Tag Archives: Charles Pierre

Charles Pierre, “Urban Nomad “

 

 

Charles Pierre, ‘Urban Nomad’

 

I walk a random path through this desert
of concrete and asphalt, an urban nomad,
a caravan of one, with thick-soled shoes
and shoulder bag, who treks arid miles
where myriad people and vehicles
swirl around me like sand, in all seasons,
by day or night, while I pass unnoticed,
listening to jazz from clubs and hymns
from churches, the chatter in schoolyards
and parks, the haggle of markets
and gossip on corners, the stadium cheers
and barroom talk: each oasis of sound
refreshing my spirit as I walk by
on a lone route through trackless terrain.

 

— Charles Pierre, “Urban Nomad”

from Circle of Time: Poems (New York, Halyard Press, 2020)

posted with permission of Charles Pierre

 

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Yes, refreshes the spirit. I can relate from my own experience to what this poem describes and says so well.

Charles Pierre’s Circle of Time is “filled with poems of quiet lyricism and great economy” [back cover copy, Circle of Time].

Pierre is the author of five poetry collections. He lives in Manhattan.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

the true intellectual …

 

 

 

Something brought the following thought to the forefront of my consciousness this morning.

That the true intellectual knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

I would imagine that this is true of people in other fields — say, an actor or athlete whom everyone raves about, who knows better than anyone else what they excel at and what their weaknesses are — what they can and can’t do, so to speak.

Relatives — which is to say, people who know me well — have often accused me, unfairly, of braggadocio in my writings, in these posts.

 

 

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I was thinking this morning about intellectuals and writers I have known personally.

I became a close friend of Charles Pierre, a New York poet and author of five books of poetry, in my early days in New York. There was a meeting of minds, and there were many deep discussions. From Charlie, I learned much about poetry, and how little I knew. I also learned that some people are more well read than me. His reading was prodigious, deep, and wide in scope: poetry, classic and contemporary (I had never head of Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery); classical and modem fiction; and philosophy. There was no way I could ever match his knowledge of poetry. Or of contemporary literature, including the avant-garde and the poets who were reading their works in the bars of Manhattan at Sunday poetry readings. I had dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charlie was reading it when we were first becoming acquainted, assiduously.

He gave me a learned, extemporaneous “lecture” in one of our chats on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. He told me about his admiration for the poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (whom he was reading at the time) and how difficult it was to translate poetry. About what he thought the best translations of Dante (whom I had never read) were. About the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (whom I had never heard of) and Juvenal’s satires. About how much he admired the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran (whom I had also never heard of).

And, then there was my therapist, Ralph Colp Jr. MD. I was a history major. Dr. Colp (doctor, scholar, and writer) was a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic; his mastery and recall of the facts near total. He put me to shame. He caught me in faux pas, such as placing Frederick the Great in the wrong century.

And, yet, Dr. Colp once said to me, “There are great gaps in my knowledge,” by which he meant his knowledge in general (his book learning). He had the humility of a true intellectual.

Guess what. So do I.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 6, 2020

the great American novel hasn’t been written yet (review of “Of Time and the River”)

 

 

“the great American novel hasn’t been written yet”

review of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe

TIME Magazine

March 11, 1935

 

 

The Great American Novel has not yet been written. Herman Melville did several chapters of it, Walt Whitman some chapter headings, Henry James an appendectiform footnote. Mark Twain roughed out the comic bits, Theodore Dreiser made a prehistoric-skeleton outline, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway all contributed suggestions. Last week it began to look as if Thomas Wolfe might also be at work on this hypothetical volume. His first installment (Look Homeward, Angel) appeared five years ago, his second (Of Time and the River) last week. In the interval Author Wolfe had written some 2,000,000 words, now has ready two more volumes of his projected six. Great in conception and scope, Author Wolfe’s big book occasionally falters in execution, but his second volume is written with a surer hand than the first. If installments to come improve at such a rate there will no longer be any question about Wolfe’s great and lasting contribution to U. S. letters.

