Category Archives: literature

Beethoven; nature

 

I was listening to the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale) conducted by Simon Rattle:

 

 

“Hirtengesänge – Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm).

Great rendition.

It made me think of music celebrating the countryside. Earlier writers and composers knew it, knew nature, in a way we no longer do.

Springtime.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Beethoven was a student of Haydn’s and was influenced by him. Below is a movement from the first part (Spring) of Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).

 

 

 

Nr. 2 – Chor des Landvolks

 

LANDVOLK

Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe, komm!
Aus ihrem Todesschlaf
Erwecke die Natur!

WEIBER UND MÄDCHEN

Er nahet sich, der holde Lenz;
Schon fühlen wir den linden Hauch, Bald lebet alles wieder auf.

MÄNNER

Frohlocket ja nicht allzufrüh!
Oft schleicht, in Nebel eingehüllt,
Der Winter wohl zurück und streut Auf Blüt’ und Keim sein starres Gift.

ALLE

Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe komm!
Auf unsere Fluren senke dich, Komm, holder Lenz, o komm!
Und weile länger nicht!

 

2. Chorus

Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
Out of her wintry grave bid drowsy nature rise.
At last the pleasing Spring is near; the softening air is full of balm.
A boundless song bursts from the groves.
As yet the year is unconfirmed, and Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
and bids his driving sleets deform the day and chill the morn.
Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
and smiling on our plains descend, while music wakes around.

 

On January 24 of this year, I saw a performance of Die Jahreszeiten by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Wesler-Möst, at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience for me and a revelation to see the work performed live, with me holding the libretto in my hands and following the words.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

book cover - Thomson, 'The Seasons'.jpg

 

 

The libretto is based on a long poem by the English poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748): The Seasons. With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution. Haydn captured this brilliantly. The libretto of Haydn’s oratorio was written by Gottfried van Swieten, who adapted Thomson’s poem for the oratorio. (van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart. He introduced both Mozart and Haydn to Handel.)

 

COME, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come;
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veiled in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend. …

And see where surly Winter passes off
Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:
His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,
The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;
While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch,
Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,
The mountains lift their green heads to the sky. …

White through the neighbouring fields the sower stalks
With measured step, and liberal throws the grain
Into the faithful bosom of the ground:
The harrow follows harsh, and shuts the scene.

— James Thomson, The Seasons, “Spring”

 

*****************************************************

 

 

A few days after the concert, I wrote in an email to a relative of mine:

In “The Creation,” you feel you are experiencing nature and the countryside as people did in 1800. You’re right there: a farmer plowing a field, dawn, a loaded cart with produce from the harvest, lovers under a tree (and the male throwing a chestnut when climbing it at the unsuspecting girl he admires as a joke), a thunderstorm, a hunt for hares, etc. Haydn is totally unpretentious, he can be funny, and the music perfectly fits the text.

Haydn is the consummate composer. He never overreaches. The music is unpretentious, yet he is a master of form.

The program notes for the performance note: “fresh feeling of innovation” … “[we] are never overpowered by the orchestrations” … “balances expression with refinement.” All of this is very true.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

page from score of Haydn's 'The Seasons'.jpg

 

 

Here is a page from Haydn’s score for the appropriate part of Die Jahreszeiten. The score, which I purchased in book form after the concert, is 309 pages long. It kind of shows graphically — for the uninitiated such as myself — what effort must be involved in composing a musical work of this magnitude.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

And, while we are talking about nature (as experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the following is a favorite Keats poem of mine. It came alive for me when I heard it out loud. I wish I could find a good recording to share.

 

 

To Autumn

By John Keats

 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Addendum:

 

 

 

 

I found a great recorded reading of Keats’s poem “To Autumn.” The reading is by Frederick Davidson. I know of no better audiobook reader.

The reading is on a CD and I can’t post it individually. The CD track is about ten minutes long. The poem “To Autumn” starts at a point 3:42 minutes into the track.

 

bad advice

 

 

“I judge a book by the impression it makes and leaves in my mind, by the feelings solely as I am no scholar.–—A story that touches and moves me, I can make others read and believe in.–—What I like is conciseness in introducing the characters, getting them upon the stage and into action as quickly as possible.–—Then I like a story of constant action, bustle and motion,–—Conversations and descriptive scenes are delightful reading when well drawn but are too often skipped by the reader who is anxious to see what they do next, and it’s folly to write what will be skipped in reading …. I like a story that starts to teach some lesson of life (and) goes steadily on increasing in interest till it culminates with the closing chapter leaving you spell bound, enchanted and exhausted with the intensity with which it is written, the lesson forcibly told, and a yearning desire to tum right back to the beginning and enjoy it over again . . .”

