Monday, June 20, 2005

Prelude to a Meme

I'm grateful to Neo-Neocon for tagging me with the book meme. Grateful because such a thoughtful writer is actually aware that I exist. It's like getting a nod in the hallway from your 7th grade crush!

I was delighted, too, to meet on her list some of my favorites -- Borges, for instance. She, however, has woven her pleasure around Charlotte Brontë. Can this be one of those Mars-Venus things where we agree to disagree? As a man, I find very little that engages or attracts me in "Jane Eyre." Emily, on the other hand. Now there's a stone-cold goddess of sadistic fiction. She out-Burroughs Burroughs. I never read a more sadistic, sexual and disturbed novel than "Wuthering Heights," and Juliet Barker's excellent biography of the Brontë sisters confirms my notion that Emily was the weirdest, most fascinating woman in literature.

I've watched this book questionnaire makeg its way around the Internet. It forces me to confront a disturbing fact of my life. If you read my natural answers to these questions, you'll see my current books are in an entirely different class from my long-term important ones.

I was raised on novels -- great, sprawling books like "War and Peace," Scott, Stendhal, Joyce, Dumas, Dickens, Faulkner, "Moby Dick." I was laid up with a double hernia the summer I turned 22, and couldn't do my usual summer break job on the assembly line. I used the time to read "Two Years Before the Mast" and everything written by Joseph Conrad. It wasn't just classics, though; I read Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, too.

And poetry. Oceans and oceans of poetry. Most of it pre-1950. My friend Peter and I started out with Keats when we were 17, and from there we roamed everywhere. In college, I noticed that the literature offerings skipped right from Pope to Wordsworth, omitting 50 years. So I dug up Cowper, Collins, Gray, Swift, Kit Smart, and Goldsmith and read them and thought they were great fun. The reason for their modern unpopularity jump right off the page: strict rules and a fully developed convention. Yet that's what makes this poetry so surreal. And what does it say about poetry that, from that age that wrote such controlled verse, four of the names on my list died insane?

From that infatuation I retain whole chunks of Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" by heart, along with much of Collins and a few other pieces by Gray. And I have an old four-volume set of Cowper's letters. Cowper was the most timid, refined old-ladyish poet imaginable, yet he wrestled with a crushing depression that would have killed most of us. And out of it all he wrote the most charming, erudite, self-effacing letters to his friends. They are not great poets, but every reader is entitled to choose a few favorites from the second tier. Or, as Samuel Johnson said, "Parnassus has its flowers of transient fragrance, as well as its oaks of towering height, and laurels of eternal verdure."

Form is important in poetry. It's unfortunate that the very idea of form has become associated, in academic literary circles and somewhat in the common mind, with reactionary patriarchy. Take Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "powerful emotion recollected in solitude," or Frost's tighter version, "enthusiasm tamed by metaphor," and you see that form, or at least the awareness of it, is half of what allows poetry to be poetry. It is the magic ritual that allows us to approach the most terrifying aspects of our selves and our lives.

Form also allows you to approach important topics that might easily slip into sentimentality. Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy" is one of the most moving things I've ever read: a tightly controlled little sonnet by a father about his child who has died. Once again, the tight lacing of the form allows the power of the content. Poetry shares this with music, and one of my favorite albums is the set of standard ballads that John Coltrane's quartet cut with Johnny Hartman on vocals in 1963. Coltrane was already pushing the boundaries of tonality, and his foursome was forging a style of "hard, unfaltering attack and furiously intense, extended improvisations that bordered on free-jazz." But he deliberately chose Hartman, a smooth-baritone crooner, and came out of the studio with a breathtakingly beautiful set of sides ("Lush Life" may be the most perfect thing ever recorded) that was elegant, respectful, and not a bit sentimental. McCoy Tyner's rich piano fills and the thirteen tenor notes Coltrane blows at the end of "Lush Life" are as thrilling for their restraint as for the intensity beneath it.

Anyway, poetry. As you can see, I can still get carried away.

Such non-fiction as I read -- Bruce Catton, for instance -- had the feel of fiction. It was books by people who are obviously in love with their discipline and fairly falling over themselves to share their enthusiasm for it, like George Gamow's books on physics.

But my reading history underwent a polar shift right around the time of 9-11, and I keep waiting for it to shift back again, but it hasn't happened. I found I got restless reading any length of text -- fiction or poetry -- that didn't expand my factual knowledge. There was so much I didn't know that I needed to know. I needed to soak up more, to understand the modern world.

It wasn't entirely a casualty of 9/11. It had begun a little before that. I think more than anything it was the Internet. The first thing I looked for when I went online in the late '90s (after pictures of Alyssa Milano) were people who shared my love of literature. I spent an unfortunate week as a member of a Yahoo! club dedicated to "literary criticism," where I got to watch a couple of people expertly mock anyone who didn't toe the marxist-feminist line. Nobody seemed to have the slightest interest in literature. But how they loved to bicker about critical theories, and about what one critic said about another critic!

It made my head spin, and I said so, and I got called a pompous middle-aged male ass or something like that, and I dropped out of it, telling them I'd rather spend an hour reading Shelley than a lifetime among their ideological duels. The passion for writing and the argument about it never seem to dwell together. It was the difference between writing love letters and collecting postage stamps. The sad thing is, the bullies in that club are all professors of literature somewhere or another.

But all over the Internet, polemical debates rage like hellfires. And to navigate that landscape, you have to master great mounds of facts. After literature, my online friend and I wandered into Civil War discussions, and instantly got pinned down by withering crossfire (we were on the Southern side) that sent me scurrying for ammunition from bigger and more obscure books. Soon I had a whole shelf full of them handy (I had sold off my Civil War library after finishing my own book about it).

I still understand the importance of fiction and poetry. Believe me, I preached from that pulpit for most of my life. But that flame went out in me, and I don't know if it will ever catch again.