Scene, as well as subject, of course, is the U. S. Time-scheme will run from 1791 to 1933; the first two volumes cover 1884-1925, the last will go back to an earlier beginning. Readers of Look Homeward, Angel will remember its wildly sensuous account of the Gant family. In Of Time and the River Author Wolfe picks up his story, continues his method: he flays real life until the skin is off it and the blood comes. The skin-narrative can be shortly told. Eugene Gant, youngest of his family, at 19 leaves his Southern home and goes to Harvard. His father, a Jeremiah miscast, is slowly dying. In Cambridge Eugene studies hard at his playwriting course, makes many a queer acquaintance, one good friend: Starwick, a Midwestern esthete. After going home for his father’s funeral, and finishing his Harvard course, Eugene goes to Manhattan, teaches English for a while at a downtown college, then goes abroad. He gets little good out of England, finds Paris more to his taste. There he meets Starwick again, spends hard-living months with him and two U. S. girls, one of whom has left her husband for Starwick. Eugene falls in love with the other, only to find that she, too, loves Starwick. His disappointment, coupled with a suspicion that his friend is not as manly as he might be, leads to a final quarrel. The quartet breaks up, Eugene adventures for a time by himself, finally decides to go home. As he boards the liner at Cherbourg he sees a face, hears a voice, that he knows will haunt him forever. Here the book ends.

But no such bald outline can give even the superficial taste of this big (912-page) book. It contains hundreds of characters, scenes that range from harsh realism through satire and humor to passages of Joycean impressionism, Whitmanesque poetry. In form it is variously a narrative, an epic, a diatribe, a chronicle, a psalm, but in essence it is a U. S. voice. Author Wolfe’s whole theme: “Why is it we have crossed the stormy seas so many times alone, lain in a thousand alien rooms at night hearing the sounds of time, dark time, and thought until heart, brain, flesh and spirit were sick and weary with the thought of it; ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’. . . We are so lost, so lonely, so forsaken in America: immense and savage skies bend over us, and we have no door.”

Of Manhattan and its citizens he writes: “Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile. And the magical and shining air—the strange, subtle and enchanted weather, was above them, and the buried men were strewn through the earth on which they trod, and a bracelet of great tides was flashing round them, and the enfabled rock on which they swarmed swung eastward in the marches of the sun into eternity, and was masted like a ship with its terrific towers, and was flung with a lion’s port between its tides into the very maw of the infinite, all-taking ocean. . . .”

The Author. Thomas Clayton Wolfe’s career closely parallels that of his hero, Eugene Gant. Born in Asheville, N. C. in 1900, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at 19, then took an M.A. at Harvard, where he studied under the late Professor George Pierce Baker in his famed 47 Workshop. After traveling and studying in Europe he got a job as instructor in the English department at New York University. Five years ago he resigned to devote himself to his magnum opus, went to Europe again on a Guggenheim Fellowship. An omnivorous reader, he says of his hero “Within a period of ten years he read at least 20,000 volumes.” After futile searches for “a place to write,” Thomas Wolfe is at present living in Brooklyn. Says Eugene, in autobiographical disgust: ” ‘To write’—to be that most foolish, vain, and impotent of all impostors, a man who sought the whole world over ‘looking for a place to write’, when, he knew now with every naked, brutal penetration of his life ‘the place to write’ was Brooklyn, Boston, Hammersmith, or Kansas—anywhere on earth, so long as the heart, the power, the faith, the desperation, the bitter and unendurable necessity, and the naked courage were there inside him all the time.”

Big, heavyset, wild-eyed, Thomas Wolfe looks the intensely serious writer he is. In Sinclair Lewis’s belligerent speech accepting the Nobel Prize (1930) he said of Wolfe: “He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer. . . . In fact I don’t see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers.” No backscratcher, in Of Time and the River Author Wolfe replies: “A book like Main Street, which made such a stir, is like Main Street.”

