekhov.

“These students had an odd way of arguing. They were apparently displeased with Anton Pavlovich. It was clear that they could not fit him into the didactic turn of their outlook or into their moralizing ideology. They wanted to guide, to instruct, to lead, and to influence. They knew everything. They understood everything. And Anton Pavlovich was plainly bored by it all.

“`Who needs your stories? Where do they lead? They don’t oppose anything. They contain no ideas. The Russian Bulletin, say, would have no use for you. Your stories are entertaining and nothing else.’

“`Nothing else,’ answered Anton Pavlovich.”

To her credit, late in life, Day wrote in a notebook (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, 2008): “Very depressed and nerve-racked all day. Slept 2 hours. Reading Chekhov helps.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

`Many Villains and Few Decent People'

“In view of the obviousness of death the body was not subjected to autopsy.”

So reads the death certificate of Osip Mandelstam. The document tells us the poet was convicted of “counter-revolutionary activity” by the Special Board of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR on Aug. 2, 1938, and given a five-year sentence to a forced labor camp. He arrived from Moscow on Oct. 12, entered the infirmary Dec. 26, and died on Dec. 27, in a transit camp in Siberia. The cause of death is given as “stoppage of heart arteriocerebrosclerosis.” In other words, a stroke.

Even more than most bureaucratic documents, Mandelstam’s death certificate makes for chilling reading. Peter B. Maggs includes a photograph of the original Russian document and, on the facing page, an English translation, in The Mandelstam and `Der Nister’ Files: An Introduction to Stalin-era Prison and Labor Camp Records (M.E. Sharpe, 1996). Der Nister (Yiddish: “The Hidden One”)  was the pseudonym of Pinchus Kahanovich (1884-1950), a Russian who wrote in Yiddish and, like Mandelstam, was murdered by Stalin.

Maggs is not a literary scholar but a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he specialized in Russian law and U.S. intellectual property law. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he worked in Russia and the former Soviet republics to aid in reforming their legal systems. His book is documentary in the strictest sense. He writes: “There are many villains and few decent people in these records.”

Maggs reproduces the contents of Mandelstam’s personal file, which identifies his nationality as “Jew” and his “specialty” as “writer and poet.” Height: “Average.” Body: “Normal.” Hair color: “Grey.” Eye color: “Hazel.” Nose: “Hooked.” We learn that Mandelstam spoke Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish. We see his fingerprints, pre- and post-mortem. We see the letter the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, sent to the “Main Administration of Camps” on Feb. 7, 1939. She says she learned of Osip’s death when a money transfer she had sent him was returned “because of the death of the addressee.” She requests an official death certificate. In Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970), in her characteristic hard-boiled fashion, she writes:

“In June 1940, M.’s brother Alexander was summoned to the Registry office of the Bauman district and handed M.’s death certificate with instructions to pass it on to me. M.’s age was given as forty-seven, and the date of his death as December 27, 1938. The cause was given as `heart failure.’ This is as much to say that he died because he died: what is death but heart failure? There was also something about arteriosclerosis.”

[In 2008, New York Review Books Classics published Der Nister’s The Family Mashber. Remarkably, Kahanovich was born in Berdichev, also the birthplace of Joseph Conrad and Vasily Grossman.]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

`She Held Out the Egg to Him'

In “What I Heard” (Unfathoming, Four Way Books, 2017), Andrea Cohen recalls a small event in the doomed life of Osip Mandelstam:

“She was talking about Akhmatova
and Mandelstam, how there

“was only one egg, which she
gave him. But what I heard

“was one ache: there was one
ache, and they shared it.”

As a poet, Cohen represents Kay Ryan Lite. Her poems are as skinny as Ryan’s and aspire to her wittiness, but usually settle for a modest pop of whimsy. If they were read aloud, admirers would laugh, the rest of us would try to conceal our embarrassment. “What I Heard” is a little different, though it borders on the tacky. On the night of May 16, 1934, Anna Akhmatova arrived from Leningrad at the Moscow apartment of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. Food, as usual, was scarce. Osip begged an egg from a neighbor so Akhmatova would have something to eat. Stalin’s goons arrived with a warrant signed by Yagoda, and ransacked the apartment. They likely were searching for a copy of his “Stalin epigram” that Mandelstam had read aloud six months earlier in the apartment of Boris Pasternak. An informer present at the reading reported it to the authorities. In Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970), Nadezhda picks up the story:

“The egg brought for Akhmatova lay untouched on the table. Everybody – Mandelstam’s brother Evgeni, who had recently arrived from Leningrad and was also there – walked around the room talking and trying not to pay attention to the people rummaging in our things. Suddenly Akhmatova said, `M. should eat something before he left,’ and she held out the egg to him. Mandelstam took it, sat down at the table, put some salt on it and ate it.”

The secret police arrested Mandelstam and took him away. With Nadezhda he was exiled for three years to a village in the Urals. His second arrest, in 1938, would be his last. He was dead in a Siberian transit camp before the end of the year. In her poem, Cohen turns Akhmatova’s selfless gesture into a self-regarding pun, and implicitly congratulates herself for recognizing the sensitivity of her mishearing.

Elsewhere in Hope Against Hope, Nadezha reports an observation made by her husband: “Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

`With Special Gusto'

I happened on a word – not exotic or rare but seldom heard outside of beer commercials – that suggests the spirit in which books ought to be written and read: gusto. In Hours in a Library, in the chapter he devotes to Richardson’s novels, Leslie Stephens writes of the villain in Clarissa:

“Granting the high improbability of Lovelace as a real living human being, it must be admitted that he has every merit but that of existence. The letters which he writes are the most animated in the voluminous correspondence. The respectable domestic old printer, who boasted of the perfect purity of his own life, seems to have thrown himself with special gusto into the character of a heartless reprobate.”

Stephen’s prose suggests the quality of gusto (from gustare, “to taste”) as defined by the OED: “keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action; zest.” I read Clarissa once, more than forty years ago, and don’t remember consuming that epistolary behemoth with anything like gusto. It seemed a terrible slog. If the word has a precise antonym, it might be Richardson. It’s significant that the OED cites so many superior writers in its entries for gusto, including Dryden, Pope, Pepys, George Eliot, Sterne, Lamb and Hazlitt. The last devotes an entire essay to “On Gusto”: “Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.”

In the title of her essay “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto” (The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, 1986), the poet identifies her trinity of virtues. She writes: “All of which is to say that gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves. Moreover, any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.” Another writer who celebrates gusto is Arthur C. Benson in “The Art of the Essayist”: “The only thing necessary [for writing an essay] is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto.” In his journal entry for Sept. 2, 1851, Thoreau writes: “We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto.”

In their various ways, Swift, Sterne, Chekhov, Colette, A.J. Liebling, Guy Davenport and most of the writers cited above all wrote with gusto.