Notes on Readings, 2013
by Mark Rich
Ezra Pound's injunction that one does better reading one poem deeply than giving cursory attention to a body of poems has influenced me since I was a teenager. Even though Pound himself set a different example, at times I took his injunction as giving license to take parts to represent wholes. I indulged in the feeling that I knew bodies of literature when in fact I knew little more than their fingernail clippings or beard shavings. How gratified I felt, in 2012, discovering in Van Wyck Brooks (Opinions of Oliver Allston, 1941) his passage about a similar assumption of knowledge in his younger days. It gratified me because Brooks did, in the end, acquire a balanced historical perspective that seems near enough to comprehensive, in American literature, to dazzle. He proved one could make recovery from inadequacy.
Inadequacy must remain our given state. A single inadequacy in being tested and mended leads us to notice other inadequacies of understanding, knowledge or ability; and each of these, in turn, opens the way to noticing others. Even so, Brooks by example made it clear we can choose to face it, and to subject it to remedy.
An assumption to knowledge arises from pride: and pride never surrenders its turf entirely, in those of us in the arts. It transforms, instead. So I little doubt that I picked off remaining bits of an old pride, clinging to me like seaweed strands left over from being lost at sea for years, in order to make room for new seaweed strands.
Yet it has the look of humility, to return to basics. And it has some of the feeling.
I opened A Book of Famous Poems (1931), compiled by Marjorie Barrows for young readers, and read it to the end. I did the same with One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement (1928, revised edition), compiled by Roy J. Cook, and published by, of all entities, a piano manufacturer. I read this one forgetting the previous one's title——and forgetting, too, that at bedside I had another, much fatter book with "famous" in its title. "Famous poems" must have almost no meaning, in our age. In my earlier days, these two words would have made it quite likely that I would leave the book unopened, and quite certain that I would not read it cover to cover: "Famous poems? Why——I must know them already!" Know many of these famous poems I did——as acquaintances. Even the old, good friends among them——I had studied and written about these poems, after all——had shuffled their ways back to the level of acquaintances. Here all these famous works were appearing in a patchwork context, with no overarching organization that I could see; and here I was, bemoaning that my understanding, like these little volumes, was likewise patchwork——but gamely reading onwards exactly for that reason. That quilting word came to me when writing in my journal after reading One Hundred and One: "One of the great benefits of a hodgepodge volume of this sort is the patchwork creation of a tradition in one's mind——or the refreshing or rearranging of the patchwork that already exists in mind." In any case I felt edified at both the familiarity and newness I encountered. Reading these poems reminded me that one cannot spend too much time returning home. (The Cook compilation places Sir Walter Scott lines on cleaving to home near Byron lines on leaving home; and it strikes me now how the home-feeling and home-values gave the Romantics a grounding that enabled their flights. And the Romantics created the ground for Modern flights.)
I would like to convey the appearance these two books present——beat-up and well-read, both. The Barrows volume has its paper spine completely split, and its blue cardboard covers worn white at the edges; the brown paper covers of the Cook are ripped at top and bottom spine, with the unprotected page-corners rounded forward by repeated thumbing. I have just noticed that both once belonged to a single reader: for in neatly attractive pen, on each cover, I find "Thelma P. Paulsen." Thelma claimed these things and made them part of her home. I brought them into my own physical home after an auction, in a batch of books——and now have found myself at home within them.
Around the time I finished the Cook I was finishing Seven Famous Novels by H.G. Wells (1934). (Even the "famous novel" must rank as a threatened creature in our fractured-attention world.) Between these covers again I revisited old territory and explored new. While uncertain if I read War of the Worlds in my youth, I do believe I never opened Food of the Gods nor In the Days of the Comet, both of which display a positivism that seems strange from one who wrote so pessimistically, earlier. They also display an adroit, mature style that stands in contrast to some pell-mell rushes in his early prose.