 

 

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This review caught my eye. Because it gives a feeling for how Thomas Wolfe (whom I have been intending to read more of, if I can find the time) was perceived relatively early in his career.

Regarding the anonymous Time reviewer’s comment that “The Great American Novel has not yet been written” yet, I disagree that it hadn’t. Of course, Walt Whitman was not a novelist (though he wrote a couple of novels); and the review is written in the breezy style that Time was known for.

I consider it my own opinion, but come to think of it, I think that it was first expressed to me by a former friend of mine, Charles Pierre: namely, that The Great American Novel had been written long before Wolfe and Hemingway existed — by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. Charlie and I were both reading Moby-Dick at about the same time. There is no doubt on my part as to the truth of this statement.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

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“I have been passing my time very pleasurably here [at his father-in-law’s home in Boston] … chiefly in lounging on a sofa … & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”

 

— Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, February 24, 1849

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

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“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame­work”

 

— Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader. I am very engaged when I read and am anything but a passive reader. I am continually asking myself, what do I think about the thoughts expressed and the writer, and am constantly trying to “extrapolate,” in a sense, ideas and information to ruminate upon.

A book is not merely an inanimate thing waiting to be read. Reading is an experience like any other, say a personal or romantic relationship. What one gets out of a book — the experience of reading it – depends both upon what the book offers and what you, the reader, invest in it, the energy level, enthusiasm, discernment, and attentiveness of the reader.

 

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The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

 

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See also my post:

“my treasured books”

Roger W. Smith, “my treasured books”

“I don’t have to be afraid”

 

 

 

… if sleeplessness

or passiveness keeps you from the usual
go-round of night and day : take this message
and imagine it was sent to you alone

with these words: I don’t have to be afraid
of you now, since you no longer listen.
I’m tired of thinking about going on

with it all. I will never understand
why you ever needed me for anything.
These are the last words I will ever send you.

 

— Charles Pierre, “The Dark Muse” (excerpt), Green Vistas: Poems 1969-1979 (New York: Northpoint Press, 1981)

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

“I Hear America Singing”

 

 

 

R-62128

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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).

 

 

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“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

manifesto (my response to critical comments on this site)

 

 

Montaigne wrote about everything under the sun; he’s my model. Samuel Johnson in his essays did something similar. A former English teacher colleague of my wife told me once, “You could write about a doorknob and make it interesting.”

I’m a writer, not a professor, policy wonk, or doctor.

I do not pretend to expertise I don’t have or put on airs.

I write ESSAYS. I know they are consistently good and of a consistent level of excellence. If you like good writing, you will like my blog. Which is my followers keep coming back, regardless of subject matter.

I write from personal experience. MY experience. Which is exactly what Montaigne did. Which is what good writers do. If I tried to write from an omniscient stance and pose as an authority, my writing would fall flat. Any writer will give the same advice: write about what you KNOW (and have experienced).

It is not surprising that some people will not find my writing interesting or appreciate it. To appreciate it, you have to be able to appreciate good writing.

If I write about Mozart, I’m not fooling myself that I am an authority. But I think that the writing is good and interesting. That’s what matters. If someone wants a self-help piece, or to bone up on history or politics or classical music, my blog is unlikely to be of interest or value to them. Its appeal lies solely in its excellence of writing.

I do do an awful lot of background research to ensure that my pieces are factually accurate and that I have covered the material. I rarely make factual errors or wild assertions or claims. This is different from stating opinions, when it’s clear that that’s what I’m doing.

Good essay writing should have a point of view. We’re not talking about a scholarly monograph. But, when I provide facts or background material, it’s usually reliably accurate.

Some of my writing is whimsical, impressionistic, or what have you. A light piece playing with or sometimes floating an idea or trying to convey an impression or mood. This is well within the essay writing tradition.

I don’t know quite how I would compare alongside acknowledged masters. But, I am convinced that my essays are very good and worth reading mainly for the pleasure and enlightenment that can be derived from good writing.

