Sunday, March 31, 2013

For a Lady Who Must Write Verse

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Stevie Smith


I always admire a beautiful woman
And I've brought you some flowers
for your beautiful bosom.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Northumberland House

Daily Dose

From The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman


"There are people who eat earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. (Softly) Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it"

Friday, March 29, 2013

In Praise of Diversity

Daily Dose

From Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley


"I owned Waterford glass candlesticks before I had a dinner service.  I bought an antique platter when what I really needed was a decent shower curtain.  It may not be the way to save up for a solvent old age, but it makes for a cheerful journey along the road."

From A Mind of One's Own

Thursday, March 28, 2013

At the Aquarium

Daily Dose

From Physics and Politics, by Walter Bagehot


"Tolerance too is learned in discussion, and, as history shows, is only so learned."

From Chapter 5, The Age of Discussion

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Midsummer Meditations

Daily Dose

From The Major Works, by Alfred Tennyson


"I cannot love thee as I ought,
For love reflects the thing beloved;
My words are only words, and moved
Upon the topmost froth of thought."

From In Memoriam LII

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Tragic Story

Daily Dose

From Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray


"Events have occurred which have not improved his temper, and in more instances than one he has not been allowed to have his own way."

From Chapter XLII, Which Treats the Osborne Family

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Musical Instrument

Daily Dose

From Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker


"But this love would leave behind it nothing so definite as a piece of Chijimi."

From page 126, this edition

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Jungle Husband

Daily Dose

From For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri, translated by Paul Bowles


"What would life be like, I wondered , if all of it had to be spent sitting like this here in this room?  We would all have to exist only in our memories, acting out the parts we play here until we were so bored by both them and the memories that we came to rest in a silence like this one."

From Chapter 12

Saturday, March 23, 2013

But Murderous

Daily Dose

From The Nearness of You: Poems, by Carolyn Kizer


"Read a thousand books!
Consult your dreams!  Drink spirits.
Then write your poem."

From Linked Verses, for Donald Keene

Friday, March 22, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #53

Daily Dose

From The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells


"'I never blame anyone,' said Kemp.  'It's quite out of fashion.'"

From XXIII, In Drury Lane

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #103

Daily Dose

From The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, by Henry Fielding


"So, when two dogs are fighting in the streets,
With a third dog one of the two dogs meets,
With angry teeth he bites him to the bone,
And this dog smarts for what that dog has done."

From Act One, Scene Five

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #33

Daily Dose

From Italian Letters, or The History of Count de St. Julian, by William Godwin


"A heart, enamoured, rivetted to its object like mine, cannot but have intervals of solicitude and anxiety.  If it have no real subject of uncertainty and fear, it will create to itself imaginary ones."

From Letter XIV, The Count de St. Julian to Matilda della Colonna

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From One Half of Robertson Davies


"It is amazing how much we can forget, however often we are told, whereas a dirty limerick, once heard, clings to the mind like a burr."

From Insanity in Literature

Monday, March 18, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #613

Daily Dose

From I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, by Elinor Lipman


"I start with one sentence.  I write another.  A character speaks, a door opens, and I find my way in."

From No Outline? Is That Any Way to Write a Novel?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Seattle Winter Headgear: Spring Edition

Daily Dose

From Against Nature, by J. K. Huysmans, translated by Robert Baldick


"He found he was now incapable of understanding a single word of the volumes he consulted; his very eyes stopped reading, and it seemed as if his mind, gorged with literature and art, refused to absorb any more."

From Chapter VII

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #657

Daily Dose

From Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, compiled with an introduction by Stuart Y. Silverstein


Love beyond my maddest dreaming
You have sworn you'll show to me;
You will guide me to the gleaming,
Reeling heights of ecstasy.
Dizzier joy than else can reach me,
Fiercer bliss and wilder thrill,
All of this some day you'll teach me,
Y-e-e-s you will!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #1001

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Stevie Smith


The lion dishonoured bids death come,
The worm in like hap lingers on.
The lion dead, his pride no less,
The world inherits wormliness.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Quick Review

Horace Walpole A Biographical StudyHorace Walpole A Biographical Study by Lewis Melville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before even addressing the very good biography he wrote, it is worth making note of the biographer, Lewis Melville (1874 - 1932.)  I don't know much about him, but the little I do is, I think, interesting.  A perfectly respectable Englishman, meaning educated, middle-class and by date at least Victorian, Lewis Melville nonetheless made his first career on the stage.  Not, I hasten to point out, an entirely respectable choice, even so late as the glory days of Sir Henry Irving, when Melville went "on the boards."  Melville must have been pretty good, as he made his living in the theatre -- no easy task to this day -- for a number of years and, despite what I've just read online, would seem to have maintained his connection to the theatre world for the rest of his life (an assumption I feel safe in making from various references made in more than one of his books, though none that I know of is actually set in the theatrical world, other than a novel called, In the World of Mimes: A Theatrical Novel, (1902) which I admit I've never seen.)  My interest in this aspect of the writer's life has less to do with his autobiographical experience, or any attempt at seeing into his mind or personality, than a confidence that his time in the nearer Bohemia of the London playhouses gave him greater sympathy with the less buttoned-up 18th Century, about which he wrote frequently and without all the more usual, and boring reserve of his own time.  I can't know that, but it seems a fair guess.  Also, he has the actor's eye for staging and character, as well as an appreciation for gossip and the revealing anecdote whispered, as it were, backstage.  That Melville made himself, or as we would say nowadays, remade himself into a proper Man of Letters indicates his very real devotion to literature, and biography in particular.  He writes easily and well -- not always the same thing, obviously.  I've now read three of his books; this, his Life & Letters of Sterne, and his book on Thackeray.  All were charming, well organized and seemed perfectly competent as to research and veracity.  (What none of them has been is scholarly in the modern sense, thankfully.  There's no cumbersome academic apparatus beyond a serviceable index and such notes as might be necessary for sense, and no overweening theoretical agenda to be met.  Lewis Melville represents an earlier, more elegant and straightforwardly entertaining school of narrative biography.)

In Horace Walpole, biographer and subject seem well matched.  The great problem with books about Walpole generally is in how the question of "Which Walpole?" is answered. There's Walpole the parliamentarian, and son of the Prime Minister.  There's Walpole the maker of Strawberry Hill, collector, antiquarian,and champion of architectural and publishing innovation.  And there is, of course, Horace Walpole the great letter writer, perhaps the greatest of the greatest age of English letters.  I've tried to read, in whole or in parts, more than one stultifying book on one or more of these.  Melville's is the first book I've read other than Walpole's Letters that brought the little gentleman himself to life.  While touching on seemingly every aspect of Walpole's career and hobbies, Melville's life focuses on what it was that made this rather minor historical figure into one of the best remembered and most representative personalities of his age.

Melville's Walpole; curious, generous, self-deprecating, vain, and above all amusing, is the soul of wit. "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think," as Walpole himself perhaps most famously said.  While perfectly respectful of Walpole's rather stunted emotional life, Melville quite rightly indulges his own enthusiasm for what might best be encapsulated in the two words, Walpole's Brain.  There wasn't much to Horace as a specimen of either spirit or flesh, but what a fascinating Mind!  And what's more, what an almost perfect record of it he quite consciously left, primarily in his letters!  (Melville himself argues gently and convincingly that nearly every aspect of Walpole, from his house, to his press, to his enormous correspondence was both an expression of his joie de vivre and paradoxically, his loneliness.)

As both an appreciation of and a spur to reading Walpole, I can think of few books better suited to introduce the common reader to this most uncommon and fascinating figure.

Daily Dose

From Ascanio, by Alexandre Dumas


"Every pretty girl's shadow is a lover."

From Part First, 1.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem # 73

Daily Dose

From The Green Man, by Kingsley Amis


"I was uneasy too, and not just in my habitual unlocalized way."

