Category Archives: Literature

Let Us Now Praise Awful Poets

I’ve been camping, hence the radio silence. I wrote the following article for The Dabbler and it was published there a week ago, but I wanted to share it here as well. Enjoy, if you dare.

It is a sad truth not often recognized that the glory days of bad poetry – no less than the glory days of good poetry – are behind us. In the dewy springtime of bad verse a sorry line or a limp sonnet was received with joy. “Dalkey, you know, has written a truly rancid couplet,” you might say to a friend over coffee in 1781, and he would foam at the mouth till able to confirm it for himself. In our own benighted era, the best that Dalkey’s great-grandson can manage to elicit is a shrug or a fart.

The trouble is not that people no longer write poetry. A casual browser of blogs today may be tempted to conclude that the Internet exists primarily to facilitate the distribution of amateur verse. It’s nose-deep in the fervid free-verse emotings of approximately 1.6 billion teenage poetesses and balding, fifty-year-old beta males. But none of them is worth reading. None is sufficiently terrible, or terrible in the right way. Verse published offline suffers the same curse: none of it is especially good, but none of it is bad enough to be anything very special.

The patron saint of awful poets is William Topaz McGonagall, the “Tayside Tragedian,” born in 1825. Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures writes that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” Memory of that genius was so pungent and enduring that more than a half century after his death he inspired a bit-character on The Muppet Show. Performances of Angus McGonagle the Argoyle Gargoyle (who “gargled Gershwin”) were about as well received as the real McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a storm of rotten veggies. “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” McGonagall’s most famous poem, opens with these immortal lines:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Equally winning, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, “The Death of Prince Leopold.” A particularly moving stanza reads:

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Not all connoisseurs of bad poetry appreciate McGonagall. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, in their introduction to The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), distinguish between “bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse.” McGonagall they exclude as too clearly a producer of the former. The better bad stuff may be the off-day work of poets positively gifted. It may be grammatical and keep its meter. It is typically marked, however, by such qualities as bathos, sentimentality, and unintended humor.

So in The Stuffed Owl we are not surprised to find Wordsworth (“Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”), Henry Vaughan (“How brave a prospect is a bright backside!”), Tennyson (“He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease”), Leigh Hunt (“Not without virtues was the prince. Who is?”), and Browning (“Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”). But the work of less familiar names is no less delightful. Christopher Smart (1722-1771), for example, spent years in Bedlam and was devoted to drink and prayer without ceasing but in Book II of his long poem “The Hop-Garden” he offers this bit of sound advice:

When in the bag thy hops the rustic treads,
Let him wear heelless sandals; nor presume
Their fragrancy barefooted to defile…

Meanwhile, John Dyer (1700-1758), whose magnum opus, “The Fleece,” was heartily denounced by Dr Johnson, gives us the following iambs on lambs:

Wild rove the flocks, no burdening fleece they bear,
In fervid climes: Nature gives naught in vain.
Carmenian wool on the broad tail alone
Resplendent swells, enormous in its growth:
As the sleek ram from green to green removes,
On aiding wheels his heavy pride he draws,
And glad resigns it to the hatter’s use.

Another poet with a gift for untrod subject matter was Samuel Carter, who published a volume of verse titled Midnight Effusions in 1848. In a poem titled “London” he praises the metropolitan sewer system:

Magnificent, too, is the system of drains,
Exceeding the far-spoken wonders of old:
So lengthen’d and vast in its branches and chains,
That labyrinths pass like a tale that is told:
The sewers gigantic, like multiplied veins,
Beneath the whole city their windings unfold…

Though not included in The Stuffed Owl, it turns out that Frederic the Great of Prussia – “Der Alte Fritz,” his soldiers called him – was a backward student of the muse as well. In Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe (a history of the Seven Year’s War), we learn that “surrounded by enemies, in the jaws of destruction, hoping for little but to die in battle, this strange hero solaced himself with an exhaustless effusion of bad verse.” I’ve looked in vain for some of Old Fritz’s stuff in English translation but all I could find was a scrap of erotica (“Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts / Was found in the fond object that inflamed his parts”).

But I like this notion, in Parkman’s quote, of turning to bad poetry for solace at one’s failure to die in battle. It contains, I perceive, an accusation against our own weakling age, and a likely explanation for the decay of bad verse. Unfortunately, you see, no one nurses the ambition to die in battle anymore. Hence no one finds himself in need of solace on discovering at the end of the day that he has, yet again, failed to do so. And hence it also follows – o tempora! o mores! – that no one really gives it the old college try when it comes to writing bad poetry.

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Thomas Berger, 1924-2014

From Berger’s 1970 novel Vital Parts: “The trick of survival was to accomplish something of no utility, and so small as to be inconspicuous.” If we admit that books, like so many of the best things, have no utility, then perhaps it explains Berger’s longevity. He was a recluse and underappreciated, but Little Big Man alone (which is so much better than the film based on it) is accomplishment enough for any life, I think.

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Reading John Aubrey

In an 1852 journal entry, Henry David Thoreau describes visiting the Cambridge library and looking over an aged volume by Samuel Purchas, possibly Hakluytus Posthumus (1625). The experience of reading the book, says Thoreau, was “like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat.” This is his way of recommending something. For Thoreau, old books like Purchas’s “suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” And yet, he complained, they were “rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers.”

I’m not sure it’s true, or means very much, to say that the old books are no longer “implied by our literature and newspapers,” but there is something especially rich and peaty in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakepeare and Marlowe and Jonson, of course, are just a beginning. There are in addition the poets (too many to mention) and the philosophers, plus Burton and Browne and Traherne, and translators of genius like Philemon Holland, Thomas Urquhart, and John Florio, whose 1603 version of Montaigne T.S. Eliot considered the best work of translation in the English language.

The flavor of that golden era resurfaces here and there throughout the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth. You taste it in Swift, for example; in Walton’s The Compleat Angler; in Gilbert White; in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; in Charles Lamb; and even, I suggest, in certain writings of our own Benjamin Franklin, and in Moby Dick. By the twentieth century, however, it appears only in works of self-conscious copy-catism, like Holbrook Jackson’s pleasantly Burtonesque The Anatomy of Bibliomania or John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor.

For the best of the authentic old flavor, you must take a slice of the old books themselves. This I recently did. Visiting a favorite used bookshop, I was able, in the panicked last moments before my wife finally extracted me from the stacks, to pick out a copy of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. I had first discovered Aubrey (1626-1697), as most people do, through quotations from his work borrowed by other writers. Rose Macaulay, for example, published a wonderful commonplace book titled The Minor Pleasures of Life, which includes more quotes from Aubrey than from any other author.

The Penguin edition of Brief Lives, introduced and edited by Oliver Lawson Dick, is a mere selection from Aubrey’s original, but it still includes more than 120 of his short biographies. Aubrey’s subjects span the Elizabethan era through to the restoration of Charles II. He seems to have been related to half of the people he mentions, and many were still living when he wrote. Reading the book from cover to cover is like watching old England march by in grand procession – poets, mathematicians, peasants, doctors, divines, alchemists, soldiers, scientists, astrologers, aristocrats – while an inveterate gossipmonger whispers in your ear all their public foibles and personal shames.

Aubrey’s diction and spelling (preserved in my copy) reek gloriously of the seventeenth century. The preposterous, winning names of some of his subjects are enough in themselves to summon the era – names like Hasdras Waller, Ithamara Reginalds, Hierome Sanchy, Venetia Digby, Carlo Fantom, Wenceslas Hollar, Caisho Borough, Leoline Jenkins, and Sylvanus Scory. Aubrey’s gift for physical description and telling anecdote are unbeatable, his stories by turns poignant, superstitious, snarky, and uproariously bawdy. Every paragraph is a pleasure and a surprise.

Of a Lady Honywood, for example, Aubrey writes:

“Said she (holding a Venice-glass in her Hand), I shall as certainly be Damned, as this Glasse will be broken: And at that word, threw it hard on the Ground; and the Glasse remained sound; which gave her great comfort.”

Of John Hoskyns:

“Now when I have sayd his Inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his Memory to be excellent, for they are like two Bucketts, as one goes up, the other goes downe.”

Of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke:

“She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back’t Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.”

Of James Harrington:

“Anno Domini 1660, he was committed prisoner to the Tower; then to Portsey castle. His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gentleman of a high spirit and a hot head) was the procatractique [originating] cause of his deliration or madnesse; which was not outrageous, for he would discourse rationally enough and be very facetious company, but he grew to have a phansy that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and sometimes to Bees.”

Of Sir William Petty, when he was challenged to a duel:

“Sir William is extremely short-sighted, and being the challengee it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates for the place, a darke Cellar, and the weapon to be a great Carpenter’s Axe. This turned [his opponent’s] challenge into Ridicule, and so it came to nought.”

Of Shakespeare Aubrey reports (how reliably I don’t know) that as a young man he was briefly apprenticed to a butcher in Stratford and used to make florid speeches whenever he prepared to kill a calf. Francis Bacon Aubrey assures us was a pederast. He tells us also that William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, liked to meditate in the dark and had caves dug on his property just for this purpose.

It goes wonderfully on and on.

I don’t suppose that Aubrey’s Brief Lives is quite the sort of thing that Thoreau had in mind with his image of a rich old book like “an impassable swamp, ten feet deep in sphagnum.” He may not have approved. But where Purchas’s books may or may not have failed make a promising seedbed for future literatures to spring in, there can be little doubt, I think, that Aubrey’s did. At least I like to imagine there’s a direct line of descent from Brief Lives to the modern literature of celebrity gossip, hearsay, and personal sniping that is so ubiquitous in the tabloids and newspapers and blogosphere of the English-speaking world. No one today, however, can match Aubrey for humor, wit, and limitless antique charm.

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Reading Professor Borges

Available for the first time in English translation, Professor Borges collects a term’s worth of lectures delivered by Jorge Luis Borges in 1966 on the history of English literature. It’s a remarkable book, I think, for two quite different reasons.

It’s remarkable first of all in offering a survey of its subject that will be almost unrecognizable to most students of English literature. Fully a quarter of the course is spent on the Anglo-Saxon era of Beowulf and Co. Almost no mention at all is made of Chaucer and, in fact, seven hundred years of literary history are glibly ignored when Borges leaps directly from the Norman invasion to Samuel Johnson. Milton and Shakespeare are mentioned only in passing. After a couple lectures each for Wordsworth and Coleridge, we’re introduced to a long line of Victorians. Borges spends a really perverse amount of time on Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Robert Browning, and (of all people) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He concludes with Robert Louis Stevenson. Modernism he leaves tucked in the womb circa 1895.

Second, the book is remarkable because Borges’s style of presentation is no less idiosyncratic than his selection of texts. But there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s a style born of unabashed personal enthusiasm. Literary theory goes out the window (and good riddance) or, rather, it doesn’t so much go out the window as fail to obtain entrance to the room in the first place. Questions about the nature and function and politics of texts don’t seem to interest Borges. Rather, stories interest him. The old, blind Argentinian gets up in front of his students every day and he simply tells stories. He tells whole plots of numerous works. He quotes at length from memory. He tells about the authors’ lives, their absurd notions, unpleasant habits, and frequent misfortunes. Again and again he digresses into alleyways that are sometimes more surprising and more scenic than the view from the broad highway.

The epilogue of Professor Borges excerpts an interview which neatly sums up Borges’s personal philosophy of reading. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms,” he says. “Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost – which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness…”

Never tedious itself, Professor Borges is unrecommendable as an introduction to English literature. It is, however, a wonderful introduction to Borges as a teacher, and it offers a fascinatingly oblique view of its subject for those already possessed of a more orthodox understanding.

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The Art of Bilocation

At Winter Quarters on Antarctica’s Ross Island in 1911 you don’t always want one of the so-called great books to read before bed. Of course you’ll read whatever is handy (what else is there to do?), but what you really want, says Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, is a book that will

take you into the frivolous fripperies of modern social life which you may not know and may never wish to know, but which it is so often pleasant to read about, and never so much so as when its charms are so remote.

The best sort of reading (which may occur even when what you’re reading isn’t the best sort of book) typically induces a sense of bilocation. My son, age nine, tried to explain this to me the other day. “When I’m reading a book,” he said, “the world around me disappears and it’s like I’m really in the story in my imagination, even more than when I’m watching TV.”

We may enjoy a keener pleasure when the contrast between book and life is most pronounced. This, I’m sure, is part of what “Cherry” is getting at. We want to live two lives at once, and if those lives share too much in the way of outward circumstance, the bilocation fails. So, for example, I don’t imagine I would have enjoyed Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships quite so much, or in the same way, if I had been a professional pillager myself.

Likewise, I had put off reading The Worst Journey in the World until summer because I knew the contrast between my own gross comfort and the gross discomfort of Cherry and co. would add to the experience. Not that I find satisfaction in their sufferings, but the transport to Antarctica makes for rather effective mental air conditioning.

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Sympathetic Imagination

Sympathy, according to Dr Johnson, is “fellowfeeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affection of another.” That’s a lovely, generous definition, broader than we commonly allow the word. Today sympathy is often used as a synonym for pity, which at least in American usage has come to have a negative connotation (“I don’t want your pity!”). Empathy, a word which doesn’t appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, is sometimes employed to do the work that sympathy once covered, but it’s not as musical a word to my ear.

I think a lot about the idea of sympathetic imagination. By sympathetic imagination I simply mean the mental work of putting oneself in another person’s place, imaginatively entering someone else’s perspective. It’s the stuff of cliché (walking in another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, etc.) but without it life and art, I think, become unbearable. Exercising sympathetic imagination means withholding judgment, extending charity, allowing (either by stepping forward or by not retreating) the gap that separates us from others to close at least a little, for a least a little while.

Lack of sympathetic imagination is a prevailing flaw of our civil discourse. It’s a negative temptation for international relations. The partisanship of perspective is total. We’re not only uninterested in the way our intellectual or political opponents view things, we’re doctrinally forbidden from granting their basic premises even for the sake of argument. We don’t dare allow ourselves to believe they can have anything other than hateful, destructive intentions. This is nothing new, I’m sure, but it has consequences.

If only we could learn to be better readers.

It’s strange to reflect that sympathetic imagination can be extended to fictional persons but it can. As readers we’re asked to do it all the time. Of course it helps when the prose is pleasant and the story a good one because characters can disappoint. Not all perspectives deserve sympathy (nor all books reading) but the effort is rarely a total waste. As an exercise of sympathetic imagination the reading of a book, no less than the writing of one, becomes a moral action. How well we read books can affect how well we read people. The library is a school for sympathy.

I recently read The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s autobiographical story of the summer of 1846, which he spent in part with a band of Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills. For all his professed fascination with the “savages,” it’s remarkable how little curiosity he exhibits. He considers them occasionally amusing, physically impressive, but mostly stupid, cruel, stubborn, backward. There are a hundred questions we wish he’d asked or, if he did ask them, that he’d bothered to report the answers.

In his review of the book, Herman Melville gave Parkman some righteous chastisement for his lack of sympathetic imagination. In his own masterpiece, Melville largely avoids the pitfall. His Tashtego and Queequeg, among others, are equal possessors of earth and sea with Ishmael and Ahab. This is not to say that the things people share in common trump their differences. Quite the opposite; difference is always enlightening. But I suppose I believe, as Melville did, that human nature is one and that the accidents of culture and civilization can accrue or melt away in a mere few generations.

As Melville acknowledges after he’s put the stick away, The Oregon Trail is a wonderful book even so. It’s a rich, detailed, companionable travelogue, expertly written. Parkman has blind spots, but he still manages to see an awful lot. And though there’s less sympathy than we might have hoped for, there’s even less sentimentality. To my mind this illustrates the point I’m clumsily trying to make. Parkman’s limitations don’t let us off the hook. In enjoying the book it becomes necessary for us to exercise our sympathetic imagination, as readers, for the benefit of Parkman, who sometimes failed to exercise his own.

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Exotic/Domestic

Among the varieties of homo scribus there is a kind of author who employs exceptional language to explore subject matter which is, at least on its surface, fairly unexceptional. Examples abound and I’ll let you think of your own. In any case it’s the author’s prose and the peculiar quality of his or her reflections on familiar things that give readers their pleasure.

However, there’s another kind of author who explores exceptional themes through language which is, on its surface, unexceptional (or at least undistracting). The fireworks here are more in the subject matter and not so much in the language. In fact, the author may use an intentionally understated style to accent, by contrast, the exotic quality of his subject.

Eliot Weinberger – new to me – seems to be an author of the second sort. I almost passed over his essay collection, An Elemental Thing, despite the lovely cover. The canned praise on the back of it scared me. To believe it, Weinberger’s work is totally without precedent, the accomplishment of things yet unattempted in prose and rhyme, the sole flaw in the rule about there being nothing new under the sun.

Weinberger’s book isn’t really so unprecedented. You could point to whole armies of anthropologists and historians, among others, and maybe to Borges too. God spare us such monsters of spontaneous generation anyway. If it had been truly unprecendented I’m sure I would have hated it. (And here’s a lesson for overpraising reviewers: islands are places we like to imagine ourselves bringing a few favorite books, but a book itself makes a poor island.)

An Elemental Thing is a well-curated little museum, worth the price of admission, and Weinberger is a gifted collector. Page after page he holds up curious objects for our consideration without getting himself too much in the way: the recurring Aztec apocalypse, the tiger as symbol and victim, the mysticism of the Taoists, the levitating saints of Italy, the Mandaeans of Iraq, the heathenish folklore of the wren, the ritual life of a Chinese emperor, the Empedoclean follies.

There’s such a thing as too much exoticism, however, and Weinberger pushes a bit beyond my limit. Reflecting on it, I can’t help wondering where this immemorial western obsession with the misty, musty East comes from. Weinberger does occasionally sample from nearer to home but he spends more than half the book stepping over the fewmets of other latter-day Orientalists: Pound perhaps, and the dime-a-dozen Zen-pushers of the twentieth century.

If the West discovered the East in Alexander’s time, the East seems only to have discovered the West in the last century or so – or am I wrong? Was there ever such a thing, I wonder, as an Egyptian Herodotus? Or a Mongol Polo that sojourned among the Venetians and famously wrote it all down? Montesquieu in the Persian Letters had to invent his own Usbek.

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