Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silent Letters

From McGuffey's Eclectic Spelling-Book, Revised Edition, 1879.

For the last few years, I have been rooting through yard sales and used bookstores for really old books—textbooks or children’s books—because I get a kick out the way their writers used language to convey their instruction. It tends toward the simple or the fanciful, as if they were really concerned about holding their young readers’ attention.

But when I opened a spelling book from 1879 to the dictation exercise shown above, using near homophones and rhymes to confound the students, it was as if I had stumbled on a precursor of a Dada poem. The repetition of sounds skips from sentence to sentence trying to force a connection that isn’t really there:

“The lamb is a dumb animal. He climbed the hill to the tomb, but his limbs became numb. Comb your hair, but do not thumb your book.”

Or is it?

As I thought about the long dead students who struggled with this assignment as the teacher read it while the class tried to write it down, I suddenly remembered my own situation back in 1975 while studying in France and going through the same motions in a French dictation lesson. It was all nonsense to me and so I wrote what I heard without regard to whether or not I was writing actual words. I can recall being utterly lost on a sea of sounds.

I have a propensity for punning. Some people think that the punster is not paying attention to the meaning of the words but rather is laying in wait until the right run of homophones presents itself before pouncing on the opportunity to twist the words inside out for a groan. But I consider it to be a constant disjuncture between what is heard and the meaning that is attached to that sound.

It’s a liability sometimes: it makes it hard to understand spoken French. But I’m willing to exchange that for hearing the music in textbooks. Dada or not.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Butch Cassity: Declensionist

Before the starring threesome in Butch Cassity and the Sundance Kid leaves for Bolivia, Butch takes the newfangled bicycle that Sundance acquired earlier and sends it, riderless, down a hill, shouting: “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.”

"Not Goin' Home Anymore" (the name of this blog) is the title of an instrumental from the Burt Bacharach soundtrack for the movie. It starts as a slow waltz played on an accordion with a solo clarinet claiming the melody. It then turns into a lilting rumba with lush strings taking up the theme before returning to the simpler, haunting instrumentation. In the movie, it signals the arrival of Butch and Sundance and Etta to their new life in Bolivia.

Butch's disgust stems from the encroachment of civilization and the end of the frontier, a setting he hopes to regain by transplanting himself to Bolivia. Declensionists believe that the world is and has been in a state of decline— dating, usually, from some time in their personal past when things were better than they are now. My father, for example, who put up heroically with my '60s rock, thought Frank Sinatra's rise was a sign that popular music was in trouble. Of course, by the time of Sinatra’s emergence at the top of the charts in 1941 my father was thirty-five. For him, Rudy VallĂ©e was fine, if a little silly. By 1968, he had lost his will to fight that battle and retreated to Dvorak and Rodgers & Hammerstein. For my poor old dad, Dylan, Janis, and Hendrix ran together, indistinguishable from the white noise of my garage band.

More to the point is the declensionist’s sense that things that once seemed permanent have somehow become unstable: buildings, businesses, institutions, truths, beliefs. Like Seasonal Affective Disorder, this response to the pressure of mortality leads to a desire to exert control over one’s domain or else succumb to its inevitable shrinking. So sure, there is a longing for the good old days, assuming the old days were really good, and not just old.

This past week, Jeanne-Claude died. She was an environmental artist and the collaborator of Christo, famous for their temporary artworks of wrapped landmarks and landscapes

A photograph of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's

"Running Fences, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76." Photo: Jeanne-Claude/ Smithsonian American Art Museum

Her obituary in the Times noted that she said her artwork in its temporality was meant to demonstrate "the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last."

In the movie, Butch fought to the end for a way of life that worked just right for him. He was willing to go far afield to remake it, but the future kept chasing him down. There was no way for him to let go and no way for the future to let up.

Don't get me started on disco.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Life is short but so is art

It’s probably the November spirit, the stripped trees exposing the vacant nests hidden all summer long, that takes me here.

Looking up at the books on my shelf, I can spot among the other thin volumes, those by poets who have fallen into disuse, like buildings for which there is no repurposing. Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker for forty years, John Nims, editor of Poetry, and others, mostly dead white male Easterners (L. E. Sissman, William Meredith, Howard Nemerov, and Karl Shapiro, for example). These poets were once at the top of their game, and it was their game. They wrote smart, cool, somewhat buttoned-down poetry, full of subtle emotions and ideas that skated over the lines like ice dust.

John Ciardi (pictured) was one of them. He was the director of Bread Loaf, poetry editor for the Saturday Review, host of a regular television segment on CBS, had another such show on NPR, was a favorite on the lecture circuit, and wrote children’s books and textbooks, compiled dictionaries and anthologies, and translated the entire Divine Comedy into a mock terza rima (axa, bxb, cxc), which lets Dante’s true terza rima resonate but allows for the meaning to be rendered into the less pliable English.

He was a large, gruff, opinionated man. He got himself in trouble for panning Ann Morrow Lindbergh's book of poems in a review and fifteen years later got himself kicked out of Bread Loaf for not keeping up with the times. Two years after his death in 1986, the University of Arkansas Press brought out a book of his love poems that were featured on a Valentine’s Day show of Bob Edwards’ Morning Edition. The book sold out within days.

Ciardi wasn’t a great poet. He was a popular poet who wrote good poems. As were many others of his generation. Subsequent generations have had and will have their good poets, poets like these whose careers will be made as impresarios like Ciardi, or gatekeepers like Moss and Nims, or prize-winners like Meredith (Yale Younger Poets, National Book Award) and Shapiro and Nemerov (Pulitzer and Bollingen). Good should be good enough.

I once was invited to dinner with a well-known contemporary poet, one who, following in Ciardi’s footsteps in many ways, had made it to the top of the Po-biz ladder, commanding princely sums for lectures, appearing regularly on television and radio. He too was translating Dante. When I asked him if he consulted Ciardi’s version, he said that he looked at it for laughs.

Perhaps that’s the right attitude to take for such an enterprise as the one he had set for himself. My preference is one exemplified by another large, gruff, opinionated poet, Yvor Winters:

To a Young Writer

Achilles Holt, Stanford, 1930

Here for a few short years

Strengthen affections; meet,

Later, the dull arrears

Of age, and be discreet.

The angry blood burns low.

Some friend of lesser mind

Discerns you not; but so

Your solitude’s defined.

Write little; do it well.

Your knowledge will be such,

At last, as to dispel

What moves you overmuch.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

First lessons in geography

In 1976, Elizabeth Bishop published a marvelous and very slim volume of poetry, titled Geography III. It contains only ten poems but of those ten are some of her most beloved, including “In the Waiting Room,” “The Moose,” “One Art,” and “Five Flights Up.”

The book has as a sort of epigraph a set of questions and answers from a nineteenth century geography textbook, First Lessons in Geography. The questions, along with the answers convey the same sort of direct and simple diction that characterize Miss Bishop’s poetry: “What is Geography? A description of the earth’s surface. What is the Earth? The planet or body on which we live. What is the shape of the Earth? Round, like a ball.” It is easy to see why she chose these passages to introduce the book.

Over the years, I’ve searched without success for this book in dank bookstores and antique store stalls. This past summer while browsing the Internet Archive, I found the book, one of the many scanned by Google. It is from the page that contains Lesson VI and asks those questions above, that I have lifted the image used in the header of my blog.

I first discovered Geography III early in 1979; later that same year, Miss Bishop died. The book has fifty numbered pages and was designed with a generous use of white space. I’m still reading in it thirty years later.