 

— A. K. Loring, undated letter to Louisa May Alcott

 

A. K. Loring was a well-known juvenile publisher who published the works of Horatio Alger Jr.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Poetry makes for delightful reading, but I prefer Hallmark cards. Literary fiction may be a taste for some, but I would rather read a graphic novel.

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

“dense” writing

 

 

 

By dense, I mean the word in the sense of “closely compacted in substance.” which is the first dictionary definition given.

Not dense in the sense of stupid, referring to a person.

I realize that I prefer “dense” writing. By which I mean, not necessarily turgid, but packed with descriptive details and meaning.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I tend to read slowly and deliberately. I often stop to read pages and passages over again, and to think about or study them. Sometimes I only read a page or two at a sitting.

The words are worth such effort and attention.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

The following are two examples from novels I am reading simultaneously at present.

 

 

From Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, Moods (1865, revised 1882)

 

Chapter I

IN A YEAR.

 

The room fronted the west, but a black cloud, barred with red, robbed the hour of twilight’s tranquil charm. Shadows haunted it, lurking in corners like spies set there to watch the man who stood among them mute and motionless as if himself a shadow. His eye turned often to the window with a glance both vigilant and eager, yet saw nothing but a tropical luxuriance of foliage scarcely stirred by the sultry air heavy with odors that seemed to oppress not refresh. He listened with the same intentness, yet heard only the clamor of voices, the tramp of feet, the chime of bells, the varied turmoil of a city when night is defrauded of its peace by being turned to day. He watched and waited for something; presently it came. A viewless visitant, welcomed by longing soul and body as the man, with extended arms and parted lips received the voiceless greeting of the breeze that came winging its way across the broad Atlantic, full of healthful cheer for a home-sick heart. Far out he leaned; held back the thick-leaved boughs already rustling with a grateful stir, chid the shrill bird beating its flame-colored breast against its prison bars, and drank deep draughts of the blessed wind that seemed to cool the fever of his blood and give him back the vigor he had lost.

A sudden light shone out behind him filling the room with a glow that left no shadow in it. But he did not see the change, nor hear the step that broke the hush, nor turn to meet the woman who stood waiting for a lover’s welcome. An indefinable air of sumptuous life surrounded her, and made the brilliant room a fitting frame for the figure standing there with warm-hued muslins blowing in the wind. A figure full of the affluent beauty of womanhood in its prime, bearing unmistakable marks of the polished pupil of the world in the grace that flowed through every motion, the art which taught each feature to play its part with the ease of second nature and made dress the foil to loveliness. The face was delicate and dark as a fine bronze, a low forehead set in shadowy waves of hair, eyes full of slumberous fire, and a passionate yet haughty mouth that seemed shaped alike for caresses and commands.

A moment she watched the man before her, while over her countenance passed rapid variations of pride, resentment, and tenderness. Then with a stealthy step, an assured smile, she went to him and touched his hand, saying, in a voice inured to that language which seems made for lovers’ lips–

“Only a month betrothed, and yet so cold and gloomy, Adam!”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

And from the first chapter of George Gissing’s first novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880):

 

Chapter 1

Market Night

 

Walk with me, reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation in the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this “Truce of God;” our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.

As we suddenly turn northwards out of the dim and quiet regions of Barbican, we are at first confused by the glare of lights and the hubbub of cries. Pressing through an ever-moving crowd, we find ourselves in a long and narrow street, forming, from end to end, one busy market. Besides the ordinary shops, amongst which the conspicuous fronts of the butchers’ and the grocers’ predominate, the street is lined along either pavement with rows of stalls and booths, each illuminated with flaring naphtha-lamps, the flames of which shoot up fiercely at each stronger gust of wind, filling the air around with a sickly odour, and throwing a weird light upon the multitudinous faces. Behind the lights stand men, women and children, each hallooing in every variety of intense key — from the shrillest conceivable piping to a thunderous roar, which well-nigh deafens one — the prices and the merits of their wares. The fronts of the houses, as we glance up towards the deep blackness overhead, have a decayed, filthy, often an evil, look; and here and there, on either side, is a low, yawning archway, or a passage some four feet wide, leading presumably to human habitations. Let us press through the throng to the mouth of one of these and look in, as long as the reeking odour will permit us. Straining the eyes into horrible darkness, we behold a blind alley, the unspeakable abominations of which are dimly suggested by a gas-lamp flickering at the further end. Here and there through a window glimmers a reddish light, forcing one to believe that people actually do live here; otherwise the alley is deserted, and the footstep echoes as we tread cautiously up the narrow slum. If we look up, we perceive that strong beams are fixed across between the fronts of the houses — sure sign of the rottenness which everywhere prevails. Listen! That was the shrill screaming of an infant which came from one of the nearest dens. Yes, children are born here, and men and women die. Let us devoutly hope that the deaths exceed the births.

