Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne

I never met my great-grandmother’s sister, the American writer Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), who is remembered today (if at all) as the author of Life in the Iron Mills, a novella that first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861, and as the mother of Richard Harding Davis, journalist and adventurer (listen for his name in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent).

But without her, I might not have had the audacity to think that I could write poetry without any sort of license, educational or otherwise.

In her afterword for the republication of Life in the Iron Mills in 1972, Tillie Olsen wrote that “Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else had recorded; alone in its epoch and for decades to come, saw the significance, the presage, in scorned or unseen native materials — and wrought them into art.

“Written in secret and in isolation by a thirty-year-old unmarried woman who lived far from literary circles of any kind, it won instant fame — to sleep in ever deepening neglect to our time.”

After the publication of the novella Davis wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne to express her delight in reencountering in his Twice-Told Tales several stories that had appeared, unsigned and probably without Hawthorne’s permission, in a collection from her childhood, stories she had “read over so often that [she] almost [knew] every line of them by heart.”

According to the account in her autobiography, Bits of Gossip (Houghton Mifflin, 1904), Hawthorne wrote back “that he was then at Washington, and was coming on to Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown had died,” and would then travel farther to see her in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia).

“I wish he had come to the old town,” she writes. “It would have seemed a different place forever after to many people. But we were in the midst of the Civil War, and the western end of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was seized just then by the Confederates, and he turned back.”

A year later, according to scholar Janice Milner Lasseter, “She accepted an invitation offered by the Fields [James T. Fields was her editor at the Atlantic] and Hawthornes . . . On that trip she met her literary ancestor Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist philosopher and educator Bronson Alcott, kindergarten founder Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, physician and writer Oliver Wendell Homes, as well as James T. and Annie Fields.”

This excerpt from Bits of Gossip, detailing her encounters with Hawthorne, is, I think, a special one:

It has happened to me to meet many of the men of my day whom the world agreed to call great. I have found that most of these royalties seem to sink into ordinary citizens at close approach.

You will find the poet who wrings the heart of the world, or the foremost captain of his time, driving a bargain or paring a potato, just as you would do. You are disappointed in every word and look from them. You expect to see the divine light shining through their talk to the office-boy or the train-man, and you never catch a glimmer of it; you are aggrieved because their coats and trousers have not something of the cut of kingly robes.

Hawthorne only, of them all, always stood aloof. Even in his own house he was like Banquo’s ghost among the thanes at the banquet.

There is an old Cornish legend that a certain tribe of mountain spirits were once destroyed by the trolls, all except one, who still wanders through the earth looking for his own people and never finding them. I never looked at Hawthorne without remembering the old story.

Personally he was a rather short, powerfully built man, gentle and low voiced, with a sly, elusive humor gleaming sometimes in his watchful gray eyes. The portrait with which we all are familiar — a curled barbershop head — gives no idea of the singular melancholy charm of his face. There was a mysterious power in it which I never have seen elsewhere in picture, statue, or human being.

Wayside, the home of the Hawthornes in Concord, was a comfortable little house on a shady, grassy road. To please his wife he had built an addition to it, a tower into which he could climb, locking out the world below, and underneath, a little parlor, in whose dainty new furnishings Mrs. Hawthorne took a womanish delight. Yet, somehow, gay Brussels rugs and gilded frames were not the background for the morbid, silent recluse.

Mrs. Hawthorne, however, made few such mistakes. She was a soft, affectionate, feminine little woman, with intuitions subtle enough to follow her husband into his darkest moods, but with, too, a cheerful, practical Yankee “capacity” which fitted her to meet baker and butcher. Nobody could have been better fitted to stand between Hawthorne and the world. She did it effectively. When I was at Wayside, they had been living there for two years — ever since their return from Europe, and I was told that in that time he had never once been seen on the village street.

This habit of seclusion was a family trait. Hawthorne’s mother had managed to live the life of a hermit in busy Salem, and her sister, meeting a disappointment in early life, had gone into her chamber, and for more than twenty years shut herself up from her kind, and dug into her own soul to find there what truth and life she could. During the years in which Nathaniel, then a young man, lived with these two women, he, too, chose to be alone, going out of the house only at night, and finding his food on a plate left at his locked door. Sometimes weeks passed during which the three inmates of the little gray wooden house never saw each other.

Hawthorne was the product of generations of solitude and silence. No wonder that he had the second sight and was naturalized into the world of ghosts and could interpret for us their speech.

America may have great poets and novelists, but she never will have more than one necromancer.

The natural feeling among healthy, commonplace people toward the solitary man was a tender sympathy such as they would give to a sick child.

“Nathaniel,” an old blacksmith in Salem once said to me, “was queer even as a boy. He certainly was queer. But you humored him. You wanted to humor him.”

One person, however, had no mind to humor him. This was Miss Elizabeth Peabody, Mrs. Hawthorne’s sister. She was the mother of the kindergarten in this country, and gave to its cause, which seemed to her first in importance, a long and patient life of noble self-sacrifice. She was a woman of wide research and a really fine intelligence, but she had the discretion of a six-year-old child. She loved to tell the details of Hawthorne’s courtship of her sister, and of how she herself had unearthed him from the tomb of the little gray house in Salem, and “brought him into Sophia’s presence.” She still regarded him as a demi-god, but a demi-god who required to be fed, tutored, and kept in order. It was her mission, she felt, to bring him out from solitudes where he walked apart, to the broad ways of common sense.

I happened to be present at her grand and last coup to this end.

One evening I was with Mrs. Hawthorne in the little parlor when the children brought in their father. The windows were open, and we sat in the warm twilight quietly talking or silent as we chose. Suddenly Miss Peabody appeared in the doorway. She was a short, stout little woman, with her white stockinged feet thrust into slippers, her hoop skirt swaying from side to side, and her gray hair flying to the winds.

She lighted the lamp, went out and brought in more lamps, and then sat down and waited with an air of stern resolution. Presently Mr. Emerson and his daughter appeared, then Louisa Alcott and her father, then two gray old clergymen who were formally presented to Mr. Hawthorne, who now looked about him with terrified dismay. We saw other figures approaching in the road outside.

“What does this mean, Elizabeth?” Mrs. Hawthorne asked aside.

“I did it. I went around and asked a few people in to meet our friend here. I ordered some cake and lemonade, too.”

Her blue eyes glittered with triumph as Mrs. Hawthorne turned away. “They’ve been here two years,” she whispered, “and nobody has met Mr. Hawthorne. People talk. It’s ridiculous! There’s no reason why Sophia should not go into society. So I just made an excuse of your visit to bring them in.”

Miss Elizabeth has been for many years among the sages and saints on the heavenly hills, but I have not yet quite forgiven her the misery of that moment.

The little room was quite full when there rustled in a woman who came straight to Mr. Hawthorne, as a vulture to its prey. I never heard her name, but I knew her at sight as the intellectual woman of the village, the Intelligent Questioner who cows you into idiocy by her fluent cleverness.

“So delighted to meet you at last!” she said, seating herself beside him. “I have always admired your books, Mr. Hawthorne. I was one of the very first to recognize your power. And now I want you to tell me about your methods of work. I want to hear all about it.”

But at that moment his wife came up and said that he was wanted outside, and he escaped. A few moments later I heard his steps on the floor overhead, and knew that he was safe in the tower for the night.

. . . . . . . .

He did not hold me guilty in the matter, for the next morning he joined his wife and me in a walk through the fields. We went to the Old Manse where they had lived when they were first married, and then wandered on to the wooded slopes of the Sleepy Hollow Valley in which the Concord people had begun to lay away their dead.

