But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
WB Yeats “He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”
A by-product of breathing, that mouthful of air, exhalation tracking up through the trachea, plucking the vocal c[h]ords: vowels, consonants, syllables, words, words, words. Say outloud the title of this post – “screech me a poem, sugar britches.” Dissonant, sharp, as unlovely as the scraping of a rake on gravel, echoing Juliet’s lament as Romeo vacates their marriage bed:
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Romeo and Juliet by Todd Peterson
Perhaps even more discordant is Gerard Manly Hopkins postlapsarian description of industrialization:
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Train Tracks by Valerio D’Ospina
Who sez that poetry’s supposed to sound pretty?
Not Alexander Pope:
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
Nor that barbaric yawper Walt Whitman:
Nor him in the poor house tubercled by rum and the bad disorder.
Nor Ol’ Ez in St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital ranting his way to a Bolligen Prize:
the drift of lice, teething,
and above it the mouthing of orators,
the arse-belching of preachers.
Thanks to its Anglo-Saxon roots, English is well-suited to screech. However, thanks to its French invaders, our language can also coo. And don’t forget the ess-cee (sc) words of the Vikings with their skalds singing of skulls and skies and dragons’ scales.
English-speaking poets possess quite a synthesizer through which to sample sounds, orchestrating Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French symphonically (Milton) or piping a simple Saxon tune in tetrameter (Anonymous).
Given global warmification/climatic alternation, the following worry may seem as trivial as the date of Alfred Tennyson’s death, but I wonder, given our beeping visual small screen secondhand exposure to actual sights and sounds, if off-the-cuff eloquence might become as rare as first edition Kafkas.
In my youth, among my compatriots, having a way with words held sway. I think of Jake the Snake Williams politely stringing together sonorous sentences to a Jehovah’s Witness in Richland Mall explaining why he wouldn’t take the tract, and the fellow smiling, nodding his head, and saying, “Brother, you got you an excellent rap.” Or Furman Langley lamenting in a Lowcountry gumbo of gullah-echo the legend of the Boo Hag.
The “like-like” syncopatations of youthful inarticulation and the ubiquitous interrogative lilt of their declarative sentences gives me pause?
Is it merely my morbid imagination, or has this been a dreary spring weatherwise?
Today, for example, like yesterday and the day before, a leaden sky darkens the land, muting nature’s first green. And, since nothing gold can stay, it also follows that neither can gray, that the leaden sky and dank, chilly air won’t stay around forever. Obviously, weather is constantly moving from west to east as the earth spins, so we can look forward to bright days ahead, and dark days, sickness and health, until death slams the door and the picture making machine shuts off, which doesn’t faze me one iota. As the poet sez, “I don’t remember any problems I had before I was born.”
I do remember, however, it was a bright sunny but below-freezing day when I repeated after the pastor those words “in sickness and in health” and that Judy’s, my bride’s, expression seemed beyond earnest as she stared me in the eye, looking beyond sincere, and her ardor sort of surprised me, and I felt sort of guilty, abstracted there at the altar, thinking not about the vows but about how she looked and wondering what my expression looked like. In other words, I was distracted, out of time.
The good news is that we got to enjoy thirty-nine-and-a-half earth revolutions before death did us part, and it’s almost been a year since then, eleventh-twelfths of a revolution, a quick year, eventful, often lonely but not always.
I’m sitting here at school between conferences with someone else’s advisees (their advisor’s on maternity leave), and it’s the last time I’ll ever do so (mine or all seniors, and I won’t be assigned any new ones). Even though I’m not at all adept at negotiating the byzantine grids of requirement, I am good at engaging parents in small talk, playing the Yeatsian role of sixty-year-old smiling public man (what he calls “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”). Nevertheless, I won’t miss having advisees next year, the way I might miss teaching “Among School Children.” Will I even come to school on conference day or instead practice at being retired by riding my bike to the Lost Dog for a croissant?
I find myself less and less in a hurry nowadays, and when I eventually do retire, I hope to never be in a hurry ever again. Old age can have its compensations, educated offspring, paid mortgages, free time.
So c’mon, sun, break through; match my mood. I’m done with school for today. I get to hang out with Walker Percy for the rest of the early afternoon and then look forward to whatever.
View from A Rented Cottage in County Clare, photograph by Wesley Moore III
Although I’m certain I have a drop or two of Irish blood, I’m not of the Catholic immigrant variety with distant cousins in Kerry or Donegal. Nevertheless, ever since I saw at the age of seven Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I have loved that “little green place” and its soulful inhabitants, its poetry, music, fairies and leprechauns, its abundance of foxgloves, and those mountains in the distance so vaporous it looks as if you could puncture them with your forefinger.
