More on Diana Moon Glampers, a short rant

I’ve written before about Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” and its Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. She’s the one who makes sure no one stands out as better than anyone else by assigning the appropriate handicap. This doesn’t seem so much like satire in the current environment of political correctness.

imagesI just came across a reaction by Zoë Heller to the proposition posited by Lee Siegel for The New Yorker and Isaac Fitzgerald at BuzzFeed that reviewers should only publish positive book reviews. Siegel and Fitzgerald feel we shouldn’t say anything negative about the poor authors who have worked so hard. Heller makes the case that banning “negativity” is bad for the culture and unfair to authors. I couldn’t agree more. In fact I more than agree. Continue reading “More on Diana Moon Glampers, a short rant”

Lit crit

I’ve been slowly reading through a 1992 issue of a British literary magazine called “Verse,” which Larry found amid his books. It features Donald Justice, a poet I really like. I memorized this sonnet of his, which he wrote to get into John Berryman’s seminar at Iowa. According to Larry, who told me this story, many more students than the seminar could accommodate showed up the first day. Berryman assigned a sonnet, and only a few even tried–fewer were accepted.

I like the mysteriousness of this sonnet about Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge. It plays on a story we all know, and yet makes it happen anew. I especially admire how “the first omen” is that they “can find no flaw/ in all of Eden.” We humans don’t seem to be able to bear perfection very long! And “the first omen” sounds so full of dread, followed by the dream of the lion sharpening its claw. We know what’s going to happen and this sets it up. I also like how it takes us right up to the moment of exile and leaves us in dread.

The Wall

The wall surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angels were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.
Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw
In all of Eden: this was the first omen.
The second was the dream which woke the woman.
She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw.
As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.
They had been warned of what was bound to happen.
They had been told of something called the world.
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.

Donald Justice

When I memorized this poem, I decided to switch a line, so that the poem ended “As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.”  The rhyme scheme still works that way, and I liked ending it with the sense of futility that line gives. But of course, that’s not Mr. Justice’s version, and he’s no longer around to discuss it. If he were, I’d write to him. I wonder what you think?

Meanwhile, although I admire Dana Gioia and William Logan enormously, the kind of literary criticism that appears in this volume seems beside the point (six different essays on his verse!). Either you like Donald Justice’s rather formal poetry or you don’t; discussing its format, analyzing its meter, and probing its origins doesn’t enhance my enjoyment of the poems. Au contraire. A surfeit of lit crit is one of the reasons I’m on my extended leave of absence from college.

As Larry said this morning, “If all the literary criticism in the world were to disappear overnight we would be not one whit poorer.”

You might have noticed that there hasn’t been much “Stuff Larry Sez,” lately. He was gone, then I was gone. Larry went to the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, a celebration of roots music that featured Big Jay McNeely, Lazy Lester, and many other colorful musicians. Larry is going to talk about this and give away some autographed photos on Mal Sharpe’s “Back on Basin Street” radio show on KCSM on Sunday, October 9, at 9 pm.


A pint of plain…

In the rarified intellectual world of boarding school, I arrived as a naïf in 10th grade. I was lucky to make a friend who later became a translator of Octavio Paz. He was always willing to explain a poem or a line to me. I remember clearly asking him to explain several passages of Prufrock when I first read it.  What did it mean to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”? And his answer—”That one’s so easy—it means to put on the mask you wear in public.”

He had a scathing wit, and for a few years after high school he was the secretary for our classes alumni notes section. He kept in touch with many alums, and his descriptions were not always kind. They were always fun to read, though. Unfortunately, the more sensitive of my classmates were offended, and he was asked to resign, which he did.

All of which brings me to the criticism of William Logan, whom I’ve mentioned briefly before. Most poetry criticism reads like a sanitized version of alumni notes—bland, kind, praising small achievements. The world of poetry is a small and cozy one, and few want to risk alienating their peers. But in the midst of this vapid sea of faint praise, there is an island of acerbic wit called William Logan. Though he writes and publishes verse, he seems to have no qualms about pricking the pretensions of the most lauded poets, and the poetry establishment itself. Here’s an excerpt from his 2009 review of Billy Collins’ book, Ballistics:

“When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way… Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tinned forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet. Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.”[1]