Seven Famous Novels may have made me read more words than any other title, this year——although one or two others may have topped it. Several thick books engaged me——The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Richard Holmes, 2010), The Lunar Men: the Friends who Made the Future (Jenny Uglow, 2002), The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (Lewis Mumford, 1970), and The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain (Charles Nieder, ed., 1961). The Mumford likely takes the prize, actually, for sheer bigness——suitable to his topic and vision. Industrial histories of the United States by Carroll D. Wright (1895) and Katharine Coman (1910) felt almost as hefty——most likely because I was conscientiously attempting to ground myself in their subject and patiently working through their pages——but not engaged in the willing effort to comprehend an overall vision as with Mumford.
Grounding myself? Finding home? Or do some books become bedrock——as their slablike heft might suggest? The Romantics have a fixed place in my bicameral poetry-and-science heart. Twain seems to loom somehow over my childhood and youth——who knows how——so it tempts me to conflate bedtime tales and bedrock. (However much I read Twain, whether at bedtime or before, I leave him feeling I give him too little heed.) Mumford, now: his books peered out at me from my father's shelves, when I was a child and then in youth. Need I say more?
As another means of combined discovery and rediscovery I re-read a few books besides those several by Wells, and delved further into bodies of work where I had found the fingernail-clippings and hair-clippings to my liking in the past. So I read The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (Edmund Wilson, 1965); Days of the Phoenix and From the Shadow of the Mountain (two volumes of memoir by Van Wyck Brooks, 1957 and 1961); Fables of Identity and The Well-Tempered Critic (Northrop Frye, both 1963); and Mission of the University (José Ortega y Gasset, 1944).
Deepening the soil above the bedrock, however, came novels I truly wish I had read before, so that this year I might have enjoyed re-reading them——foremost among them To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927), Paris in the Twentieth Century (Jules Verne, 1996) and A Modern Instance (William Dean Howells, 1882). I read several classic children's novels for the first time (to my remembrance)——and found myself most highly delighted by Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883) and Little Men (Louisa May Alcott, 1871). (Dare I say I became an Alcott enthusiast ... in the same year I became a Woolf enthusiast?) One nonfiction book had an impact similar to these novels: Dream Days (Kenneth Grahame, 1898), a wonderful memoir of childhood.
I did manage to read fiction and poetry in a few fairly contemporary books and magazines——including a handful of volumes published by West Coast presses Aqueduct and Ravenna. A little treasure I particularly liked: Blinded by the Light then the Dark (Duane Ackerson, 2011). I first encountered Ackerson's poems as a teenaged small-press editor. While he has powers as a writer now that I suspect were hard-won during those intervening decades, lines from early poems became an ingrained part of my literary experience. I cannot erase them nor would wish to.
So ... grounding? Uncovering bedrock?
Opening this small book and delighting in it offered a return home: yet what matters is the newness——not the reaffirmation of the old but the affirmation that all can yet be new.
Reading from start to finish those Famous volumes, small and large, serves as an acknowledgement to myself——not acknowledging that I need to be reminded of what I once knew, but rather that I need to learn that which I have repeatedly failed to learn. The overweening pride of the assumption to knowledge has become a quieter version of itself——a quiet arrogance, if you will. I suppose we all feel quietly arrogant when emerging from books our society no longer reads.
One Hundred and One Famous Poems may become my reading-matter again in 2014, so that I may discover how inadequately I took it in, in 2013. I did read one book this year twice, with only months between readings——From the Shadow of the Mountain. I wanted to revisit Brooks's deep depression——so began re-reading the end of Days of the Phoenix; and those passages about his descent into darkness compelled me onwards again through his recovery years, in From the Shadow. It occurs to me, as a guess, that we have few memoirs of the self-making that goes into a personality——in this case a particularly well-integrated personality——partly because we belong to a society whose failings include what Frye calls the "cult of mediocre vulgarity," which reinforces and feeds into our social adoration of youth. Frye pairs the cult of mediocre vulgarity with "a lack of nobility and heroism." (My pencil slowed before I could commit "nobility and heroism" to paper, so verboten are these words.) How indeed can one notice nobility or heroism in our society when the taste for mediocre vulgarity regularly produces, in the style of factory-farm agriculture, new crops of instant cultural leaders who have no idea how they created themselves as would-be artists——as cultural icons——as stars——as success symbols? They have no idea because they did not, in fact, create themselves. Society made them. Mass society operates best when it makes its cultural leaders; whereas genuine society would not just allow but encourage and even require those who are fascinated by the arts to make themselves. Verne wrote a captivating several pages describing a character named Uncle Boutardin who is not a cultural hero but a business-and-industry leader of the 20th century, yet whose characteristics match our mass entertainers: "He was neither wicked nor good, insignificant, often ill lubricated, noisy, horribly vulgar." Verne even ventured into Ortega y Gasset territory, in terms of the making of self and the importance of self-realization: for Verne said of Boutardin that he "had made an enormous fortune, if such activity can be called making."