Now back into the street, for already we have become the observed of a little group of evil-looking fellows gathered round the entrance. Let us press once more through the noisy crowd, and inspect the shops and stalls. Here is exposed for sale an astounding variety of goods. Loudest in their cries, and not the least successful in attracting customers, are the butchers, who, with knife and chopper in hand, stand bellowing in stentorian tones the virtues of their meat; now inviting purchasers with their — “Lovely, love-ly, l-ove-ly! Buy! buy — buy!” now turning to abuse each other with a foul-mouthed virulence surpassing description. See how the foolish artisan’s wife, whose face bears the evident signs of want and whose limbs shiver under her insufficient rags, lays down a little heap of shillings in return for a lump, half gristle, half bone, of questionable meat-ignorant that with half the money she might buy four times the quantity of far more healthy and sustaining food.

But now we come to luxuries. Here is a stall where lie oysters and whelks, ready stripped of their shells, offering an irresistible temptation to the miserable-looking wretches who stand around, sucking in the vinegared and peppered dainties till their stomachs are appeased, or their pockets empty. Next is a larger booth, where all manner of old linen, torn muslin, stained and faded ribbons, draggled trimming, and the like, is exposed for sale, piled up in foul and clammy heaps, which, as the slippery-tongued rogue, with a yard in his hand turns and tumbles it for the benefit of a circle of squalid and shivering women, sends forth a reek stronger than that from the basket of rotten cabbage on the next stall. How the poor wretches ogle the paltry rags, feverishly turn their money in their hands, discuss with each other in greedy whispers the cheapness or otherwise of the wares! Then we have an immense pile of old iron, which to most would appear wholly useless; but see how now and then a grimy-handed workman stops to rummage among it, and maybe finds something of use to him in his labour.

Here again, elevated on a cart, stands a vender of secondhand umbrellas, who, as he holds up the various articles of his stock and bangs them open under the street-lamps that purchasers may bear witness to their solidity, yells out a stream of talk amazing in its mixture of rude wit, coarse humour, and voluble impudence. “Here’s a humbereller!” he cries, “Look at this ’ere; now do! Fit for the Jewk o’ York, the Jewk of Cork, or any other member of the no-bility. As fo my own grace, I hassure yer, I never uses any other! Come, who says ‘alf-a-crownd for this? — No? — Why, then, two bob — one an’-a-tanner — a bob! Gone, and damned cheap too!” This man makes noise enough; but here, close behind him, is an open shop-front with a mingled array of household utensils defying description, the price chalked in large figures on each, and on a stool stands a little lad, clashing incessantly with an enormous hammer upon a tray as tall as himself, and with his piercing young voice doing his utmost to attract hearers. Next we have a stall covered with cheap and trashy ornaments, chipped glass vases of a hundred patterns, picture-frames, lamps, watch-chains, rings; things such as may tempt a few of the hard-earned coppers out of a young wife’s pocket, or induce the working lad to spend a shilling for the delight of some consumptive girl, with the result, perhaps, of leading her to seek in the brothel a relief from the slow death of the factory or the work-room. As we push along we find ourselves clung to by something or other, and, looking down, see a little girl, perhaps four years old, the very image of naked wretchedness, holding up, with shrill, pitiful appeals, a large piece of salt, for which she wants one halfpenny — no more, she assures us, than one half-penny. She clings persistently and will not be shaken off. Poor little thing; most likely failure to sell her salt will involve a brutal beating when she returns to the foul nest which she calls home. We cannot carry the salt, but we give her a copper and she runs off, delighted. Follow her, and we see with some surprise that she runs to a near eating-house, one of many we have observed. Behind the long counter stands a man and a woman, the former busy in frying flat fish over a huge fire, the latter engaged in dipping a ladle into a large vessel which steams profusely; and in front of the counter stands a row of hungry-looking people, devouring eagerly the flakes of fish and the greasy potatoes as fast as they come from the pan, whilst others are served by the woman to little basins of stewed eels from the steaming tureen. But the good people of Whitecross Street are thirsty as well as hungry, and there is no lack of gin-palaces to supply their needs. Open the door and look into one of these. Here a group are wrangling over a disputed toss or bet, here two are coming to blows, there are half-a-dozen young men and women, all half drunk, mauling each other with vile caresses; and all the time, from the lips of the youngest and the oldest, foams forth such a torrent of inanity, abomination, and horrible blasphemy which bespeaks the very depth of human — aye, or of bestial — degradation. And notice how, between these centres and the alleys into which we have peered, shoeless children, slipshod and bareheaded women, tottering old men, are constantly coming and going with cans or jugs in their hands. Well, is it not Saturday night? And how can the week’s wages be better spent than in procuring a few hours’ unconsciousness of the returning Monday.