From Chapter 1: The Red-haired Woman

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Unique Bookstore Problem #49

Daily Dose

From In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, by Katie Roiphe


"One of the offshoot pleasures of angry commenting seems to be getting angry at other commenters.  There is an element of what one might call socializing, a sort of happy hour of nastiness and sniping."

From The Angry Commenter

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From My 1980s & Other Essays, by Wayne Koestenbaum


"Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person singular pronoun.  Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it."

From My 1980s

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Quick Review

On RereadingOn Rereading by Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Here we have the professor, as it were, se déshabiller; retired, at her ease, reading. or in this case rereading now just for pleasure.  From her grandmotherly first chapter forward, she seems a lovely person; patient, affectionate, happy at the chance to share her enthusiasms and her experience, which is not inconsiderable as she's taught literature at a number of respectable institutions for 50 years.  This however is not a memoir of her classroom experience.  These aren't rewritten lectures or even scholarly essays per say.  The book is a personal examination of what might be the books on her nightstand, not a critical review of even her favorites.  Still, it seems, you can take the professor out of the classroom, but...  In sharing her childhood identification with Carroll's Alice, for example, she goes on to mention having also taught the book in the 1960s, in a Wellesly College seminar "called The Independent Woman," so that her rereading of it again as she writes this book is informed by both of those earlier experiences of Wonderland.  It shows.

And there then is the problem, at least for me.  While I applaud her ambition in undertaking this project of rereading, and particularly admire her willingness to give another go to some of the important books she'd never quite liked the first time, or the first few times around, I can't quite like the reading she makes of any of these, favourites of mine or otherwise.  It's not for want of a refreshing honesty.  She's very forthright in describing what she may have misjudged, as well as what she may have missed.  And with the exception of an unfortunate affection for using the ridiculously Biblical term "text" when all she means is book, neither her language nor her style suffers much from the usual pseudo-scientific pretensions and wilful obfuscations of academic criticism. And yet, it can't be helped.  She is the reader, and the writer her time before the chalkboards made her.  It's unfortunate.

She's quite good at explaining how and why we reread and why more often we ought.  She's even better at putting herself into that premise in quite a winning way.  The reader quickly comes to be nearly as curious as the author herself as to which book will be the better for rereading, and which won't.  The professor's is a refreshingly open mind.

What she can't do is tell a joke.  But that's not right.  What she can't do is resist explaining a joke.  I've never read anyone who managed to explain every hint of pleasure out of Pickwick, for instance, even as she explains how she finally came to appreciate the comedy of Pickwick!  it's painful to read.  (It's like watching a life-long student of dance, without a hint of rhythm demonstrating the intricacies of the Lindy Hop.)  It's not a want of warmth or of enthusiasm for her subject that undoes her here as a personal essayist, presumably it's the company she's kept all these years.  She can't seem to keep the chalk off everything she touches. 

It's regrettable.  There's someone here I rather like, doing something I like doing myself, and with exactly the books I like best, and yet I can't like this book, much as I might want to.

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Daily Dose

From The  Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin


When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Quick Review

The Complete Poems of Philip LarkinThe Complete Poems of Philip Larkin by Philip Larkin

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ever looked forward to something, something familiar, something toothsome and juicy, a steak sandwich say, only to be disappointed when it's served?  Well, here's the problem: too much bun.  Larkin's a lean poet; there's not much of him, but as Spencer Tracy famously said of Hepburn in "Pat & Mike," what there is is  "cherce."  Not lean in his person certainly, where he ran to sedentary fat, or his politics and prejudices which, as it turned out, were unappetizing, but in his poems there is no one in the last century of a cleaner cut or more savoury pleasure.  I'll drop the awkward metaphor in a moment, but first back to the bun.

The idea of a "Complete Poems" was terribly exciting for me as a regular reader of Philip Larkin.  If ever there was a poet of whom I've wanted more, this would be the one.  I've treasured the Collected Poems for years.  Imagine my disappointment then when confronted by this... object.  Other than a truly paltry smattering of unpublished stuff, mostly variants, what we have here is the Collected Poems served up on roughly four hundred additional pages of bun: notes, notes, notes, mostly abbreviations and reference to the shoe-boxes from which the drafts were plucked, and what the wretched academic editor rather grandly labels, "Commentary."  Bun.

Witness this starchy morsel on "There is snow in the sky", pulled all but at random from the mass:

"7 - 8 Cf.  Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium, 10: 'A tattered coat upon a stick'.  8 Crossed bones (with a skull) constitute the emblem on the flag (the 'Jolly Roger') flown by a pirate ship." 

Choke that down and see if you're not the better for it.

Pages and pages and yet more pages of just such helpful, glutenous blandness.  (I know I promised to drop the metaphor some time back, but it seems I can't.)

 Worse yet, there's no useable table of contents listing titles in the front, just the original book titles. The Index of Titles and First Lines, on page 707 (!) is a painful experience in and of itself -- witness the 32 lines listed most unhelpfully for The North Ship. So even in simple matters of accessibility and ease, this is entirely inferior to the earlier book.

Enough.  While I understand the potential need of such an edition for scholars, publishing this thing with all the fanfare of a new, "Complete" and final edition to presumably replace the Collected Poems was, frankly, a dodge.  This is not new anything, but an adulteration.

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Daily Dose

From Times Three: Selected Verses from Three Decades, by Phyllis McGinley


We might as well give up the fiction
That we can argue any  view.
For what in me is pure Conviction
Is simple Prejudice in you.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Quick Review

The Invisibe ManThe Invisibe Man by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It can be hard to remember just how extraordinarily good something this familiar can actually be!  I love the 1933 movie.  Watched it again just this past year.  I hadn't actually read the book since I was at most a teenager.  Then I found this hardcover copy on a display of discounted books and thought the design nice, so why not?  It evidently was reissued as part of a series of classic short novels.  (I bought copies of the lot.)   I don't know that I ever intended to reread it.  Here it was now, top of the stack, so... in for a penny, in for a pound.

What a truly masterful piece of fiction; brilliant invention, perfect logic, great suspense, comedy and even pathos.  It was the comedy of it that surprised me most.  It shouldn't have, of course.  Wells was a brilliant comic novelist.  We forget that, remembering him now primarily as the father of modern science fiction, but both aspects of his genius were perhaps never better represented than here, in this one slim book.   In the classic film, the great Claude Rains manages -- almost exclusively with his voice, mind -- to invest the character with both menace and a kind of comic mania.  The film's director, James Whale proved himself perfectly suited to reproduce the novel's thrilling mix of horror and delight in devilry, as in the unforgettable scene of the trousers dancing down the lane with no one in them.  In it's own way, Whales' film is every bit as much an exercise of invention, and likewise a masterpiece of dark comedy.  Still, there is so much the film simply could not do, so much they couldn't show that was there in the book.   (How I should miss the mob from "The Jolly Cricketer" now, for example.)  Just the specific thrill and painful vulnerability of being actually naked in the wilderness; of surviving the cold, and of peeping in on the conventional from well and truly outside, but also the depressing embarrassment of going without so much as shoes in the wide world.  It's Wells, not Whales who must have the bays for thinking through every implication of his nightmare's perfect premise.

And that is the greatest gift of rereading Wells now, of having the experience and appreciation of the novel's artful simplicity, and yes, whimsy, but also the chance to marvel at Wells' inexorable comic materialism, his entirely reasonable, even cruel working out of all the logical consequences of the universal wish fulfilled and inescapable.  

One thing the movie gets quite intentionally wrong, it seems to me now, is in suggesting, as Wells certainly never does, and as the philosophic socialist certainly never would, that the moral if any to this tale has anything to do with science presuming too much on either God or nature.  Silly business, and I suspect no fault of James Whale.  Just a convenient and reassuring bit of religious doggerel meant to sooth the credulous.  Instead, Wells dispassionately describes the likely, if sadly unforeseen consequences of an almost unimaginably brilliant insight, and dangerous discovery, but this is no inditement of scientific curiosity.  The horror here is in the loss of identity, of community, of recovery, and of ignorance and superstition and violence begetting violence.

It's a really superb satirical fantasy.  I can't think of another near as good but Twain's mechanic in Camelot, or any better in English save Swift.  And I can't think of another book, or of another novelist of 1897 likely to be so remarkably, permanently modern as this.

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Daily Dose

From Me Again: the Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith


"I also like to watch the birds, animals and children, and to think how fortunate I am they are not mine."

From What Poems are Made Of

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Quick Review

My MemoirsMy Memoirs by Alexandre Dumas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The only version in English that I've been able to locate.  One of a treasured series of Dumas' nonfiction published in English the early Sixties, it took me ages to find it.  I was disappointed to discover that this translation was  a heavily edited text of what was, after all, an unfinished work, admittedly running to multiple volumes in the original.  As with any such selection, there is always the nagging knowledge that for all there is here, there's roughly three times as much of the original that isn't.  (The only alternative to this edition is English would seem to be an arbitrary selection of stray volumes from 1907 available for reprint from Google books.  Very frustrating.)

That said, what is here is still Dumas.  What's more, ironically, this is Dumas at his most voluble; nothing like the straight-forward autobiography his American editors have tried to make of him here.  He tells stories, remembers friends, laments his father's untimely death, his mother's poverty, his own.  This is Dumas over a cognac.  This is Dumas in his slippers.  The fear I suppose was that he might bore; describing unfamiliar events, reminiscing about forgotten names, now mystifying feuds, lost triumphs.  All true, even here.  What the editor seems to have missed was the point.  That may all be true, but what of it?  There was no one in the history of fine lettres better suited to such digressions, better with a pointless anecdote, with a better memory for the arcane nonsense of publishing squabbles, backstage gossip, lazy conversations, jokes, youthful bravado, gaucheries, adventure.  Yes, even here he talks too much, but such talk!

Even here, we get the exquisite comedy of the young playwright selecting an appropriate hunting costume and sidearm in which to join the Revolution of 1830.  After a skirmish or two, and a delightful afternoon spent leading a small band of fair-weather warriors down the wrong streets, the author retires for a nap.  Think of what opera Hugo might have made of the same memories!  Think of how Balzac might have slowly recoiled in dignified horror from the chaos, the crowds, the dirt, page after page after page!  Only Dumas would think to report his desire that day for a proper dinner.

The only reason the common reader could have for even picking up such a book is for the chance at spending as much time as might be had in the company of this great and ridiculous man, this supreme and forgiving artist of the the noble and foolhardy gesture!  (How does one remember Dumas but in exclamations?!) 

Take then what there is to be had.  Dumas himself left the book unfinished.  The stories end well before he's even written the first of his great romances.  Such a pity!  Still, I'm glad of even the life he, and his American editor -- blast and damn man -- left us. 

And there's always Monte Cristo to come back to.  There will always be that, bless him.

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Daily Dose

From Complete Poems, Dorothy Parker


Travel, trouble, music, art
A kiss, a frock, a rhyme, --
I never said they feed my heart,
But still they pass my time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Quick Review

Oliver CromwellOliver Cromwell by John Buchan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Buchan was a gentleman.  Yes, yes, he was an MP, and eventually Governor General of Canada, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir PC GCMG GCVO CH, etc., etc.  Very respectable, all that, if not specially meaningful to the common American reader, such as me.  Be that as it may, as something of an anglophile and a devoted reader of English history, I can certainly appreciate a gent.  I say again, John Buchan was a gent.

The breed, so far as I know, is all but extinct -- and most ways that's probably just as well: colonialism, The British class system, fox-hunting; a mixed bag at best.  It could likewise be pretty convincingly argued that gentility, for want of a better term, did nearly as much harm as good to English literature.  (Think of Anthony Trollope on sexual "incontinence" or Kipling or Churchill on "fakirs.")  At his best though, the English gentleman of letters, or even as here the Scot, tended rather charmingly to judge mankind not as monsieur might, by the crease in his pants, but rather by his "bottom"; here suggesting gravitas, the way he sat a horse, spoke to subordinates, behaved in the company of ladies.  So it seems, the Lord Protector was a gentleman.