Verne depicts the subjugation of the arts to society throughout Paris in the Twentieth Century. Verne expressed this dread prospect, this vision, in other novels, as well——perhaps even all of them. How central a place this thematic concern commands, however, might have evaded our notice had Paris not come to light. (Vagrant thought: how Verne would have enjoyed seeing famous poems published by a piano manufacturer!) Frye noted the means whereby Verne's vision moved from likelihood to reality: "Both advertising and propaganda ... represent the conscious or unconscious pressure on a genuine society to force it into a mass society, which can only be done by debasing the arts."
Not that Frye necessarily read Verne. Such notions permeated the Modern years. Alcott in A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) offered the instant, ready-made "artist" of a sort known to us today——who in the novel is, in Ortega's terms, engaging in false behavior, which leads to complete demoralization. Howells in A Modern Instance similarly describes an intelligent individual caught in such false behavior. The subjugation of true culture by conformist mass society appears symbolically, for another instance, in Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth (1950), when emergency government officials under threat of war feel free to take over "a college, a library, or a museum."
By that time, of course, Orwell and Huxley had depicted Western culture undermining itself, in clear, condemnatory terms.
I wish to add to these notes that I do patronize one High Court of Mediocre Vulgarity, insofar as I do find ten minutes to an hour, most days, to read a little on-line. In Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords (1993) this sentence caught my eye: "There are times I think humans talk for the same reason monkeys groom." When I jotted it down in a notebook I added a thought: "This makes me think of Facebook——not negatively." I am reading so little on-line due to having so many immediately present matters to tend to, in a day——and so many books——and because I distrust so many texts on-line——and because I become so easily bored when on-line. ("Let's bore one another to death! That's our ruling principle today!"——one Verne character to another.) The boredom arises in part from a problem Frye identified, the "fallacy of the substantial idea," that underlies much writing that is colorless and rhythmless, much writing that is "designed to obliterate the sense of personality." The fallacy holds "that the idea is substantial and that the words which express the idea are incidental." To insert Ortega's terms, I would say that too much on-line writing is "slovenly," and too little is "in form." Yet Ortega makes a comment that complements Frye's fallacy of the substantial idea: "modern man, thanks to technological progress and social organization, is inclined to feel too sure of too many things about his life." Frye may well have nursed a similar thought, in speaking of "verbal automatism" and "automatic babble on ready-made subjects." We have on-line (as no doubt you yourself have observed) a great deal of gray and unfelt writing about who knows what. And who knows what Ortega or Frye, who were writing in the 1940s and 1960s, would think of our on-line world. I do believe Ortega would have reacted against the Internet's seemingly limitless content and possibilities. Limits mattered greatly, to Ortega. He believed limits to be of utmost importance, in creation——especially self-creation.
One day this past summer when walking through a sprawling flea market attached to a multi-day car show I happened to walk near two boys obviously out to find adventure together.
One said to the other, "Why did your parents make you have a time limit? Time limits are stupid."
From Ortega's point of view, one boy——not the one speaking——may have a real chance to make something of himself.
Mark Rich is the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky
(Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and
Small Beer. With partner-in-life Martha and Scottie-in-life Sam, he
lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin where an early-1900s house, a
collection of dilapidated antique furniture, and a large garden
preoccupy him with their needs. He frequently contributes essays to The New York Review of Science Fiction and The Cascadia Subduction Zone.