An artist paints in his studio. A lot of what motivates him is the pleasure of painting and doing it well. Once you’ve gotten good at something, it’s a lot of fun to keep doing it. You get pleasure every time, and there’s a feeling of self-affirmation.

The artist wants his work to be exhibited … craves recognition.

The pleasure of writing well, of meeting my own standard of excellence, is its own reward. I know when I’ve done justice to a topic and met my own high standards. There’s great satisfaction in carrying it off.

A lot of my pieces probably don’t seem that substantial. But, if one looked closely, they would see the craftsmanship and how well done they are. Yet, think of all the people who buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of wine with no idea which ones are best or appreciation of what production entails.

Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets. But I know what I can and cannot do. I do not write fiction or poetry. It’s a matter of what kind of writing I am qualified or prepared to do, not whether I can or cannot write well.

I have a small, slowly growing coterie of followers. I get great satisfaction out of their positive feedback and knowing I have reached them. It speaks well for me and them that they are discerning readers who can see the person embedded in the piece as well as the words and who appreciate my range of interests and integrity.

That’s enough for me — it means so much to me — but I do crave recognition and believe I deserve it.

The best man at my wedding, Charles Pierre, is a poet who had at that time just self-published his first book of poetry. He always made it clear that, in his opinion, he was good, despite not getting recognition, for the most part. I know very little about poetry, but I read his poetry and somehow, I knew that what he claimed was true.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

 

hats

 

 

The other day, I used a cliché in conversation with a friend. I had shared an audiotape of an interesting lecture with him. “If you don’t find it interesting,” I said, “I’ll eat my hat.”

He joked that I don’t wear a hat.

“Yes,” I replied, “nobody does. Since JFK.”

 

 

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

 

 

Afterwards, I got to thinking about a remark a friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, once made to me.

In the preface to his Collected Stories (1978), the author John Cheever wrote: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat [italics added].”

Alluding to this, my friend Charlie observed that this indicates something that was true of what he called the “New Yorker writer” and New Yorker stories.

“They trade off on what you already know,” he said. “It’s a commonplace that men used to wear hats.” The implication: such stories are not really original in content; they don’t take us into new realms of consciousness, thought, or experience.

 

 

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

 

Another thought, a memory, about hats occurred to me because of my friend’s jest the other day.

When I was in the seventh grade, I rode a bike to school every day. It was freezing cold in the winter months. We lived in New England. Often, I would get to school and would be rubbing my hands at my desk; they would seem almost frostbitten. There would be tears in my eyes.

I didn’t wear gloves; nor, for the most part, did I wear a hat.

Actually, I had a knit cap. My mother would insist that I put in on every morning.

It was probably something stupid such as that I didn’t want to mess up my hair (slicked with hair tonic). That must have been the reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to comply. But I would give in and put on my hat.

When I got just past our front yard, I would take the knit cap off and stick it my back pocket.

My mother in later years would joke with me about this. She said that she would be watching me, through the kitchen window, leave for school. (She was the solicitous type — although she was not overbearing — and undoubtedly wanted to make sure I got off okay.) She said she would be amused to see me take my hat off, without fail, when I thought I was out of sight.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

Walt Whitman on Manhattan (plus my own impressions and thoughts)

 

 

MANNAHATTA.

 

I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly,
musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an
island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,
Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands,
the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the
ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses
of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the
brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds
aloft,
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-
faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and
shows,
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!

 

 

 

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

 

 

Broadway.

 

What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim
thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow stem, thee!
What curious questioning glances—glints of
love!
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal—thou arena—thou of the myriad
long-drawn lines and groups!
(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades tell
their inimitable tales);
Thy windows, rich and huge hotels—thy side-
walks wide;
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling
feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like
infinite, teeming, mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and
lesson!

 

 

 

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

 

 

addendum:

 

The following are some present day thoughts of my own occasioned by the above two poems of Walt Whitman. “Mannahatta” was Whitman’s stomping grounds during what was probably the most creative period of his life. It is my adopted city; my feelings parallel Whitman’s.

 

“Mannahatta”: Mannahatta is derived from the aboriginal name for the place, most likely meaning island of many hills. Whitman chose to sometimes call Manhattan “Mannahatta” and to call Long Island “Paumanok,” also derived from a Native American word.

 

“nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich”

The fact of Manhattan’s being surrounded by water is one of its greatest and most appealing attributes. (This is also stressed by Herman Melville in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick). The rivers and bays act as a natural counterweight to urban sprawl.

 

“hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships”

Not true anymore, for the most part. Too bad. But, Manhattan Island, being bounded on all sides by water, retains a unique appeal because of this.

 

“an island sixteen miles long”

Sixteen miles from Battery Park (the southern tip of Manhattan Island) to Spuyten Duyvil (the northern end of the island).

 

“Numberless crowded streets”

Still true. Crowded, which is a blessing. You don’t find lonely, deserted spots or forsaken places. Crowed, yes, but the crowds usually aren’t oppressive.

 

“high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”

Space is limited in Manhattan. Tall buildings reaching to the skies create a sense of awe.

 

“Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands,
the heights, the villas”

Still true. There are islands, rivers with eddies, great vistas. All can still be seen by someone who strolls along the East River, the Battery, the banks of the Hudson, or the rarely visited but wonderful stretches of parkland at the upper tip of the island.

 

“the lighters, the ferry-boats”

Ferries still run, to the delight and for the convenience of many. A lighter is a barge used in unloading or loading ships. In one of Whitman’s greatest poems, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” there is a reference to a “belated lighter.”

 

“The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses
of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets”

The small businesses are mostly gone, but there are still “river-streets.” Yet, access to the rivers is not so convenient anymore, since highways on the East and West Sides impede (but do not entirely prevent) access.

 

“Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week”

New York is still a city of immigrants, thank God. Mostly immigrants speaking, it seems, practically every imaginable tongue.

 

“The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses”

Whitman loved to ride with and become acquainted with the drivers of horse drawn omnibuses on the main thoroughfares of Manhattan.

 

“The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft”

So true, still. See photo below.

 

 

Central Park 11-36 a.m. 5-14-2017 (4).jpg

Central Park; photograph by Roger W. Smith

 

 

The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide”

Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII), also mentions ice breaking up on the Hudson: “A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …” I myself have observed this (once) during wintertime on the Hudson. The river froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

 

“The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-
faced, looking you straight in the eyes”

People in Manhattan — pedestrians passing — still look at you, often, with friendly eyes, not averting their gaze. There is a wonderful openness about them. The City fosters it.

 

 

Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway”

It is still the case that the streets are thronged, with cars, pushcarts, bicycles. I love it. It drives the city traffic engineers crazy.

Trottoir is the French word for sidewalk. Whitman, who was not well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words, on occasion, mostly French ones. He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language.

 

“the women, the shops and shows”

Manhattan is a wonderful place for shopping and window shopping. The “shows” continue to go on. And on. The women — a friend of mine, Charles Pierre, once remarked — are Manhattan’s “last great natural resource.” They range from classic beauties to exotic looking women with natural beauty of all backgrounds and races.

 

“A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men”

This is all so true. The concentration of humanity is wonderful. The people are open and friendly.

 

“City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!”

All still true, except for the “masts.” The current in the rivers is swift; they do indeed sparkle in the sunlight.

 

 

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

 

Broadway.

 

Whitman’s Broadway would have, in the mid-1850’s, meant an area of the city below 14th Street.

 

“What hurrying human tides, or day or night!”

 

“thy side-walks wide;”
“Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling
feet!”

The sidewalks in Manhattan are indeed wide and welcoming. No thoroughfare lacks them. The pedestrian is not shunted aside or forced to walk (as is the case in the suburbs) on a faux sidewalk. The sidewalks in the City are always full of trampers, day and night.

 

Note: “Broadway” was originally published in the New York Herald of April 10, 1888. “Mannahatta” exists in a couple of versions published in Leaves of Grass.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017