I might have foreseen this from reading Buchan's Julius Caesar, who even more surprisingly proved to be -- yup -- a gentleman, much otherwise misunderstood.  Say what you will about the historical accuracy of this perspective, it does make for a not unpleasant atmosphere of good humoured fair play.  Not quite the same thing as objectivity, obviously, or even even-handedness, so much as an even-tempered, even genial style, tempered by a very genuine sympathy for both subject and history. 

Here then is Cromwell as the leader of men, yes, but awfully good about horses too, you know.  Cromwell, it must be admitted, was a rather bloody conqueror of Ireland -- bad form -- but never really so bloody-minded as has been made out elsewhere.  Not really, no.  Just the one ruthless massacre, just at the start, and we have his letters home to tell us he did come to feel very bad about the slip.  And domestically, it's well worth saying, he kept more heads on shoulders than he took off, or jolly well might have done.

I'm not really being fair.  Buchan was, first and foremost, a thoroughly accomplished writer, a novelist of very real gifts.  His prose is always smooth, his curiosity and care both obvious and satisfying.  I can't fault his scholarship, which seems certainly to have well met the standard of his day and profession.  His is an eminently readable and well-made history, very much in the tradition of Macaulay and the great Victorians who so clearly influenced both his style and his outlook on life.  He's neither stuffy nor stiff, and I can't remember a book about Oliver -- as he sometimes endearingly calls this least endearing of men -- I've enjoyed reading more.

Reading this book set me to at least browsing in Carlyle's impossibly heavy edition of Cromwell's letters, and that was well worth doing too -- if abandoned immediately after concluding Buchan's history.  (If I was never quite convinced of Cromwell's basic goodness and simplicity of heart by either author, it certainly wasn't for want of effort on the part of all involved.)

How then does Buchan's Cromwell read compared to those before and since?  I'd have to say that even the serious student of the period could certainly do worse.  Here at least is a model of narrative efficiency, good humour and sympathy.  When was the last time a contemporary historian exhibited that sort of restraint and emotion, ladies and gentlemen?

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Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Stevie Smith


When the sparrow flies to the delicate branch
He seems to be a heavy one alighting there,
It is March, and the fine twigs dance
As the boisterous sparrow plungles masterfully.

Fly again tto my heart oh my beloved,
My heart flies too high when you are absent.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Light Metre

Perfectly respectable in this context, puns, visual as well as verbal, I should think.  All in good fun.  Good fun being my subject, and rather a lost art in the age of kitten videos vs shots to the balls as the standard of general amusement to hilarity for the overstimulated generation.  Not to go all grumpy at the outset, as I too enjoy the unexpected fun of watching a porcupine eating corn.  In fact, I would go so far as to say we are living in something very like the new golden age of under-two-minute-entertainment.  I begrudge us nothing in the way of the harmless goof.  (I draw the line at actual injury: boys breaking balls, boys breaking wrists in misguided skateboard-daredevilry, boys breaking necks.  I'm of a parental age, if blessedly never a parent.  Something instinctive and adult I should think, not being tickled by broken bones.  Beyond an unsympathetic incredulity at the self-inflicted injury, I can only too easily estimate the deductible on juvenile stupidity.) That said however, I do mean to bellyache a little about what passes now for wit, or better, lament the evaporation of light verse from the literary landscape.   I do this even as I mean to promote our own somewhat rearguard celebration of same, this coming month at the bookstore.  It'll be National Poetry Month.  Why not a party this year, instead of a wake?  Good fun.  Good here meaning a better class of fun, literally speaking, than reprinted entries from "I Can Has Cheezburgher?"

In fact, I'm already committed -- at least in theory --  to a whole new series of "Light Readings" this year at the bookstore.  My hope is to remind our friends and customers of the very real pleasures of letting in a little light, in lieu of just what's either "hawt," or -- deadly word -- important.  I can't say that such efforts will go very far in reviving the the light verse form -- practised now on a national stage only so far as I can tell by Calvin Trillin in the election-cycle.  I do think we might at least mark National Poetry Month this time with something funny rather than the more usual darksome samplings of the classics and or contemporary lines on, say, a walk in the spiritually charged back garden.  My plan is to book at least three or four evenings of light verse, over the course of the year.  To date, we've got Ogden Nash penciled in for August, and the aforementioned evening in April, about which more anon.

Considering the paucity of present practise, I suppose it behooves me to remind us all just here that light verse, while not entirely confined to the funny in either form or purpose, is most generally understood to be more fun, and more for fun than not.   The fun most usually coming from not just the nutty or the naughty subject, or the joke, as it were, but also from the lexical and the literary play of puns and parody, skewed rhymes, alliterations and like wit.  Terribly serious writers, from Shakespeare to Auden, have allowed for the occasional lapse into the light.  (Nothing so endears the latter to me as his pleasure in dirty limericks, for instance.  Very humanizing, that urge to giggle in the locker-room and or the faculty lounge.) There was also once, and for a long time in the tradition, a cadet branch of the Great Names; the puîné poets, those masters of the minor and makers of amusing rhymes, the bright lights of light verse.  From the anonymous scurrility of the broadsheet and street-song to the more refined nonsense of Carroll & Lear, there's always been at least a three-legged stool in the corner of the Pantheon for the comedian.  What's more, the popular press, until very recently when that became something of an oxymoron, always provided a space in which to make poetically merry.   The endless possibilities for parody provided by Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," for example, became almost as much an annual event in magazines like the New Yorker as recitations of the poem proper.  (Now that some pundits of popular culture unashamedly claim to be "post-print," what will the parodist do?  Mock "Tweets"?)

Some of the best light verse, by simply surviving, has made the jump from the merely popular to the important.  Not all, but some.  I see Dorothy Parker has gone from being just that amusing lady in the New Yorker anthologies to being, by the blurb on her latest Penguin, a woman "whose legend continues to fascinate."  Doesn't take too close a reading of her work to guess at what the lady herself might have made of that kind of puffery.  Likewise, Stevie Smith would doubtlessly have relished the idea of being darkly taught in the same classroom as the equally late Sylvia Plath.

Another accomplished lady of light verse, Phyllis McGinley, despite a Pulitzer Prize and an introduction by no less a personage than W. H. Auden for her collected poems, has on the other hand all but disappeared from the memory, save for the continued affection of a few elderly suburban matrons, I should think, and enthusiasts of the form, like me.  Great shame.  She is, need I mention?  Good fun.

One of the problems with making book events from scratch is the very real fear of parading one's personal enthusiasms down an empty street.  And why should anyone come out of an evening to hear a clutch of booksellers reading poems out loud?  The trick of it, I'm thinking, may be in reminding folks that not every such evening need be either a lecture or sermon.  As Stevie says in her poem "The Friend":

Shall we,
Trailing tired wing of happier flights,
Hemmed in by lower presents mourn past heights

Or shall we just see if there aren't some laughs in the old girls yet?  That's our thought, anyway.  So, come April 16th, at 7PM, we're going to read our way, three or more of us, through some light verse by three of it's greatest practitioners of the last century; Dorothy Parker, Phyllis McGinley and Stevie Smith, maybe throw in a song with lyrics by the great Dorothy Field, and see if we can't light it up, one more time.  See if we can move the meter.

Daily Dose

From The Province of the Heart, by Phyllis McGinley


"There is something to be said for a bad education."

From The Consolations of Illiteracy

Monday, March 4, 2013

In Praise of a Headcold

I hate a cold, and loath the fever,
and while I'd rather not have either,
I'm liking both now, I must own,
For making me a baritone.

Daily Dose

From Evelina, by Fanny Burney


"I wish the opera was every night.  It is, of all entertainments, the sweetest, and most delightful.  Some of the songs seemed to melt my very soul.  It was what they call a serious opera, as the comic first singer was ill."

From Volume One, Letter XII