Thursday, February 21, 2013

Parallel passages

1. Paul Muldoon, "White Shoulders":
My heart is heavy. For I saw Fionnuala,
"The Gem of the Roe," "The Flower of Sweet Strabane,"
when a girl reached down into a freezer bin
to bring up my double scoop of vanilla.
2. Peter Porter, "Homage to Gaetano Donizetti":
There was a sugar farmer's son (hyperthyroid)
I knew who was just like Nemorino,
And a girl in the Everest Milk Bar
Whose tits rubbed the cold of the ice cream churn
As she reached down with her cheating scoop--
You saw more if you asked for strawberry--
NB (i) As advice, this is inconclusive. (ii) I am not aware of anything Muldoon wrote about Porter or vice versa, though one expects that they'd have had a fair bit in common. (Other than Muldoon being a much better poet of course.) Re Porter, I refer you to this post which includes all you need to know. 

For the relevance of cold in this context, see also this bit from a Richard Wilbur poem:
liquor went
Like an ice-pick in my mind. 
Beneath her skirt I spied
Two sea-cows on a floe.
"Go talk to Mary Jo, son,
She's reading a book inside."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire"

It is a good day to post a few instances of "the squelch complete" -- these are from Frank Kermode's grumpy review of some books about Woolf --
1. His attention to detail is exemplified by the way in which, as he transcribes, he puts in a lot of sic’s, some after apparently innocent words like ‘omelette’; more puzzlingly, he awards one to ‘Bosphorus’, himself spelling it ‘Bosporus’, though when the versatile Miss Stephen spells it that way a few pages on, she gets another sic
2. It is a relief to learn that everything Woolf wrote seems now to be in print, and that we shall probably have no more volumes of this sort. Testimony that we have reached the end of the line is here provided in an Appendix setting forth exercises performed by the youthful Virginia, when trying to improve her hand-writing: 
As for the book – still 
the glory grows and we
[upside down]
The church is within two yards of our gate
The church is within two
The church
The church is within two yards of our gate, –
I am not sure that
Passing away saith the Lord
This was not what she, etc. 
If this had been found among the juvenilia of T.S. Eliot one might have thought it really something, but its value in the present context seems dubious. 
3. Vanessa’s great love, Duncan Grant, didn’t really like women, which made her unhappy, though about this and other disappointments she was usually pretty stoical, perhaps even, as Jane Dunn calls her, ‘lapidary’ – she uses this strange epithet twice, once of Vanessa, once of Virginia, though I suspect from the context that in the second case Vanessa is again meant. It is impossible to apply the term to Virginia: in fact, it is difficult to attach it to anyone who is not a jeweller or possibly the Commendatore in Don Giovanni. But such small snags in the prose are easily lost in the gush.
(I missed the storm last week -- I was away in California giving a talk. The excellent snowman that someone had previously erected on the law school quad outside my window has been buried in gray-brown sludge.)

Monday, December 31, 2012

Gold teeth

I am sorry to have had to discover Dennis O'Driscoll through the obituaries, but this sort of thing happens oftener than one would like. Here's a poem with an excellent beginning. I might post more of his stuff anon, but the point of this post is to pair O'Driscoll's climactic image of gold teeth:
Whatever this day holds,
we will live to see it through,
to walk down the graveled drive,
its cindered, osteal sounds,
to watch stars like gold-filled teeth
chatter with us in the cold. 
(Reading Primo Levi on the train)
with Greg Williamson's:
There have been souls who drowned in pity, drowned
                In sorrow. Just last week,
There was a glimmer of something out on the surface,
       Then it went under. When divers went in,
                       They found gold teeth
                       And hundreds of miles of water. 
(Bodies of Water)
I know, I know I should make some New Year's resolutions but really, what's the point. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The anticlimactic linebreak

It has been exceedingly long since the last post -- instead I have been tumbling, partly because this doesn't require one to write! -- but then it's been a busy semester. I am not sure this really merits a post but I have lately been struck by the prevalence (&, to my ear, strangeness) of the following device:

We drank Meursault, ate lobster Bombay with mango

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

Princess Volupine extends
A meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic hand
To climb the waterstair. Lights, lights,
She entertains Sir Ferdinand


I think it's crucial for there to be a metrical substitution right after the linebreak. Obviously the trick of emphasizing a word by sandwiching it between an enjambment and a period can be used (and presumably is in Milton) for serious purposes, but that isn't what's going on in these examples. Yet it isn't a full-fledged comic effect either: to my ear both Eliot and Stevens are going for a degree of silliness, Lowell is trying to sound prosaic, and Hopkins as usual (and in this he is very much like Wordsworth) is unselfconscious about sounding absurd. Of course I think it always sounds silly in practice. 

There are various other things that I meant to blog about at some point, but for now I'll just link to this delightful bit from a Keats letter:
On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan - the Duchess of Dunghill - It is no laughing matter tho - Imagine the worst dog kennel you ever saw placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing. In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from a scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape, - with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head - squab and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along. What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.
Cf. "the woman, and her garments vexed and tossed / by the strong wind." 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Self-involvement redux

Another picture to file under ouroboros-like hawks (via Izabella Laba; see previous instances here and here):

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Four (thousand) holes

Sorry about the silence, I have been whelmed in deeper gulphs than formerly... (3. and 4. below are from today's feed; they reminded me of 1. and 2., there are probably other instances of this conceit out there...)