Lucille Clifton used to say “Poetry is a house of many rooms,” meaning that there is room for a wide variety of style and form. But unlike a house, whose builders need to demonstrate a minimal level of carpentry skill for the house to stand, anyone at all can claim to be a poet, whether skilled or not. Here’s where knowledgeable critics help.  William Logan, Dana Gioia, and Robert Hass have each written some wonderful prose about poetry and are all worth reading. Dana Gioia’s essay “The Successful Career of Robert Bly” in Can Poetry Matter? is one of my favorites of his work. Robert Hass’s collections of newspaper columns, Now and Then, and Poet’s Choice are both worth owning, and if you like these, you might want to go on to the more difficult Twentieth Century Pleasures.  But no one makes me laugh as reliably as William Logan, and that’s worth a lot in this world of woe.

If you’re looking for biting wit, for someone who can pierce the veil of pretentious obfuscation poets so often draw about themselves, a pint of Wm. Logan is your only man.  I’d rather be skewered by him, and have my eyes opened to what’s flabby and phony in my work than be praised by a thousand fans. But I wouldn’t have fired my friend as secretary to our class, either.

[1] From “Verse Chronicle,” The New Criterion, June 2009

Opinionated cooks

Some of the most charmingly biased writing can be found in the prose of great cooks. Here is Marcella Hazan’s aria on vegetables:

“Perhaps one day the vitality of these still-flourishing markets will be replaced by the pallor of deep-freeze counters, those cemeteries of food, where produce is sealed up in waxed boxes marked, like some tombstones, with photographs of the departed. But I hope it never happens. I would sooner be deprived of all the marvels of Michelangelo.

“The quality of Italy’s produce is matchless. Only that of France comes close…Do not waste your efforts on second-rate materials. Buy carefully, avoiding any vegetable that is wilted, badly bruised, ill assorted, tired-looking, soggy, flabby, or overgrown.  Shopping for good fresh vegetables in this country may be frustrating at times, bit that does not mean we must deliver ourselves up in thralldom to the frozen-food shelves.”

Or the final paragraph of her page-long disquisition (worth reading!) on Parmesan cheese: “The recipes in this book call for freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Do not under any circumstances use ready-grated cheese sold in jars. Even if this commercially grated cheese were of good quality, which it is not, it would have lost all its flavor long before getting to the market. It is of no interest whatever to Italian cooking.”

Here’s Julia Child on wine: “Food, like the people who eat it, can be stimulated by wine or spirits. And, as with people, it can also be spoiled…If you have not a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”

And here’s Elizabeth David on the same subject: “Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup or stew as a reckless foreign extravagance and at the same time spend pounds on bottled sauces, gravy powders, soup cubes, ketchups and artificial flavorings. (She adds a long footnote on the poisonous nature of these flavorings, which employ putrid cheese, gas tar and nitric acid.) If every kitchen contained a bottle each of red wine, white wine and inexpensive port for cooking, hundreds of store cupboards could be swept clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring…Sherry is a good addition, but should be used in cooking with the utmost discretion; it is useless to think that the addition of a large glass of poor sherry to the contents of a tin of soup is going to disguise it.”

And I love David’s short paragraph at the end of her “Batterie de Cuisine” section, after she has spent five or six pages detailing essential kitchen tools: “Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.”

If I were ever to teach writing again, I’d include excerpts from these writers along with my favorite essays of George Orwell and Adam Gopnik and some of William Logan’s biting, accurate, and fearless evisceration of contemporary poets (analysis and praise, too, when warranted). The command of grammar (Marcella Hazan, not even a native speaker, makes excellent use of the subjunctive, and Elizabeth David uses the slippery semi-colon perfectly), the passion and the richness of their prose make reading their books not only instructive but pure pleasure for those who love words as much as food.

In case you might want to create the syllabus for such a ravishing course, the selections above are from The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck; and French Country Cooking, Elizabeth David. From Orwell’s essays I’d include “How the Poor Die,” “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” “Revenge is Sour,” “Reflections on Ghandi,” and “Such, Such Were the Joys,” in addition the much anthologized (but perhaps slightly too didactic “Politics and the English Language.” Some of these are hard to find, but available in the four volume set of letters and essays, which is worth owning. My favorite Gopnik essays include “Last of the Metrozoids,” “The Rules of the Sport,” “Barney in Paris,” and “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli.” These are available in Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. You can often find William Logan’s criticism online in “The New Criterion,” as well as his books: Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue and The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin.