Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The More Things Change Dept.

"Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts with his up moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content."

"The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or 'light.' They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. Many a poet writing today signs his real name to his serious verse and a pseudonym to his comical verse, being unwilling to have the public discover him in any but a pensive and heavy moment. It is a wise precaution. (It is often a bad poet, too.)"

"I think the stature of humor must vary some with the times. The court fool in Shakespeare's day had no social standing and was no better than a lackey, but he did have some artistic standing and was listened to with considerable attention, there being a well-founded belief that he had the truth hidden somewhere about his person. Artistically he stood probably higher than the humorist of today, who has gained social position but not the ear of the mighty. (Think of the trouble the world would save itself if it would pay some attention to nonsense!) A narrative poet at court, singing of great deeds, enjoyed a higher standing than the fool and was allowed to wear fine clothes; yet I suspect that the ballad singer was more often than not a second-rate stooge, flattering his monarch lyrically, while the fool must often have been a first-rate character, giving his monarch good advice in bad puns."

All excerpts from "Some Remarks on Humor," adapted by E.B. White from his preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor, Coward-McCann, 1941.

But of a piece with pretty much everything the Humpolonians had to say in 2007, and most likely of a piece with the compleynts and sorrows of the fools of 1257 or 1384.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Susan Sontag, An Argument about Beauty

(photo: Timo Ketonen)

Taken in the Finnish autumn afternoon, about a week ago.

Found Susan Sontag's At The Same Time: Essays And Speeches on the new book shelf at the local library and remembered what a tonic "Notes on Camp" had been for my teenaged soul.

I mean, a girl intellectual, and a particularly shameless, even arrogant one. Imagine. I'd been feeling like a freak, sinking down in my seat when the grade curve was outlined on the blackboard, trying to disappear.

Not that that feeling evaporated after reading "Notes" in the Westport, Connecticut, public library
far from it, I spent years and years thinking that it was somehow weird to want to be both Orpheus and Eurydice. Could one possibly be both singer and beloved?

These were serious questions decades ago, believe it or not, and perhaps they're still serious questions for girls now. It's certainly depressing getting random toy and tot catalogues in the mail: there's the pink, flouncy, gauzy section, and then there are army fatigues for four year-olds.

It's tempting to feel like Rip Van Winkle: did the sixties and seventies and eighties and nineties even happen? It's 1957 and Eisenhower's on the golf course.

But Sontag (at least in that first blush) was one thrilling, transgressive blow against the idiocracy and I'm still grateful for it, and for her.

From my favorite piece in the new book:

When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying, "Nobody of any real culture . . . ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned," sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up to date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Concord in the Sixties

The Wayside, Hawthorne's home 1852-1864

The 1860s, that is.

Since I'm in no condition to blog I thought I'd turn things over again to someone who shares my mitochondrial (a.k.a. matrilineal) DNA, my great-grandmother's sister Rebecca Harding Davis. My first excerpt from her memoir, Bits of Gossip, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1904 , is here. That chunk, which I called "A Walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne," is preceded by a bit of background which I won't repeat.

This shorter clip includes a hilarious dining moment-of-truth with Bronson Alcott, as seen in part through the eyes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also RHD's musings on the Concord circle as a whole its moral and philosophical airs and impracticalities, especially as contrasted with the actual Civil War, which she had observed firsthand and a first encounter with Alcott's daughter Louisa, later of course of Little Women fame.

Note: a "second girl" was "a household domestic in a subordinate position," according to The Rebecca Harding Davis Reader (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart always apart from humanity.

That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.

For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them "only the shining track," as Lowell calls it, where

. . . "heroes mustered in a gleaming row,

Beautiful evermore, and with the rays

Of morn on their white shields of expectation."

These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were "the army" to them.

I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted paeans to the war, the "armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before."

We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with rotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.

Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: "We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner," and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.

Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: "Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you," his eyes gleaming with fun, "what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day's news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You'll hear presently."

When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.

Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something was lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child's pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.

Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to "do his thinking in." It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.

Mr. Alcott at that time was their oracle, appointed and held in authority by Emerson alone. His faith in the old man was so sincere and simple that it was almost painful to see it.

He once told me, "I asked Alcott the other day what he would do when he came to the gate, and St. Peter demanded his ticket. 'What have you to show to justify your right to live?' I said. 'Where is your book, your picture? You have done nothing in the world.' 'No,' he said, 'but somewhere on a hill up there will be Plato and Paul and Socrates talking, and they will say: 'Send Alcott over here, we want him with us.'" "And," said Emerson, gravely shaking his head, "he was right! Alcott was right."

Mr. Alcott was a tall, awkward, kindly old man, absolutely ignorant of the world, but with an obstinate faith in himself which would have befitted a pagan god. Hearing that I was from Virginia, he told me that he owed his education wholly to Virginia planters. He had traveled in his youth as a peddler through the State, and finding how eager he was to learn they would keep him for days in their houses, turning him loose in their libraries.

His own library was full of folios of his manuscripts. He had covered miles of paper with his inspirations, but when I first knew him no publisher had ever put a line of them into print. His house was bleak and bitter cold with poverty, his wife had always worked hard to feed him and his children. In any other town he would have been more respected if he had tried to put his poor carpentering skill to use to support them. But the homelier virtues were not, apparently, in vogue in Concord.

During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me.

"These people may say pleasant things to you," she said abruptly; "but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It's the only decent one I have. I'm very poor;" and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as "second girl." "My name," she added, "is Louisa Alcott."

Now, although we had never met, Louisa Alcott had shown me great kindness in the winter just past, sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure at a time when every hour counted largely to her in her desperate struggle to keep her family from want. The little act was so considerate and fine, that I am still grateful for it, now when I am an old woman, and Louisa Alcott has long been dead. It was as natural for her to do such things as for a pomegranate-tree to bear fruit.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Paul Robeson in Prague

My brother just called me up and sang this song to me, which (given any expectation I ever had of him) was pretty extraordinary.

Our mother liked to sing it to us on Deakin Street in Berkeley, thousands of years ago, and she learned it from this guy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On an Age-old Anvil Wince and Sing

Cynthia Ulrich Edelson

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind. . . .

G.M. Hopkins of course. I seem for the nonce to be almost out of words.

Many thanks to all who sent notes, etheric or otherwise (Susan, Ange, Linh, sweet backchannelers and thought-streamers).

That sort of kindness gets recorded pretty deeply, at a time like this

more soon, as things start to make sense.

If they ever entirely do again. . . .

Monday, November 05, 2007


My mother fell this morning and then had a heart attack, so I'm going to have to put this blog on ice for a few days.

Be well, all of you.

See you later....

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Theory of Heartbreak

If, as David Bromige says, poetry is the theory of heartbreak, when do we begin to theorize?

The person I'm thinking about has never had a problem with separations, barely glancing at his parents as they go out the door. But when he wakes up after a night away from them, a night (one can assume) full of dreams and confusions, surf's up in the feelings department.

This time, however, for the first time, he had a word to say, the germ of a theory about this unsatisfactory situation. He let my husband pick him up out of his crib but then (from this high perch) took a long, disappointed look at us and turned away. "Mama," he said, heartbrokenly, and let his body shake with sobs.

It started me musing. I came to poetry in my teens after losing both my parents, my father to divorce (when I was close to this guy's age) and then my mother to madness.

And poetry kept me alive. At ten, living for a year in Los Angeles, I'd decided I wanted to be a singer but that was actively opposed (while my mother was still relatively well). I wanted lessons but kept singing anyway, especially when everybody was out of the house. Still, as a dream, as a vocation, it seemed absurd and out of reach.

Poetry, though, when I stumbled on it, was just the solution. Who could take it away from me? One didn't need materials other than those one already had for school. It made no noise. It wasn't part of that feared and hated entity, show business (my father's first career path, before blacklist and economic reality set in). I could even take it along when, later that same year, my mother entered a mental institution and I was sent to live with a foster family.

I could be a poet and nobody would be the wiser. And so I was, really, for decades. Maybe that's why I've always remembered what John Logan said of Bill Knott's poems (on the cover of his Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans): that they "give asylum to the orphan in each of us." I'm sure that's also why I was so taken with the work of John Wieners, poet-waif of poet-waifs:

Rain today and rain in the self. Reign. Return
to the place of imprisonment. Reign of life, how many
years left to bury the old heart and give birth to the new?
Reign of years, with each day a marking place of what
happens in the universe, what comes into ken,
of the stars and their turning. What one does not know.
Will never know. The desire to pierce space and
be up on the moon. Doomed as fellow men to
walk this place with sweat on our forehead.
         That we are not given enough, must find
the means to fulfill our existence. That we are
given enough, too much as a distraction to pene-
trate the essential core of our being. And what is
that but a hollow place? No radiant outpouring
as stars of light. We have eaten away our basic
substance, fed it to the drugs, of days
when there was nothing to do. Too many on the calendar.
         And yet this is substance, this despair.
         To walk with it as a beloved companion, or
friend. See that as the broken leg we try to mend.
Cripples with no crutch, looking for the broken tree
to fashion into a stump.
         And yet this is not the true condition. There
are comedies and comedians. Flowers in blossom.
The same old dirge. Age-old. The curse of
"Adam" that each man is heir to, and equipped
for — interrupted by the doctor coming down the
hall — that each man is heir, and for which each
is equipped.

(from "A Series," Ace of Pentacles)