1. Derek Walcott, "The Schooner Flight" (I'm quoting more of this than necessary, I know, but I like it a fair bit):
In idle August, while the sea soft,
and leaves of brown islands stick to the rim
of this Caribbean, I blow out the light
by the dreamless face of Maria Concepcion
to ship as a seaman on the schooner Flight.
Out in the yard turning grey in the dawn,
I stood like a stone and nothing else move
but the cold sea rippling like galvanize
and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof,
till a wind start to interfere with the trees.
I pass me dry neighbour sweeping she yard
as I went downhill, and I nearly said:
"Sweep soft, you witch, 'cause she don't sleep hard",
but the bitch look through me like I was dead.
2. Elizabeth Bishop, "The Man-Moth":
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
3. Louis MacNeice, "Star-gazer":
it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky
4. Anon, quoted by Guy Davenport:
Carnation milk is the best in the land.
I’ve got a can of it here in my hand —
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch:
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Borges and Browne; style and solitude

I have been thinking about Sir Thomas Browne lately. This has to do with stumbling upon a remark in Edmund Gosse's book, quoted in Lytton Strachey's essay, quoted in turn in Enemies of Promise [re which see also]:
The study of Sir Thomas Browne, Mr. Gosse says, 'encouraged Johnson, and with him a whole school of rhetorical writers in the eighteenth century, to avoid circumlocution by the invention of superfluous words, learned but pedantic, in which darkness was concentrated without being dispelled.'
It is difficult, nowadays, to imagine that those last clauses were ever an indictment; one can hardly think of a more inviting description. (This is a coincidence; "darkness" is a poorly chosen word, it is quite wrong for the gong-like "pedantries" of Johnson, but by a sort of hypallage it fits Browne, who cared, like Donne, for the "echoes and recesses" of words.)

Browne initially seemed to me a less dynamic and therefore less interesting writer than Donne (whose special effects are every bit as good); they are similarly metaphysical -- Johnson partially defends both on the grounds that they said strange things because they had strange minds; their illustrations were "far-fetched but worth the carriage" -- but Donne is a more wide-ranging (even within the scope of a paragraph) and therefore less distinct figure. I am coming to realize, however, that it's possible to find Browne more interesting because his work is so much more "deliberate" and his range so much narrower. Two notes on this:

1. The direct influence of Browne on twentieth-century literature (much greater than that of Donne, I feel): the three figures that immediately come to mind are Borges, Sebald, and the Moore-Clampitt tradition of (American, mostly female) essayistic poets. That Browne's influence has been strongest on non-Anglophone writers is puzzling if you see him chiefly as a master of cadence and "brushwork," as Strachey does. It is, or ought to be, a truism that good work is more translatable than you think. Or perhaps it is better to put it this way: the part of someone's work that's likely to have a direct influence on others, i.e., whatever is imitable, can usually be translated; moments of high intensity, or of ineffable prettiness as in Campion, can neither be imitated nor translated.

It is not surprising that Borges was fond of Browne; the Pseudodoxia -- qua anti-encyclopedia -- is like something out of a Borges story, and the dottiness re quincunxes in the Garden of Cyrus is of a piece with this (see also: the garden of forking paths, where the quincunx, I suppose, has been retrenched to a Mercedes-Benz sign). Gosse's remark is relevant, too; "darkness was concentrated without being dispelled," if anywhere, in that sentence about the man who disembarked unseen in the "unanimous night." With Sebald the affinities are too many to mention -- both lived in Norfolk; both were interested in skulls and mazes; both achieve a sense of autumnal repleteness and desolate fulfillment to which their accumulations of fact, the overflowing larders and cozy lumber-rooms of their minds, are essential (Donne, like the weather in the midwest, is neither cozy nor predictable enough).

2. As for Moore and Clampitt, there are echoes of Browne (as there allegedly are in Rae Armantrout), and there's also some commonness of purpose. There is, in particular, the shared naturalism; as Lytton Strachey says about Browne:
this strongly marked taste for curious details was one of the symptoms of the scientific bent of his mind. For Browne was scientific just up to the point where the examination of detail ends, and its coordination begins. He knew little or nothing of general laws; but his interest in isolated phenomena was intense. ... He cannot help wondering: ‘Whether great-ear’d persons have short necks, long feet, and loose bellies?’ ... Browne, however, used his love of details for another purpose: he co-ordinated them, not into a scientific theory, but into a work of art.
This is, I think, part of what many Moore and Clampitt poems attempt to do, but it is also quite close to what the Metaphysical poets were striving for. Why Browne rather than Donne, though; why cunctation over celerity? I think Virginia Woolf makes the essential point:
the publicity of the stage and the perpetual presence of a second person were hostile to that growing consciousness of one’s self, that brooding in solitude over the mysteries of the soul, which, as the years went by, sought expression and found a champion in the sublime genius of Sir Thomas Browne. His immense egotism has paved the way for all psychological novelists, auto-biographers, confession-mongers, and dealers in the curious shades of our private life. He it was who first turned from the contacts of men with men to their lonely life within. “The world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.”
Donne never does this for long; even in the poems, the voice tends to imply a dramatic context in which it is performing. But then Donne was not an eccentric, a recluse, or a marginal figure, as many of the great female poets have been; it is natural to be self-absorbed when one has no audience, and it is natural, when writing to oneself, to accrete and elaborate. Clampitt is explicit about her preferences:
precision and attention to detail are what Marianne Moore’s work is all about. And that is what I found attractive: a clear and principled opposition to the dictum of Dr. Johnson that poetry ought not to “number the streaks on the tulip.”
And the other thing poss. worth saying is that Browne's approach to autobiography -- I am thinking  mostly of the Garden and the Pseudodoxia, though perhaps Urn-Burial counts -- is an indirect one, the burden of self-disclosure is absorbed into the texture of the prose, and never explicitly assumed or answerably fulfilled. (I doubt that this was intentional on Browne's part, he would surely have asked to see the glass flowers at Harvard -- which, by the way, I have not.) I can't remember if I ever posted about the bowerbird aspects of blogging, but for some types of people there is something very satisfying about an approach to self-definition that is so thoroughly externalized.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Two uncles one full-dress saber