It was a cool morning, with soft mists rolling up the hills, and flashes between of sudden sunlight. The air was full of pungent woody smells, and the undergrowth blushed pink with blossoms. There was no look of a cemetery about the place. Here and there, in a shady nook, was a green hillock like a bed, as if some tired traveler had chosen a quiet place for himself and lain down to sleep.

Mr. Hawthorne sat down in the deep grass and then, clasping his hands about his knees, looked up laughing.

“Yes,” he said, “we New Englanders begin to enjoy ourselves — when we are dead.”

As we walked back the mists gathered and the day darkened overhead. Hawthorne, who had been joking like a boy, grew suddenly silent, and before we reached home the cloud had settled down again upon him, and his steps lagged heavily.

Even the faithful woman who kept always close to his side with her laughing words and anxious eyes did not know that day how fast the last shadows were closing in upon him.

In a few months he was lying under the deep grass, at rest, near the very spot where he sat and laughed, looking up at us.

I left Concord that evening and never saw him again. He said good-by, hesitated shyly, and then, holding out his hand, said: —

“I am sorry you are going away. It seems as if we had known you always.”

The words were nothing. I suppose he forgot them and me as he turned into the house. And yet . . . I never have forgotten them. They seemed to take me, too, for one moment, into his enchanted country.

Of the many pleasant things which have come into my life, this was one of the pleasantest and best.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Like a Radio in the Dark

Happy to find this bit of proof that the interview I did with George Bowering in Jacket 33 is actually getting read and appreciated a little, since I consciously set out to do the unexpected in that piece. Blogger Marcus McCann (a stranger in these parts) calls it "a fascinating interview from a content perspective" and indeed I doubt anyone else has made Bowering expound on what he likes about Americans. We also get into his Puritanism, his relationships with his schoolmaster father and the British crown, and interesting things he thought as a kid -- that he might have superpowers, for instance, or be the second coming or live forever.

If you've tangled with him on the Poetics list, as so many have, you know he's a rare bird (some might say a piece of work) and my hope was to show how he got that way, how he earned his feathers and why I believe he's worth every bit of his occasional curmudgeonliness.

So the Paris Review interview it ain't, and pointedly so. At one juncture the interviewee says "I feel as if I am 'in group,' which I managed to avoid during the Fritz Perls era." Well, it was fun to bring him there and to hint at least at what people are missing if they don't read him.

Not mentioned in the Jacket piece but amusing in itself is news of the scholarship recently established for a student graduating from Bowering's old high school in Oliver, British Columbia, who "must have a demonstrated interest in writing and be a bit of a pain in the ass."

This, I'm fairly certain, opens up all sorts of new vistas for awards. Vistas I've been thinking about, as it happens, but those are musings for another day.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Poets, Unbearable and Otherwise

Poets are unbearable to one another. You have to see them with other people to know what they're like.

--Elias Canetti (from Notes from Hampstead)

Tom Beckett posted those words some years back on the Poetics list and they were immediately (and gratefully) scribbled down here and probably elsewhere. You wouldn't be able to disprove that notion with recent goings-on in the blogosphere. And of course permanent aesthetic revolution makes a certain amount of friendly fire and outright fratricide inevitable.

But the strumpet is having one of those rare and bracing weeks that make the whole absurd poetic errand seem not only doable, but really (given her odd predilections) the only thing worth doing.

We're not talking about writing here, or not only about writing; what's happening is happening between two people, two of those unbearable poets, and includes in its scope everything from the tiniest details on their pages to their riskiest sallies toward a larger canvas.

Wanted to say more -- but it's almost dawn and time's run out.

Back when we're not at the heart of it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Something More Substantial Than Fame

Stumbled on this in my files when rifling them for poems. Since the strumpet is ever striving to provide evidence on her high-concept literary ruination blog, it seemed fitting to pass these sentences on:

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here: and they have arrived to-day by express, piling the man's wagon, seven hundred and six copies out of an edition of one thousand, which I bought of Munroe four years ago, and have ever since been paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs, to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up in my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship. These are the works of my brain....

--Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, October 28, 1853

Friday, August 17, 2007

Three Parodies of Ingmar Bergman

A couple of weeks ago, after the death of Ingmar Bergman, I went out looking for De Düva (The Dove), with a young Madeline Kahn in the cast. Finally found it at Google Video, but YouTube had Der Bass Treeifn: The Gift of Anna, which was in some ways even funnier, plus an SCTV version, Whispers of the Wolf. Nobody else seems to have collected all of them, so here they are.

Prepare yourself for lots of (subtitled) faux Swedish.

Der Bass Treeifn: The Gift of Anna:

"I am a donkey furball.... Even death won't have me.... Spring prawns!"

De Düva (The Dove):

"My name is Viktor Sundqvist. I am still alive.... Last year I was awarded the Peace Prize in Nuclear Physics. I have a hernia...."

Whispers of the Wolf:

"So you have left Yorg again?... I cannot laugh. The dwarves make me feel old...."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Comedy, Cruelty, and Control

In the last discussion days of the humor-in-poetry list (HumPo), K. Silem Mohammad made what seemed at the time like an extraordinary statement. "In my case," he said, speaking of the development of his thinking during the course of our conversation, "I have been if anything more firmly persuaded that humor is a form of cruelty." (Read more here.)

At the time, in summation mode, I disagreed, saying "Cruelty is a school of humor, for sure, and when the late-night comics indulge in it -- the gay jokes, the appearance jokes, it always seems to me like a form of laziness, the last refuge of a comedy that’s run out of ideas."

Since then, however, I've been testing instances of humor with my newly patented Cruel-O-Meter, and have discovered that (more often than would make me happy) Kasey has a point.

I started musing on this again yesterday after reading an even more extraordinary statement. "Every comedian’s heart -- the laugh muscle -- conceals a killer, " writes John Latta. "...The thing about comedy is, it brooks little argument, little half-measure, little slow-harsh subtlety of sidelong cancerous wit; it is rarely reveal’d casually, with joyous finesse, by degrees. The comedian’s unwilling to proceed by increments, who ever heard of an incremental laughter? Because comedy, like murder, is about control. And control that is slow to exhibit itself is no control at all."

If one were to accept both premises, agreeing with John that comedy is about control and with Kasey that humor is a form of cruelty, it would be tempting to hypothesize that the comedian, like some predatory spider, first paralyzes its intended victim -- "controls" it -- and then moves swiftly into the theater of cruelty to ingest it whole. MWA-HA-HA-HA-HAA-aaah!

My initial reaction to John's statement was like my initial reaction to Kasey's -- a brief bout with horror, followed by rumination. I remembered Mel Brooks saying that he'd defanged Hitler in his imagination by spoofing him (i.e. controlling him) in The Producers. Another example wasn't hard to come by -- my own comic obsession with Richard Nixon was a way to turn the tables on a figure who'd soaked up all the loose animus of my red diaper babyhood, mastering him (and occasionally making him ridiculous) rather than letting him and his ilk toy with me.

So I think there are elements of truth in John's statement and in Kasey's, although I'll be surprised if I come out exactly where they (separately) do. This is something I want to be thinking about in the coming months and (when I'm no longer going through the eye of the needle as I am through Labor Day) will hope to look at specific funny poems and how they function, or don't function, vis-à-vis control and cruelty.

Even better, reader (since the site meter says you're out there) I'd love to hear now or later, by backchannel or on this site:

Which comic poems and other humorous works appear to slip neatly into these notions and which adamantly resist them? Let me know.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Lady Sovereign

The strumpet was speaking through her arse poetica yesterday when she said that a blog is "a sort of castle with its lord, its gentleman-soldiers, its mounted men-at-arms and its vassals."

Actually, the lords and ladies of the blogosphere don't have that kind of retinue, but they should. It would be more fun.

Speaking for myself, I intend to establish a dungeon.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Price of the Ticket

Must admit I was pleased to see this and this, both constructs as elegant as they're generous, in their odd way. Ritualized insult at this level is, I think, almost a tip of the hat or a form of bonding, in that it acknowledges, in its backwards fashion, the power of a worthy adversary.

Or am I just dreaming of the salad days at Jordan Davis's late-lamented subsubpoetics, when K. Silem Mohammad, John Latta, Gabriel Gudding, Kent Johnson and other jousters knocked about in a state of furious revelry, and oh it was a sight to see. What made that possible (other than the superb tone Jordan set) and what makes a lot of what's happened recently seem so relatively small, sterile, stingy?

A few days ago somebody compared blog comment boxes to listservs, but this isn't accurate. On a listserv, you can think of a response three weeks later, post it to all and sundry and relaunch a discussion. Try doing that in a blog comment box--the blogger moves on, and takes the conversation with him, if he permits such chatter at all.

This leads, ineluctably, to comments being posted as quickly as possible, in a frenzied attempt to get in on the brief window of fun. Not exactly conducive to wit or thoughtfulness, although sometimes these can be managed by the most experienced and nimble.

Often, though, it's more like a dogpile, or--ironically when posts are most substantive, and least salacious--there's precious little comment at all.

Of course listservs had terrible defects as well, but when they were working there was a certain respectfulness inherent in the fact of meeting in a common space, with time to hone one's observations.

This is why I had such strong doubts about blogging from the beginning--not only the obvious limitations of the comment boxes but the way each blog as fiefdom inevitably structures the intellectual climate. A prominent blog is a sort of castle with its lord, its gentleman-soldiers, its mounted men-at-arms and its vassals.

But I'm here because the people I want to talk shop with have in the main abjured lists in favor of personal, if rented, real estate, and the only way to engage them, really (and get on the record in a non-frenetic way) is to build a fastness of my own.

How long this will be worth the price of the ticket is another matter. But in the meantime, I'm always looking for some sign that grace is breaking out, that a new age of merry vitriol is upon us.

Is that too much to hope for? Very possibly. Initially I chose to moderate comments in this obscure space after witnessing a few horror stories, especially for women. For the moment I've decided to stop doing that, and see what (if anything) transpires.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Shock of the Necessary

Linh Dinh wrote almost a week ago to say (quoted with permission) "I like the Bill Knott comparison. I have never read him, actually. Is this poem typical of Knott?" And on his blog, the same day, Knott expressed some pleasure at seeing "Survival of the Fittest Groceries" here and added "if i were only younger i'd know who this Linh Dinh is."

I wrote back to Linh saying that "Groceries" was a good example of one Knott mode but that he had other modes and tones. But really the truth is that no Knott poem is typical: they're all thorny and eccentric, like the poet, and that's what makes them memorable.

And (for Bill Knott) I can say that what always startles me awake with Linh Dinh's poems is that they seem less like precious literary confabulations and more like orders and warnings, each one bitten off in a great hurry. Here's one from his new book, Jam Alerts (Chax Press, 2007):

Investment Advices

Shimmering on the horizon, the four horsemen
Will arrive soon. Put all your liquid assets into
Baked beans, canned tuna and bandages.

After the almighty Dollar evaporates, the King's
English will shrivel. Therefore, toss your English
Dictionaries away, burn all of your English books.

The language he aggressively collects (from finance, law, history, porn) gets swept into the giant tidepool of his attention, whirled violently and disgorged in these poems, each of which seems to have wanted writing in the best, worst way. Linh Dinh's work is never random noodlings, pastel word confetti and pleasantries. Look elsewhere for that, but look here for both the necessities and the significant perils of our art, as in his poem "What Words Do" (also from Jam Alerts):

They cannibalize each other. The weakest ones
Are merely parasites. Grafting words onto words,
The wishy-washy don't trim away what's superfluous,
Resulting in ghastly weed gardens. Words, especially
Wrong and pointless ones, like to flit about, like bugs.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Prisoners of Love: Poetry and the Stockholm Syndrome

If we stopped loving every poem we love because of the mysteriousness (and even confoundedness) of its creator, we'd have very little left to love indeed.

So I have been baffled by Bill Knott's apparent --and I think fairly recent -- identification with a sociological slice of poetry (and official poetic culture) that would seem to exclude someone of his temperament and sensibility almost by definition.

This doesn't mean that I am willing to turn my back on his poems, in some equally perverse fit of aesthetic cleansing.

It resembles an instance of the Stockholm Syndrome, this strange longing (shared, at one time or another, by most poets) to sign up with that which would wrack us with its torpid indifference.

This is an odd sort of valentine, I know, but it is one nevertheless.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Your Mind Is On Vacation and Your Mouth Is Working Overtime

In the century I come from, it was customary to actually read things before pronouncing them worthy or unworthy. I know this will arrive as a startling revelation in the age of infinite distractibility, when one is (apparently) proud of "not bothering." Back then -- imagine! -- this was considered embarrassing; it was not generally seen as acquitting oneself well.

But times change. So let me give up and post a Mose Allison video:

Friday, August 03, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

... but with the same name. This seems like a poem Linh Dinh might have written yesterday--the urgency, the ferocity, the recklessness of the attack:

Survival of the Fittest Groceries

The violence in the newspapers is pure genius
A daily gift to the reader
From some poet who wants to keep in good with us
Brown-noser wastepaperbasket-emptier

I shot 436 people that day
2 were still alive when I killed them
Why do they want to be exhumed movie-stars,
I mean rats still biting them, the flesh of comets, why
    do they walk around like that?

I'm going to throw all of you into the refrigerator
And leave you to claw it out with the vegetables and meats

--Bill Knott, from Auto-Necrophilia (Big Table Books, 1971)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Survival of the Fittest Groceries

I steal my title from a brilliant poem in Bill Knott's book Auto-Necrophilia (1971). It comes to mind often, but especially in light of recent dismaying events. Silly to hope that one might see any rebirth of equanimity on these appalling internets. No, equanimity is for chumps, and it will always be smacked down by the endless lust for content.

So I guess I have to disagree with Seth's characterization (in the comment box here yesterday) of his BAP posts as "much-lambasted." They may have been that, but I'm fairly certain that they also got more play (more celebration, essentially), than anything else he's done, which seems a bit sad. Lots of very surprising people linked to them on all sides of the aesthetic barricades. Reason: there's nothing more delicious than a festschrift of literary indignation and schadenfreude, however accurately targeted or off the mark, and everybody loves to pile on.

The thing that interested me the most, back in 2005, was that the day after I'd been awkwardly joined to the hip with Brigit Pegeen Kelly in Seth's ceremonial BAP cuss-out, he went on the record and said (in a post called "This Just In," after he'd taken the time to read it) that "Best American Poetry 2005 is actually pretty damn good, and might just be the best edition in the whole series."

Of course, this post got no play at all, and not a single poetry-lover thought it worthy of a morning-after link.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Baffling Mr. Abramson

I don't know which is more puzzling: Seth Abramson's statement a couple of days ago that he knows "absolutely nothing about [Rachel] Loden," or his equally self-assured (and, um, "satirical") assertion in 2005 that "Other poets, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Rachel Loden, had simply appeared in far more issues of Best American Poetry than public opinion of their work would seem to warrant."

If Abramson knows "absolutely nothing" about Rachel Loden today, surely he knew less than diddly-squat about her two years ago. Why then did she (and the supposed market rating of her work) merit satirizing? And if he felt he needed to go on the satirical record then, how can he claim to know zilch/nada/bupkis about her now?

It's all terribly confounding, and the strumpet searches in vain for clarity.