The crowd that constantly throngs from one end of the street to the other is very miscellaneous, comprehending alike the almost naked wretch who creeps along in the hope of being able to steal a mouthful of garbage, and the respectably clad artisan and his wife, seeing how best they can lay out their money for the ensuing week. The majority are women, some carrying children in their arms, some laden with a basket full of purchases, most with no covering on their heads but the corner of a shawl.

But look at the faces! Here is a young mother with a child sucking at her bare breast, as she chaffers with a man over a pound of potatoes. Suddenly she turns away with reddened cheeks, shrinking before a vile jest which creates bursts of laughter in the by-standers. Pooh! She is evidently new in this quarter, perhaps come up of late from the country. Wait a year, and you will see her joining in the laugh at her own expense, with as much gusto as that young woman behind her, whose features, under more favourable circumstances, might have had, something of beauty, but starvation and dirt and exposure have coarsened the grain and made her teeth grin woefully between her thin lips.

Or look at the woman on the other side, who is laughing till she cries. Does not every line of her face bespeak the baseness of her nature? Cannot one even guess at the vile trade by which she keeps her limbs covered with those layers of gross fat, whilst those around her are so pinched and thin? Her cheeks hang flabbily, and her eyes twinkle with a vicious light. A deep scar marks her forehead, a memento of some recent drunken brawl. When she has laughed her fill, she turns to look after a child which is being dragged through the mud by her skirts, being scarcely yet able to walk, and, bidding it with a cuff and a curse not to leave loose of her, pushes on stoutly through the crowd.

One could find matter for hour-long observation in the infinite variety of vice and misery depicted in the faces around. It must be confessed that the majority do not seem unhappy; they jest with each other amid their squalor; they have an evident pleasure in buying and selling; they would be surprised if they knew you pitied them. And the very fact that they are unconscious of their degradation afflicts one with all the keener pity. We suffer them to become brutes in our midst, and inhabit dens which clean animals would shun, to derive their joys from sources from which a cultivated mind shrinks as from a pestilential vapour. And can we console ourselves with the reflection that they do not feel their misery?

Well, this is the Whitecross Street of today; but it is in this street rather more than twenty years ago that my story opens. There is not much difference between now and then, except that the appearance of the shops is perhaps improved, and the sanitary condition of the neighbourhood a trifle more attended to; the description, on the whole, may remain unaltered.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

The writing in these two exemplary novels speaks for itself. But, what I like about Alcott is the richness of description; the almost poetic use of descriptive details to create a mood; the combination of the natural, which is to say non-human but very much alive (i.e., nature, the ambience created by it) with the human. How description simultaneously becomes (and is cleverly made so) exposition: “… a black cloud, barred with red, robbed the hour of twilight’s tranquil charm. Shadows haunted it, lurking in corners like spies set there. … a tropical luxuriance of foliage scarcely stirred by the sultry air with odors that seemed to oppress not refresh. … An indefinable air of sumptuous life surrounded her, and made the brilliant room a fitting frame for the figure standing there. …”

In Gissing: the pains he takes and the lengths to which he will go to make us feel as if we are joining him in a walk along Whitecross Street: the richness of telling descriptive detail; the human element; the choice, selection, and skillful use of a plethora of details to make us experience fully what it was like in that place in that time, in London in the nineteenth century. How pure description strongly conveys with the author’s sure touch his impressions and feelings to us, so that it is more than an accumulation of details: “Let us press through the throng to the mouth of one of these and look in, as long as the reeking odour will permit us. Straining the eyes into horrible darkness, we behold a blind alley, the unspeakable abominations of which are dimly suggested by a gas-lamp flickering at the further end. Here and there through a window glimmers a reddish light, forcing one to believe that people actually do live here. …”

As an offhand remark, I would be inclined to say that I prefer such writers to more modern ones.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest”

 

 

 

 

index

 

dedication

 

 

I am reaching the end of the novel Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott, which I have been reading for a few weeks by fits and starts (as is often my pattern), carrying it everywhere with me.

What a revelation, and what a writer.

I won’t spoil the book for would be readers by telling too much of the plot. But, it starts out with a young woman trying to make her way in the world in often tough circumstances; then there is a sort of Pride and Prejudice style romantic angle involving multiple relationships; and, at the end, the Civil War has broken out, and this profoundly affects the lives of all the major characters.