Owls in flight are strangely photogenic (see also):

Here is Uncle 1, "as looney as ever" -- i.e., Yeats, introducing a book by random eastern mystic, as described by Eliot; really you should read the whole thing but I wanted to flag this bit for poss. future reference:
it does seem a pity that he tells some of the Holy Man's best stories over in advance in his own fashion but the Holy Man himself writes much better than Yeats for this sort of thing I mean. That [sic] is a good one about his scaling a mountain about 25000 feet and tumbling into a cave on top of a still Holier Man who received him with laughter and affection.
I'm not sure if the book was originally to be called "Mount Meru" -- as in the typescript -- but you might remember the late poem "Meru" (quoted in that most Yeatsian of novels, Sabbath's Theater) in which hermits in caves on mountains appear; the spirit of the anecdote also reminds me a little of Lapis Lazuli.

And here is Uncle 2, in what is now my favorite Clive James poem, esp. for the ending (it is attributed to "Robert Lowly"; am not sure if it was originally published under James's name):
Revised Notes for a Sonnet 
On the steps of the Pentagon I tucked my skull
Well down between my knees, thinking of Cordell Hull
Cabot Lodge Van du Plessis Stuyvesant, our gardener,
Who'd stop me playing speedway in the red-and-rust
Model A Ford that got clapped out on Cape Cod
And wound up as a seed-shed. Oh my God, my God,
How this administration bleeds but will not die,
Hacking at the rib-cage of our art. You were wrong, R.P.
Blackmur. Some of the others had our insight, too,
Though I suppose I had endurance, toughness, faith,
Sensitivity, intelligence and talent. My mind's not right.
With groined, sinning eyeballs I write sonnets until dawn
Is published over London like a row of books by Faber --
Then shave myself with Uncle's full-dress sabre.
As an irrelevant postscript, there is something pleasingly symmetric about the word "toponymy," quite apart from the pony hiding in the middle of it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cloudbursts and demolition crews

1. A crash blossom (via Austen; cannot find article online): "Great white attacks seal off Carpinteria" -- this is the relevant story.

2. Parallel passages. Credit for noticing these goes to Calista.

A. Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England:
[...] soon it was all I wanted to do too, walk up and down the platform several times a day selling hot frankfurters for one crown eighty apiece. Sometimes the passenger would only have a twenty-crown note, sometimes a fifty, and I'd never have the change, so I'd pocket his note and go on selling until finally the customer got on the train, worked his way to a window, and reached out his hand. Then I'd put down the caddy of hot frankfurters and fumble about in my pocket for the change, and the fellow would yell at me to forget the coins and just give him the notes. Very slowly I'd start patting my pockets, and the dispatcher would blow his whistle, and very slowly I'd ease the notes out of my pocket, and the train would start moving, and I'd trot alongside it, and when the train had picked up speed I'd reach out so that the notes would just barely brush the tips of the fellow's fingers, and sometimes he'd be leaning out so far that someone inside would have to hang on to his legs, and one of my customers even beaned himself on a signal post. But then the fingers would be out of reach and I'd stand there panting, the money still in my outstretched hand, and it was all mine. 
B. Terry Southern, "Grand Guy Grand":
The hotdog-man, in trying to utilize all their remaining time, passed the hotdog to Grand and reached into his change pocket even before having looked carefully at the bill—so that by the time he made out its denomination, he was running almost full tilt, grimacing oddly and shaking his head, trying to return the bill with one hand and recover the hotdog with the other. During their final seconds together, with the hotdog-man’s last overwhelming effort to reach his outstretched hand, Grand reached into his own coat pocket and took out a plastic, animal-mask—that of a pig—which he quickly donned before beginning to gorge the hotdog in through the mouth of the mask, at the same time reaching out wildly for the bill, yet managing somehow to keep it just beyond his finger’s grasp, and continuing with this while the distance between the two men lengthened, hopelessly, until at last the hotdog-man stood exhausted on the end of the platform, still holding the five-hundred dollar bill, and staring after the vanishing train.
The past two weeks have been good; various research things are moving forward and should be digested and voided as papers soon. I have also been reading a string of very good books -- Woodcutters, Manservant and Maidservant, The Fountain Overflows, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, and now I've acquired as much of Hrabal as is in the library. I can't imagine why I wasn't told to read him earlier; apart from the obvious visceral appeal there are affinities with Bernhard and even with Sebald -- e.g., from Too Loud a Solitude
Books have taught me the joy of devastation: I love cloudbursts and demolition crews, I can stand for hours watching the carefully coordinated pumping motions of detonation experts as they blast entire houses, entire streets, into the air while seeming only to fill tires.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Snail-nosed and glassy-eyed

It has been long enough since the last post that I've been asked whether I've given up blogging. I certainly don't mean to; I have just been a little crippled by anxiety for the past month, and in this state of mind one is more impatient than appreciative of the internet. (I suppose I could have posted about the books I've read, but I'm reluctant to do so as (a) I'd just be exposing my ignorance, (b) I have a terrible reviewing voice; I tend to PRONOUNCE on things in the worst undergraduate way, and such posts are painful to reread. I was recently skimming Lowell's critical prose and it struck me as stylistically very bad -- though clever and observant beyond anything I could aspire to -- for utterly familiar reasons. The judicial stance is dangerous for anyone who finds it appealing, and the only easy way out of this pass is never to write with primarily evaluative intent.)

(I will note, in passing, this remark by Brad Leithauser about Cheever and Lowell, which I think contains a dangerous implication:
We learn that one character’s “sense of these aspects of privacy was scrupulous and immutable” and that another’s “imagination remained resilient and fertile.” The high-flown adjective pair was for Cheever what the incongruous adjective triplet (“orange, bland, ambassadorial”) was to Robert Lowell: an opportunity to record a legible signature in an extremely confined space.
It is true that grammatical templates like this can be effective when used well; that one becomes better with practice at filling them in effectively; and that this eventual richness can compensate for the dangers of self-parody. Phrases like "flabby, bald, lobotomized" suggest that a one-track mind is not always a bad thing. But to appreciate mannerisms just for being mannerisms, to praise writers for the sameness of their special effects -- as Leithauser seems to -- is indulgent in ways that make my flesh creep; perhaps it is an error everyone falls into with favorite writers -- Auden, in my case -- but it is an error for all that.)

A few linked pairs of pictures and quotes:

Snout 1 (via Jenny Davidson):

Snout 2, an almost-ouroboros ("the great sea serpent" it seems):

Self-involved hawk 2 (see also): 

Passage 1a (from Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows):
When we reached Edinburgh I awoke, feeling warm and babyish and contented, and the pain was so much less that I could hop with joy as we went along Princes Street, because of the splendor of the castle high on its rock over the trough of the green gardens, all the majesty of the city that lives more masterfully among its hills than Rome itself. But when I said, "Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it beautiful?" Mamma made no answer. 
Passage 1b (Beckett, "The End"):
The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.
Passages 2 (via Calista):
Plath, the cadaver-room poem: "in their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow"; out-of-context Lowell [i.e., "For the Union Dead"]: "once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass"

Thursday, July 12, 2012


An ouroboros? (From the excellent Fairy-wren tumblr -- see also.)

This week has been unpleasantly stressful -- partly a matter of bad luck; construction workers have been wandering in and out of my office all week "changing the windows," my desk is covered in plastic sheeting -- but at least it should all end on Saturday when I leave for Boston. I hope to be back on the grid mid-week-ish...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rheumatic dewdrops

More parallel passages (gannet picture via Calista).

1. Pasternak, "September" (trans. Lowell):
The moment the sun rises, it disappears.
Last night, the marsh by the swimming-pool shivered with fever;
the last bell-flowers waste under the rheumatic dewdrop,
a dirty lilac stain souses the birches.

Cf. Geoffrey Hill, "Damon's lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654":
No sooner has the sun   
swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.   
We live like gleaners of its vestiges
There are also analogies with Hill's dove that "bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound" and Stevens's "pool of pink / clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes," and with this.

2. Pasternak, "September" (a few lines further down):
The thinning birchwood has not ceased to water its color --
more and more watery, its once regal shade.
Hill, sounding oddly Audenesque, in his first book:
Though there are wild dogs 
Infesting the roads 
We have recitals, catalogues 
Of protected birds; 

And the rare pale sun
To water our days.
And, much more recently: "the watered gold that February drains / out of the overcast"

More relevantly, Charles Wright:
I remember the way the mimosa tree
                                                   buttered the shade
Outside the basement bedroom, soaked in its yellow bristles.
3. Pasternak, "For Anna Akhmatova" (again trans. Lowell): "I hear the soiled, dripping small talk of the roofs" -- and "the shallows smell like closets full of last summer's clothes." For the former, cf. Paul Muldoon's "soiled grey blanket of Irish rain"; for the latter, cf. Hollinghurst, "his own rectal smell -- a soft stench like stale flower-water."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"We just can’t tell what they will do when they stop grinning"

Quoted out of context, for good use of short sentences -- Michael Wood in his essay on Yeats and violence (he is writing about this):
The soldiers are cold and tired and complaining. They have lost hope and they have blood-stained hands: they are soldiers. They die, and they tell us about dying. Then all at once they are grinning and saved. Well, they have arrived in paradise. No, in our paradise, the paradise of right or left, the saved bourgeois world or the new order after the revolution, neither of which would be glad to see the dirty soldiers of the earlier conflict again. That’s why the soldiers are grinning. They know how upset we are to see them. And they seem at the end to know who they are. They are not the drunken soldiery of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, but they are violent dead men who won’t die, who have been through several secular hells, and their grins promise all kinds of havoc in the place we thought was perfect. They are not ‘the worst rogues and rascals’; they are not even ‘weasels fighting in a hole’. They have been fighting in a hole, but they are not weasels. But they are anarchic enough, convincing enough, lively enough, to end any dream of order. We just can’t tell what they will do when they stop grinning.
Elsewhere in the piece, there is much to like, most valuably (for me) this Yeats poem, which I'd forgotten:
The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Spufford, Auden, Iceland, Food

I just discovered that Francis Spufford had written a "Letter to Wystan Auden" (pastiching L. to L. Byron). I guess I knew about the influence of Auden on Spufford -- Auden's fingerprints are all over the fairytale parts of The Child that Books Built, and Spufford even casually uses the phrase "the sexy airs of summer" somewhere -- but I am still delighted by the fact of the existence of this poem, it is the sort of object the universe might have concocted specifically for my sake. Unfortunately, the poem itself -- though it "adumbrates" various themes that resurface in the ice book and the books book -- is a little blah; rhyme royal doesn't go well with a villainous looseness of numbers. But here is the bit where he talks about the genesis of the ice book -- it rings very true; these are exactly the sorts of reasons why I've found the idea of novel-writing impossibly daunting:
I’m sure that if I tried to write a novel
    The cast party I held would be a flop.
I’d be the wallflower, or I’d simply grovel,
    And all the characters would never stop
    Gesticulating. An aged peer would try to hop;
A dour divine would Charleston; close to tears,
The strong and silent one would play on others’ fears.

A catastrophic prospect. Wiser, you will agree,
    To first try something rather smaller,
Requiring of these skills a less complete degree.
    That way my judgment may grow slowly taller,
    And I’ll learn how to entertain a caller –
Not one that I invented – someone real and dead
Whose passions need to be interpreted.

[...] I’d like to say that searching for my subject
    Was an exhausting task that lasted years;
I’d like to say that weary, pure and abject
    I brought myself close to the brink of tears,
    Burdened by severe stylistic cares.
It’s unfortunate for me that from my crib
I’ve not been capable of such a fib.

The truth’s just this: I knew exactly what
    I hoped to do to educate my heart.
I’ve been fascinated by each human jot
    Of POLAR EXPLORATION from the start,
    And wondered how on earth to tease apart
The knots their souls are tied in (reef or bowline)
Who think the good life’s found above the snowline.

The classic polar expedition’s personnel
    Were capable, Edwardian and intense;
Good sports; good diary-keepers; fit as hell;
    Trained by their education to think tents
    Were the natural sites for virtuous events.
Yet these solid types made journeys that involved
Odder qualities than toughness or resolve.

I see them walking, always in a line,
    Pursuing an abstraction through the snow;
Above (thanks to refraction) six suns shine
    And wrap them round in whiteness as they go,
    Skin blackened, feet wrecked, agonisedly slow.
But it isn’t meteorology, or nature’s wild trompe l’oeil,
That can explain their journal entries, indicating joy.

If I’m to understand at all, I need a way
    Of obtaining for my book a steady fix
On emotions that you don’t meet every day –
    The atavistic ones, the muscly ethics
    You tried to grasp yourself, ascending F6.
It’s especially hard to find out what they mean
Because the censorship of laughter intervenes:

(It might also be worthwhile to compare this with Donald Davie's "Remembering the Thirties.")

While I'm on this topic let me quote a bit from Letters from Iceland that I rediscovered today:
Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toenails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one's feet.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everything he blanked was here

Philip Roth, famously, at the close of Sabbath's Theater:
And he couldn' t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.

I just found out that he'd used almost the same construction in American Pastoral (his next novel):
The longing he would feel if he had to live in another country. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here.
It is a truism nowadays to say that Am. Past. is worse on every dimension than Sabbath, but I was amused to see how this is explicitly so even at the level of the sentence. (Am. Past. was the first Roth I read, I think I was altogether too tolerant of it at the time because of some good long sentences -- this one, perhaps? -- in the homecoming scene early in the novel.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Night, sleep, death and the stairs

Mostly a roundup of things tumbl'd.

1. Advice for Japanese tourists in Scotland:
Not all the advice in the Insider's Guide to Scotland is prohibitive, however. It recommends Mackie's honeycomb ice-cream and ginger marmalade, as well as Irn Bru. Lorne sausage, though – which is sliced and flat, and also known as square sausage – is best avoided.

The Japanese-language book, published by the Edinburgh-based Luath Press, notes the attraction of pub crawls, even urging visitors to get "merrily drunk" on whisky. 

2. Snouts:

A solenodon is "one of the few mammals with truly venomous saliva, and is also one of the rarest extant animals on earth."

3. Sarah Manguso's advice to young writers. Two bits that ring particularly true:
Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone. [...] Recognize those who would help you, and let them know who you are. Assemble a coterie of influence that will protect and serve you.
4. This Mary Ruefle piece is worth reading in full. I shall merely pull out a reminiscence about Yeats:
at the beginning of one class Mr. Moore asked us if we would like to see a picture of Yeats. We nodded, and he held up a photograph of Yeats taken when he was six months old, a baby dressed in a long white gown. Maybe he was even younger, maybe he was an infant. I thought it was the funniest thing anyone had ever done, the strangest, most ridiculous, absurd thing to have done. But nobody laughed and if Mr. Moore thought it was funny, you couldn’t tell by his face. I always liked him for that. The poems we were reading in class were not written by a baby. And yet whenever I think of Yeats, I see him as a tiny baby wearing a dress—that photograph is part of my conception of the great Irish poet. And I love that it is so. We are all so small.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I have a nagging sense that I'm missing an important link; but I should post these while I still have them open:

1. I am intrigued by this book on midwifery in the seventeenth century ("with much "strugling [sic], halings, and enforcements" midwifes would attempt to pull babies out before labour had even begun, and a hooked stick, or "crotchet", was used in the place of forceps.") And of course I am tickled by the article's author being named Alison Flood.

2. Amazing fruit and vegetable skulls (via Jenny Davidson):

3. Dan Chiasson, reviewing Frederick Seidel, says something perceptive:
Seidel learned a lot about libido and its excruciations from John Berryman, the original “phallus-man.” The Berryman/Seidel predicament is as follows: to be a straight man is to want to have sex all the time; to want to have sex all the time is to be a buffoon; to be a buffoon is to occupy an amusing, though limited, point of view. The imagination, which ranges over all points of view and samples the full panoply of human appetites, finds the salivating buffoon it is tethered to pitiful, or sickening, or dangerous, or doomed. This makes self-caricature—the buffoon seen from the point of view of the imagination—the central mode in both Berryman’s and Seidel’s poems.
(I have been on a bit of a Seidel kick lately, I unearthed a Collected while packing & discarding books. I'd always known and admired "Poem by the bridge at Ten-Shin" but there is much more in that vein in the rest of his recent work.)

4. I liked the Deborah Eisenberg story in the new NYRB very much. (Here is an essentially random passage.)

5. This story about the Rushdie video game has done the rounds but I should still link to it; it hardly needs to be commented on.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Scratchy brisk rain irritable as tinder"

Regular readers will know of my fondness for these things. (It is the sort of thing I find easy to memorize, too; for instance, I will not easily forget that the bus from Innsbruck airport to the city stops at "Fischerhaeuslweg" and "Klinik," though I only rode it twice.) Here is the map in the original Norwegian (inter alia I am pleased to note that Norwegian for "brook" is cognate with "beck"). Here is a related old post.

Letters from (mostly children's) authors to kids. (Failing which, there's nothing but the wall / of public lavatories on which to scrawl.)

Peter McDonald reviews the new Geoffrey Hill books. I do not mean to direct you to the review, which is defensive and boring, just to cull a few quotes. (The books seem dreadful.) But here is Hill on Yeats: "Yeats with his clangour of despotic beauty." And there are these snippets:
‘Passchendaele’s chill mud at a gulp engorging | Men and redhot rashers of sizzling metal’ (XXXV), ‘long demolished | Iron bridges clamped over backstreet inlets | Tremor to footfalls’ (XXXVI),  ‘Bracken-guarded airfields where now the pigeons | Ponderous, wingladen, in near-botched take-offs, | Rattle the spinneys’ (XLII), ‘Glasstight black porter’ (XLIX)
And finally, a delightful stanza:
Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,
Scratchy brisk rain irritable as tinder;
Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel
Taller than we were.
(Cf. Bishop's moonlight, "hairy, scratchy, splintery" and Auden on being "taller today.")

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Arundel turtle-tomb

Prehistoric turtles, squashed in rapturous embrace (via Calista)

Notably, "Their nearest living relatives are probably the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta), a much bigger species that swims in waters around Australia and Papua New Guinea." Which look like this (file under: snouts) --

I have not seen a more viscerally satisfying picture in months.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Handel with care

Came upon one of these lately: 

Here is Browne on the genre of picture (he is discussing the curvature of dolphins):
And thus also must that picture be taken of a Dolphin clasping an Anchor: that is, not really, as is by most conceived out of affection unto man, conveighing the Anchor unto the ground: but emblematically, according as Pierius hath expressed it, The swiftest animal conjoyned with that heavy body, implying that common moral, Festina lentè: and that celerity should always be contempered with cunctation.
I first came upon the saying in Moore's frigate-bird:
    As impassioned Handel——

meant for a lawyer and a masculine German domestic
  career——clandestinely studied the harpsichord
  and never was known to have fallen in love,
    the unconfiding frigate-bird hides
in the height and in the majestic
  display of his art. He glides
  a hundred feet or quivers about
    as charred paper behaves——full
    of feints; and an eagle

of vigilance...Festina lente. Be gay
  civilly? How so? "If I do well I am blessed
  whether any bless me or not, and if I do
    ill I am cursed."

I remember, at the time -- I had no Latin at all, then -- assuming that she was paraphrasing the quote in what immediately followed it. (And I had not noticed the parallel between this and the bit in Auden's limestone poem -- he would have been familiar with early Moore in 1948-49 -- where he says, "The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide." And other Google image results clarify that the thing protruding from the dolphin's face is a proboscis not a parching tongue.)

It is an amusing coincidence that both frigate-bird and porpoise are storm-sensors ("before a storme, hee tumbles just as a hog runs").

I shall close this pointless post -- as Eliot was fond of saying in forewords, all one can do with things that are so transparently good is point -- with a strikingly good observation from David Bromwich's essay on  Moore:
As a composer of words Moore's greatest affinities are with Francis Bacon [...] To be curt, undeviating, end-stopped wherever a thought might enter, but at the same time vivid, striking, inventive in the highest degree conscionable, is the ideal of both writers. [...] "Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished," is a sentence one can imagine her writing, or quoting, as easily as "it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed."
Here is the Bacon (I really have to read more of these essays). And for "extinguished" cf. -- in Moore's pangolin -- "curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Corkscrewing, cheesiness

Back after a very pleasant trip to NYC and Princeton -- my spirits survived my body's weak attempts to depress them with a cold. Highlights included gin and marmalade (!), and a crawl through the Met, where I was particularly struck by these two pictures. (Unfortunately I missed the Edward Gorey exhibit at Columbia...) The workshop was great too -- I wish I hadn't let my old physics blog fall into such utter desuetude; I would have had material for it... I mean to get back to a more normal blogging schedule, but disruptions associated with moving and paper-completion are likely to persist for another few weeks.

A smattering of links:

1. Illustrations from a 1925 Japanese edition of Aesop.

2. David Crystal on Dickens's language (parts 1, 2, and 3). Part 3 is especially good I think; esp. the precursors of Chuzzlewit, and this bit from Oliver Twist, which I do not remember at all (having read the book only as a child):
Mrs Mann: How comes he to have any name at all, then?
Bumble: I inwented it.
Mrs Mann: You, Mr. Bumble!
Bumble: I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The last was a S,- Swubble, I named him. This was a T,- Twist, I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.
Mrs Mann: Why, you're quite a literary character, sir! 
For Swubble cf. "swabbling." And the list of words that might have been coined by Dickens has some remarkable entries...

3. Mary Beard recently alluded to the duck's ditty in Wind in the Willows; I'd forgotten about it, was happy to be reminded, and was thoroughly cheered up to find that "Up tails all" is an old folk song to which the lyrics have apparently been lost (?), although the refrain survives in allusions by Jonson, Herrick, and Vanbrugh:
Ras. The Matter?—why, Uptails All's the Matter... My Lady has Cuckolded my Master.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"A sadder hue then the powder of Venice glass"

Sorry about the nonexistent blogging lately; I have been slightly more active on tumblr, but a combination of post-thesis work and lassitude and the thought of a few substantive posts I've been putting off writing have combined to keep things very quiet. (A rule of thumb is that quotes offered w/o comment go there unless they are about Coleridge's drug use.) This is not a substantive post, just a few snippets of early modern science. First, I stumbled upon a piece on the "solar microscope" ca. 1816; the list it ends with is particularly worthwhile if one likes lists:

Another good bit (apart from the food-related one) is on the breeding habits of lice:

And the crystallization of salts reminded me of the bit in Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica on whether all crystals are forms of ice. I am not sure anyone will find this bit as charming as I did, but it is of lexicographical interest ("the stillicidous dependencies of ice"!), and then solidity-the-concept is one of my very oldest obsessions (I even wrote a dreadful term paper my freshman year on Locke and solidity...):
Pliny is positive in this Opinion: Crystallus fit gelu vehementius concreto: [...] Neither doth there any thing properly conglaciate but water, or watery humidity; for the determination of quick-silver is properly fixation, that of milk coagulation, and that of oyl and unctuous bodies, only incrassation [...]

[...] Ice although it seemeth as transparent and compact as Crystal, yet is it short in either; for its atoms are not concreted into continuity, which doth diminish its translucency; it is also full of spumes and bubbles, which may abate its gravity. And therefore waters frozen in Pans, and open Glasses, after their dissolution do commonly leave a froth and spume upon them, which are caused by the airy parts diffused in the congealable mixture which uniting themselves and finding no passage at the surface, do elevate the mass, and make the liquor take up a greater place then before: as may be observed in Glasses filled with water, which being frozen, will seem to swell above the brim.

[...] As for colour, although Crystal in his pellucid body seems to have none at all, yet in its reduction into powder, it hath a vail and shadow of blew; and in its courser pieces, is of a sadder hue then the powder of Venice glass; and this complexion it will maintain although it long endure the fire. [...]

that continuity of parts is the cause of perspicuity, it is made perspicuous by two ways of experiment. That is, either in effecting transparency in those bodies which were not so before, or at least far short of the additional degree: So Snow becomes transparent upon liquation, so Horns and Bodies resolvable into continued parts or gelly. The like is observable in oyled paper, wherein the interstitial divisions being continuated by the accession of oyl, it becometh more transparent, and admits the visible rayes with less umbrosity. Or else the same is effected by rendering those bodies opacous, which were before pellucid and perspicuous.

So Glass which was before diaphanous, being by powder reduced into multiplicity of superficies, becomes an opacous body, and will not transmit the light. So it is in Crystal powdered, and so it is also before; for if it be made hot in a crucible, and presently projected upon water, it will grow dim, and abate its diaphanity; for the water entering the body, begets a division of parts, and a termination of Atoms united before unto continuity.

The ground of this Opinion might be, first the conclusions of some men from experience; for as much as Crystal is found sometimes in rocks, and in some places not much unlike the stirrious[14] or stillicidious dependencies of Ice. Which notwithstanding may happen either in places which have been forsaken or left bare by the earth, or may be petrifications, or Mineral indurations, like other gemms, proceeding from percolations of the earth disposed unto such concretions.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Red Cheshire, Red Plenty

1. T.S. Eliot ordering cheese (full passage here, incl. arguably juicier bits, quoted from the excellent Eliot chapter in The Pound Era; includes notes about "jugged hare" (I cannot abide cheese and do not usually come upon these assortments, but as of late last year I know what Kenner is talking about)):
With the side of his knife blade he commenced tapping the circumference of the cheese, rotating it, his head cocked in a listening posture. It is not possible to swear that he was listening. He then tapped the inner walls of the crater. He then dug about with the point of his knife amid the fragments contained by the crater. He then said, “Rather past its prime. I am afraid I cannot recommend it.” [...]

The Stilton vanished. After awing silence the cheese board arrived, an assortment of some half-dozen, a few of them identifiably cheeses only in context. One resembled sponge cake spattered with chocolate sauce. Another, a pockmarked toadstool-yellow, exuded green flecks. Analysis and comparison: he took up again his knife, and each of these candidates he tapped, he prodded, he sounded. At length he segregated a ruddy specimen. “That is a rather fine Red Cheshire … which you might enjoy.”
Have come to realize that "flecks" is one of my very favorite words; I attribute this to the part of my sensibility that is inherited from the fat boy in Dickens.