And, oh my god, that rainbow I encountered in 1978 outside of Limerick!
Judy Birdsong Preparing Supper in County Cork, photograph by Wesley Moore
Ireland was the first place I went abroad at twenty-five, and I have been twice again since. In the previous century, Judy, our boys, and I rented cottages, burned peat, shopped at the butchers, drank and listened to music in the pubs, climbed Ben Bulben’s back, and crawled our way up Croagh Patrick.
Ned Moore descending Croagh Patrick, photograph by Judy Birdsong
We got to know our neighbors, so hospitable. Here below are the boys helping John Joe O’Shea shear a sheep near Bantry Bay on the Berea Peninsula in County Cork.
Ned and Harrison Moore and John Joe O’Shea shearing sheep
What truly astounds me about Ireland, though, is how an island the size of South Carolina could produce so many literary masters– Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, and Heaney, to name the ones who come immediately to mind.
Despite his kooky mysticism and rightist politics, Yeats is my hero, and despite his arrogance and sometime meanness, Joyce is my hero.
Joyce, of course, had his issues with his native land. For example, Dubliners isn’t exactly what you would call a flattering portrait of that city. I’m currently on Disc 30 of the Donal Donnnelly/Miriam Healy-Louie recording of Ulysses, “Episode 16,” the so-called Eumaeus episode when Bloom and Stephen seek refuge in a cabman’s shelter after Stephen has been punched out by an English soldier.
An old tar, DB Murphy comes into the shelter and asks Stephen if he knows Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, and Stephen says, “I’ve heard of him.” The seaman answers, “He’s Irish [. . .] All Irish.” Stephen “rejoins” (to use Joyce’s dialogue prompt) “All too Irish.” As a Southerner, I can certainly identify with Stephen’s love/hate relationship with his native land.
Anyway, listening to Donnelly read Joyce’s rich broth of Anglo-Saxon and French-derived words, I have gotten the cadences stuck in my head, and to purge them, I’ve composed this negative ditty, trying to stick with only Anglo-Saxon, through which I mean not to stereotype my Irish brethren but merely to make music out of misery.
Manic Irish Reeling
Slop flung from a window above
Splatters on stone in globby plops.
Curses, fists, flung and shook,
Shuffling brogans, baleful looks.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
After toil a stop at the pub,
Reeking redbearded guzzling swabs
Fritter away their coppery coins
Picking scabs by swapping tales.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
Baggy-eyed mothers fret
Greedy sucklings at their breasts,
Keening toddlers at their feet,
Their stillborns gone, but not forgotten,
Their overripe love on the road to rotten.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
Out in the street across the way
Waifs and strays banding about.
Rail thin curs and scrawny cats.
Yelping and mewling till the sun comes up.
“With a high ro and a randy ro –
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
Over the years some have accused me of being arrogant, and when it comes to a some things, I guess it might be true, especially if you’re talking about my exquisite taste in the arts or the immense love I have of the sound of my own voice.*
And, yes, especially when it comes to choosing therapists, I’ll admit I’m as arrogant as hell.
For example, a couple of decades ago, my synapses went on the fritz. I lost about twenty pounds in three weeks, and it wasn’t the type of weight loss where people complimented you on your svelteness but wondered if you had shared a needle with the wrong Haitian. “You okay?” they’d ask.
Each afternoon, I’d come straight home from school, climb the stairs to my study where I’d lie on the floor, weep like Niobe, and listen to Peter Gabriel’s Us or the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After.
After all, if you were undergoing a dark night of the soul, what would make a better soundtrack than this:
Anyway, one evening after prying me out of fetal position with a tire iron, my wife Judy insisted I see a therapist. The thing is, because of my arrogance, I didn’t want to deal with a therapist who wasn’t extremely erudite. I didn’t care how empathetic, how many Ivy League degrees she had hanging on her office walls, if she and I couldn’t talk about the Compsons of Yoknapatawpha County or the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night or Yeats’s interest in the occult, I wanted nothing to do with her.
After all, characters from literature offer a mother lode of archetypal experience in understanding the human psyche, and by my reckoning someone interested in how the psyche works should necessarily be interested in literature. No, I wanted someone like Jung, someone older than I, someone who spoke High German, not someone who rattled off stock phrases like “I think I hear you saying” in a flat Midwestern monotone.
I longed to administer tests to prospective therapists before I chose one, something quick for them to take and me to assess, like 50 multiple choice questions.
Which of the following Faulkner characters has the mind of a three year old?
A. Vardamen Burden
B. Joe Christmas
C. Homer Barron
D. Benjie Compson
E. No clue
The first therapist I tried didn’t hack it at all. Recommended by my physician, this fellow had a mere masters in social work, which meant he couldn’t prescribe meds, so instead of shoveling serotonin jump-starters my way, he’d have me close my eyes and imagine I was flying like Peter Pan from his office to my childhood home in Summerville. The idea was I could re-experience in a new light some of the unpleasant incidents from my childhood that he considered responsible for the harrowing nightmares that visited me about 3 a.m every fucking morning.
So up and off I’d go with my bad sense of direction, flying straight over the Cooper River Bridge, then just above the steeples of the peninsula, taking 61 instead of 26, checking out the plantations on the Ashley River, noting the traffic, wondering if the cars should be an earlier model since I was ostensibly going back in time — all this while the therapist’s meter was ticking, so to speak, at $75 a half-hour.
Then he’d say it’s time to fly back before I had a chance to go get inside my childhood house, before I’d had a chance to relive some wretched Christmas Eve or stumbled-across suicide note. The house didn’t have a chimney to slide in through a la Santa, nor was I, strictly speaking, a ghost who could walk through walls, etc. I’d be on the roof trying to figure out how to get in when he’d tell me it was time to go. So I’d take off and head back, and like in real life, the trip back was always quicker than the trip there.
Once again, Judy to the rescue. I told the therapist that my wife was displeased at my lack of progress, and he immediately referred me to the Medical University where I was triaged by a woman whom I wouldn’t have minded being my therapist because she was much older than I, a bone fide psychiatrist with a pleasantly patrician foreign accent; however, she had recently moved to Charleston from Johannesburg and couldn’t practice in the US.
Anyway, I passed the triage, got assigned with a fellow who put me on Zoloft and Klonopin, and even though he and I didn’t talk about Wittgenstein or, for that matter, Raymond Chandler, we did have interesting conversations, mostly about his life, how it felt like to tell someone he had a month to live, etc., and I started sleeping through nights and feeling like my old self again, i.e, like a somewhat angry and pessimistic middle-aged man who held most of the bourgeoise in contempt.
Well, that was 21 years ago, so imagine my arrogance level now, especially when these whippersnapper parents-of-students young enough for me to have taught commence to instruct me about how I should be conducting my classes.
For example, at lunch, the other day, one of my colleagues started bitching about a parent who actually texted her after a 9th grade weekend retreat to complain that little Bartholomew or Bianca had declared the retreat was the worst trip the sweet darling had ever been on ever. My colleague texted her back photos of beaming kids looking as if they’d were being filmed in a soda pop ad.
I told her I thought that was great but added that I would have handled it somewhat differently, would have engaged in some dialogue before sending the photos.
Mom: . . . the worst trip my sweet darling has ever been on ever!
Me: You are, Mrs. X, familiar with the philosophical school of existentialism, aren’t you?
Me: You know, the movement started by Kierkegaard, embraced by Nietzsche, espoused by Sartre and Camus.
Mom: What does this have to do with anything?
Me: Well, it has a lot to do with everything. Existentialists posit that each individual perceives the world through her own unique perspective and therefore ‘reality’ is relative. Because your Portuguese water dog lacks the optical cones and rods to perceive your sweater is red, to him the sweater is gray, but your reality is no more legitimate than his, and let’s not forget you can’t hear the high frequencies that he perceives, but that doesn’t mean his reality is more legitimate than yours.
In other words, although this may have been the worst trip ever from B’s perspective, it might have been the greatest trip C has ever been on — or as Hamlet puts it, “There’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”
Therefore, I suggest you and B bond together by reading Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus. “ And in the mean time please enjoy these photos from the retreat.
Have a nice day!
Like, I say, I can be arrogant when it comes to some things, but I’d arrogantly like to think my arrogance is better than that mother’s arrogance.
* But, hey. I’m not arrogant about the things I suck at, like my inability to find my car in a parking garage or remembering the person’s name I was introduced to 30 seconds ago.
Although I didn’t know Pat Conroy well at all – maybe five close encounters (including one at our house on Folly Beach) – I was, however, privy to his condition during his last days because while Pat received treatment at MUSC, I met his daughters Megan and Jessica Sunday night for a drink downtown, and they ended up staying with us Monday night at the beach before heading back to Beaufort on Tuesday where Pat passed away.
Even though I only hung with Pat a view times, I could detect the hurt beneath his quick smile and alert eyes. Like many who have suffered bleak childhoods, he viewed life through the blackest of shades and attempted to illuminate that darkness through flashes of sardonic humor. If he hadn’t been a novelist, he could have made a fortune doing stand-up. I certainly hope somebody somewhere has recorded his story about not taking Barbra Streisand’s calls because he thought she was his pal Bernie playing a practical joke.
Pat remembered and cared about you. A year and a half ago when we were visiting Megan at his house at Fripp, Pat told me that I had a good life, that teaching English was a good life. A couple of weeks ago at his house in Beaufort, the first time I’d seen him since, he again asked me about my teaching, if I had retired. He insisted on getting up as Judy and I were leaving.
He knew he was a goner but was stoic and flashed that quick smile throughout our conversation. Monday night, Megan told me that he had said good-bye to her and her sisters at ICU, and as they were leaving in tears, he added, “Damn, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I don’t die tonight.”
Yeats wrote in his poem “Vacillation” that he tested “everything his [own] hands [had] wrought” according to whether or not it was “suited for such men as come/ Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.”
Pat Conroy was such a man.
May he rest in peace and the family he has left behind thrive.
New Criticism demanded we look at and judge a poem, play, story, or novel according to its architectonics and organic synthesis. In other words, it was the imposition of the scientific method upon the creative product, a detached analysis of how parts fit into a whole to highlight some sort of significant statement about what it means to be human. Call me hidebound, but I prefer New Criticism, which now goes by the moniker of “formalism,” to reader-response criticism, semiotics, new historicism, etc.
So I’m not much interested in Jonathan Franzen’s biography, his Midwestern roots, his literary heroes, his divorce, his love of birds and disdain for predatory house cats. I’m not interested in judging him as a human being; I am, though, interested in his art, his novels’ architectonics, character development, and entertainment value – not necessarily in that order. Even if Franzen himself in an essay on Edith Wharton claims that “a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” I’m not interested in writers’ characters or personalities; I’m interested in their books.
Why Creative Artists Frequently Hold Critics in Disdain
I’ve started to write I don’t know how many novels but only finished two, both of which were comic and featured adolescent protagonists, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the complexities of adulthood nor fear the consequences of failing at trying to create a serious work of art. Nevertheless, even in the construction of those piddly narratives, I suffered a bit in that I ended up spending hour after hour locked in the sordid little garret of my own unconscious, not a very pleasant or healthy place.
Writing a novel is hard. Faulkner, who cranked out As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks, said writing a novel is like “trying to nail together a henhouse in a hurricane.” Of course, the English form has its roots in the 18th Century and especially flourished in the 19th when middle class people needed something to do during those long, gaslit but wirelesses nights. Back then, many considered novels unhealthy, the way my father thought my reading comic books was unhealthy, the way some parents think playing video games is unhealthy. Another oft-employed metaphor in this context is junk food. Think of Paradise Lost as a banquet and Monk Lewis’s The Monk as a big bag of licorice jellybeans.
According to Marc McGurl’s The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, before James no one thought of a novel as a work of art, and, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses demonstrated not only that a novel could be a work of art, but it could also be high art. So I say J. Joyce and H. James have made the serious novelist’s work more difficult because now this genre that has its origins in entertainment and costs a lot to produce and market needs to be ideally both high art and entertaining, and when’s the last time you’ve seen someone on the subway reading a paperback edition of Absalom, Absalom?
When critics do their jobs and judge books and find them lacking, so-called creative writers sometimes mock the critics as functionaries (muse-less hacks), or worse, vampires (parasites living off of someone else’s creativity).
Not surprisingly, Yeats has expressed these sentiments as well as anybody:
Don’t get me wrong. Lorentzen’s review is in many ways brilliant and unequivocally very entertaining. The cat is a superb stylist and, as we say on Folly Beach, knows his shit. In fact, I laughed out loud in the bar where I was reading the review when I read this sentence:
Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.
However, despite his protests otherwise, you can’t help get the impression that Lorentzen really dislikes Franzen the man. I’ve added the italics:
Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.
Only 6 of the 21 paragraphs of the review deal with Purity, and given the above, it’s not surprising that Lorentzen finds the novel lacking. Its “execution is shoddier” than that of TheCorrections and Freedom, its “[b]its of sociology break the spell of a convincing present.”
Franzen in 1977
For whatever reason, lots of people seem to have it out for Franzen, people like Matt Yglesias, whose writing I dig. They tend to develop a real animus for Franzen. Do they find him smug, too contemporary, too ambitious? Was Franzen that kid in school whom everyone picked on?
All I know is that I find his novels entertaining, and I care about his characters. From The Corrections I know what having Alzheimer’s feels like, and I also know that creating realistic characters and placing them in three-dimensional spaces is really, really difficult, like, um, “nailing up a henhouse in a hurricane,” so I’m inclined to give novelists more slack.
I know, I know, creative and analytical intelligences are very different (I suspect that Mrs. Harold Bloom isn’t packing heat, even in her purse), and critics must do their jobs, but every once in a while, before they start gathering their stones, they ought to at least sit down and try to write a sonnet.