There are many autobiographical elements in the story.

The final chapters, in which the Civil War has profoundly affected and changed all the characters’ lives, contains heart-rending scenes of wounded soldiers being treated in hospitals. Obviously, Alcott drew upon her own experience as a Civil War nurse.

Regarding these concluding chapters and scenes, one of Walt Whitman’s great Civil War poems comes to mind: “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.”

I rank it right up there with three of Whitman’s greatest poems: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown

 

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,
A route through a heavy wood with muffled steps in the darkness,
Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating,
Till after midnight glimmer upon us the lights of a dim-lighted building,
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building,
’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital
Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke,
By these, crowds, groups of forms vaguely I see on the floor, some in the pews laid down,
At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,)
I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily,)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all,
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead,
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood,
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d,
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating,
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls,
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches,
These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor,
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me,
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.

 

— Walt Whitman

 

*****************************************************

 

I am not a literary critic, but one doesn’t have to be one to appreciate Whitman fully. He didn’t write for critics.

Is there another poem that brings the Civil War home with such harrowing clarity and force? All expressed with such remarkable concision. So much expressed with an economy of words and just the right images. To say just enough (and how much!), and nothing more.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2018

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Addendum:

 

I posted the following review of Alcott’s novel on Amazon.com:

One reviewer’s comments caught my eye: “kitsch; too many good people.” This is unfair and unfounded. The book does have a Victorian quality about it, and at times verges on being overly sentimental. But it is beautifully written, and compelling. It also accurately depicts harsh realities of its time and place. Women should appreciate its insight into their concerns and the obstacles they faced then. But, bottom line (I am male), this is a brilliant novel that is worth reading for the beauty of its prose alone. I often found myself stopping to read passages over again and make note of them. Why this novel is not better known and not more widely read escapes me. It’s up there with the works of acknowledged masters.

a poem

 

 

ON BEING ASKED, WHENCE IS THE FLOWER?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool.
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted by Louisa May Alcott in her novel Work: A Story of Experience

 

 

We call this flower rhododendron.

This poem speaks to me. I was not familiar with Emerson’s poetry. My loss (up till now). I can see why Emerson is admired as a poet; I have some prior knowledge of it from his essays and can see similar qualities.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

 

 

Tom Wolfe

 

 

re:

“Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies”

By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes

The New York Times

May 15, 2018

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.

A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.

I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.

The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …

Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.

A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.

Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.

The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.

The Times obituary states:

Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.

“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.

“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”

Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 16, 2018

“I Hear America Singing”

 

 

 

R-62128

 

 

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

In the 1970’s, when I first lived in New York, I used to frequently borrow LP records from the New York Public Library. I once borrowed an LP on the Caedmon label (a pioneer in audio recordings) of the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970) reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I told my poet friend Charles Pierre, a great admirer of Whitman, whose poetry influenced the former’s own book of poetry (his first), Green Vistas, about the marvelous (as I found it to be) recording.

“Who was the reader?” he asked.

“Ed Begley,” I said.

“Ed Begley,” he answered. “Oh, he’s wonderful.”

I was wondering how he knew this (when it came to Whitman).

 

 

*****************************************************

 

“I Hear America Singing” was the first poem by Whitman – THE poem — that got me into Whitman. I had to hear it out loud, it seemed.

Listen.

I heard the poem being read (by a different reader) on an audiotape yesterday.

It is a very short poem. Notable for:

Utter simplicity. Saying just enough to convey the meaning, profoundly, without anything else (and no extraneous references or allusions, literary or otherwise). For example: “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Just that: a girl sewing or washing. Nothing more needs to be said. (Normally, we might expect to hear “sewing a new coat,” or “washing clothes.”)

Biblical cadences and parallelism: “The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;” “the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.” Giving the reader an exquisite sense of aesthetic satisfaction and of completion.

Parallelism achieved by the use of grammatical constructions — i.e., gerunds such as “sewing” or “washing.”

Repetition in the way one might hear in a nursery rhyme: “The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck”; “the day what belongs to the day.”

The use of adjectives that one might not expect in the context, adjectives that delight: “the delicious singing of the mother.”

A manner of stating things so that what seems simple and apparent has profound implications, and what is not said or left out is as important as what is said. For example: “the hatter singing as he stands.” This phrase invites us to “fill in the blanks” and envision the hatter standing at a workbench. Whitman tells only so much and invites the reader to complete the picture in his or her mind. It is a kind of addition by subtraction.

The poem itself sings.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018