2. Yeats attempts to eat spaghetti, recounted by Richard Aldington (via Calista):
William Butler Yeats and his wife once dined with me at my hotel in Rapallo. Spaghetti was served, and a long thin lock of Yeats’s hair got into the corner of his mouth, while the rest of us watched in silent awe his efforts to swallow a bit of his own hair instead of the pasta. Giving up this hopeless task, in dudgeon he suddenly turned to me and said in a deep voice: ‘How do you account for Ezra?
3. Edward Gorey's literary tastes are like mine. (But it seems Zeitgeisty to like Browne -- perhaps because of Rings of Saturn? though in my case the actual stimulus was the epigraph to Styron's Lie Down in Darkness -- and Twitter has lately thrown up more links to Basil Bunting than one would expect absent a Trend of some sort...)

4. Crooked Timber is doing an event on Spufford's Red Plenty. (See here for previous local coverage.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"He also liked to lick tree sap"

On the dietary habits of the Romantic poets (really, just read the entire thing):
Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters [...] He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head. [...]

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner [...] he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

[...] Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” [...] Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating [...]
Elsewhere: Jonathon Green on gin-talk, includes revelation that "Piss quick – either from its resemblance to urine or its possible micturative effects – is gin mixed with marmalade topped up with boiling water."

Blogging has been light partly because of impending defense on Wednesday and partly because I have been warding off anxiety by taking on as much work as I can find. (I have between ten and thirteen projects "on the go" at the moment; one paper just finished and arxived...) After the defense I shall have a fairly untrammeled summer; the only pre-move travel is a trip to NYC and Princeton ca. June 9-14.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Robert Graves -- whose work I hadn't thought about in years, and never, except for Goodbye to All That, took seriously -- has been forcing himself on my attention from all sides. (I wonder, is a Graves revival in the works?) Snippets follow:

1. A marvelous piece by Graves on L'Allegro (Verdict: "[with Shakespeare] the probing cold-chisel of criticism rings against the true rock of poetry. With L’Allegro, the plaster flakes away and the rubble tumbles out." Elsewhere, he speaks of "jolly old father Zeus himself, with a thunderbolt in his fist and a grog-blossom on his nose.") I have never liked these poems, which must have something to do why I enjoyed the Graves piece so much.

(It occurs to me that I haven't made full use of the newly-free TNR archive.)

2. Geoffrey Hill, in a lecture (nominally on war poetry) that Calista sent me, has much to say about Graves. The glib summary of the first 10-15 mins of the talk is that Seven Types, and its interest in verbal tensions and ambiguities, was ultimately the fruit of Graves's interest in psychology after WW1. (I'd known, of course, about Empson picking up the idea from the Graves/Riding analysis of "the expense of spirit(s)", but Hill pushes the chronology back a decade. I'm not sure this has more than bibliographical interest, though.) Later in the lecture, Hill quotes a short and really very good Graves poem that I hadn't prev. seen:
On Portents

If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
It is almost free of Graves's signature tweeness, except possibly for "tourbillions" which I can't make up my mind on; Hill, to his credit(?), treats the word as a serious literary choice rather than a symptom. (Obviously he is really drawn to the poem by that "ever-reluctant element"; recalcitrance of any kind seems always to have had an irresistible romance for him -- his first book begins with the line, "Against the burly air I strode" -- but this is all a story for another time.)

(As a note to self, if one ever finds the elementary excitation responsible for turbulence, "tourbillion" is a good name as it sounds international and has the "-on" ending.)

3. Speaking of Graves's style, Richard Wilbur on Graves, in the relevant PR interview:
Still, it can be useful and safe to read someone like Robert Graves who, as John Holmes said, is a great starter. You read Graves and he reminds you how delightful poetry can be at its best, and what a fine game it is—and it makes you want to write a poem. Not, however, a poem by Robert Graves, but one of your own.
Symptomatic, perhaps, of his own not-unrelated tweeness, that he should say this? Elsewhere, Randall Jarrell remarks about some of the Auden poems in Nones, 'If you see such a poem, what can you say except, "Ah, Graves, poor dear Robert Graves! Inimitable, isn't he?" But how extraordinary that Auden [should have written it].' I must also confess that few things set my teeth on edge as effectively as hearing Graves read his poems.

4. And, before burying this topic, I should recall that marvelous bit in Goodbye to All That where he meets Thomas Hardy:
[Hardy] said that he regarded professional critics as parasites no less noxious than autograph hunters, and wished the world rid of them. He also wished that he had not listened to them when he was a young man; on their advice he had cut out dialect-words from his early poems, though they had no exact synonyms to fit the context. And still the critics were plaguing him. One of them recently complained of a poem of his where he had written `his shape smalled in the distance'. Now what in the world else could he have written? Hardy then laughed a little and said that once or twice recently he had looked up a word in the dictionary for fear of being again accused of coining, and had found it there right enough — only to read on and find that the sole authority quoted was himself in a half-forgotten novel! He talked of early literary influences, and said that he had none at all, for he did not come of literary stock. Then he corrected himself and said that a friend, a fellow-apprentice in the architect's office where he worked as a young man, used to lend him books. (His taste in literature was certainly most unexpected. Once when Lawrence had ventured to say something disparaging against Homer's Iliad, he protested: `Oh, but I admire the Iliad greatly. Why, it's in the Marmion class!' Lawrence could not at first believe that Hardy was not making a little joke.)