"But the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it is concerned. He may be the hero or he may be an onlooker or a confidant. But he is a character. The writer who uses this device is writing fiction, and if he makes the I of his story a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a l;ittle shrewder, a little braver, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not draweing a faithful portrait of himself, but creating a character for the particular purposes of his story."
-- from the Preface, The Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham
Why do people gamble? "I think it's a biological necessity for certain types," said James J. Carrolll, so called "betting commissioner" of St Louis, who laid the odds for the Kentucky Derby and the World Series. "I think it is the quality that gives substance to their daydreams."
Quoted by the late Daniel Bell (1919-2011), in "Crime as an American Way of Life," originally in Antioch Review, Sumer 1953, reprinted inthe Spring 2011 issue of the magazine.
The first of these anecdotes comes courtesy of Paul Auster. "Paul Violi told me the funniest story I've ever heard about somebody's childhood," Auster told me.
Apparently Paul [Violi] didn't speak until he was three, going on four years old.
No one had ever heard him say a word.
Finally his mother got worried enough to take him to the doctor.
"He hasn't learned to talk," she said.
The doctor chided her. This is very serious. The boy could be in real trouble. Shame on you for waiting so long before taking him to me.
At which moment Paul uttered his very first words: "What are you, some kind of a jerk?”
Paul and I used to teach our poetry writing classes on the same night, Tuesday night, with our classes ending at the same time, 10:30 PM. Afterward we would meet at the Cafe Loup on West 13th Street, where a lot of our students, former students, friends and colleagues would also congregate. We used to drink. . .seltzer. A lot of . . .seltzer. And then he drove back to Putnam County. I didn’t even realize until yesterday, when we drove up the Taconic to Peekskill Hollow Road, where we attended a memorial service for Paul, that this was a fifty-mile journey. I just had to walk a few blocks to get home. Paul had to take the Henry Hudson to the Saw Mill River to the Taconic in the dark. Well, at least there as no traffic.
I remember once chatting with a friend at the bar, Matthew Yeager, who suddenly bade me turn around. Here is how Matthew recollected the incident in an e-mail:
I have been thinking about Paul a lot. In my final image of him, he is at the center of a throng of worshipful students at Cafe Loup, all of whom happened to be female. Do you remember that night? We were talking to each other, on stools. Ten feet away, Paul Violi looked like a painting of Plato in his prime, if Plato had taught women. He was glowing like a champion woman's basketball coach (whose team of also happened to be inexplicably good looking).... It is sad that he is gone.
(Ed note: If you have an anecdote about Paul, please post it here. sdh)
A vain woman realizes that vanity is a sin, and in order not to succumb to temptation, has all the mirrors removed from her house. Consequently, in a short while she canot remember what she is like. She remembers that vanity is a sin, but she forgets that she is vain.
-- W. H. Auden, "Lecture Notes" (in Commonweal 6 Nov 1942)
Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: "Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up, For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please."
And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
-- W. H. Auden, "Lecture Notes" (6 November 1942)
Note: Multiply the bill by ten for 2012 dollars. The devil count remains the same. -- DL
“A parlor game for a wet afternoon — imagining the mirrors of one's friends. A has a huge pier glass, gilded and baroque, B a discreet little pocket mirror in a pigskin case with his initials stamped on the back; whenever on looks at C, he is in the act of throwing his mirror away but, if one looks in his pocket or up his sleeve, one always finds another, like an extra ace.
“Most, perhaps all, our mirrors are inaccurate and uncomplimentary, though to varying degrees and in various ways. Some magnify, some diminish, others, whatever their owner does, will only return lugubrious, comic, derisive, or terrifying images.
“But the properties of our own particular mirror are not so important as we sometimes like to think. We shall be judged, not by the kind of mirror found on us, but by the use we have made of it, by our riposte to our reflection.”
Note: In “Lecture Notes,” in Commonweal, 6 November 1942, Auden begins this sequence of reflections with the sentence: “Every child, as he wakes into life, finds a mirror underneath his pillow.” -- DL
"If I insist that my work be rewarding, that it mustn't be tedious or monotonous, I'm in trouble. . . . Time after time it fails to become so. So I get more agitated about it, I fight with people about it, I make more demands about it. . . . It's ridiculous to demand that work always be pleasurable, because work is not necessarily pleasing; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. If we're detached and simply pick up the job we have to do and go ahead and do it, it's usually fairly satisfying. Even jobs that are repugnant or dull or tedious tend to be quite satisfying, once we get right down to doing them. . . . One of the routine jobs I get every once in a while comes from putting out a little magazine. You to sort the pages. It's a simple, routine, mechanical sort of job. . . . I never realized that this would be one of the most satisfying parts of the whole thing, just standing there sorting pages. This happens when we just do what we have to do."
-- Thomas Merton "The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani"
I heartily recommend Mary McCarthy's "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man," one of the stories in The Company She Keeps. It's not nearly as well known as her "Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt," buit it is excellent in just the same way. Here's a little taste. -- DL
The inconsistencies he found whenever he examined his own thoughts troubled him a good deal. He found, for example, that he liked to drink and dance and go to medium-smart night clubs with medium-pretty girls. Yet he believed with Veblen that there was no greater folly than conspicuous consumption, and his eyes and ears told him that people were hungry while he had money in his pocket..This was a problem all well-to-do radicals had to face, and there were any number of ways of dealng wth it. You could stop being a radical, or you could give your money away. Or you could give a little of it away and say, "I owe something to myself," or give none of it away and say, "I'm not a saint, and besides I have something more important than money to contribute."
"I came some time ago to think of despair and victimization as being at the service of the ruling class and the whole social edifice. it is the way in which imagination and intelligence eliminate themselves from the contest for power." -- Saul Bellow
Allan Bloom on the Bellow reality principle: "He has always understood that even if you are on your way from becoming to Being, you still have to catch the train at Randolph Street."
from Saul Bellow's letters (ed. Benjamin Taylor)
Here's Saul Bellow's take -- from a letter to Alfred Kazin:"The first criterion is enjoyment, and so are the second and third criteria."
Bellow to the young Philip Roth: "I knew when I hit Chicago. . .and read your stories that you were the real thing. When iw as a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I've never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil."
From Bryan Garner, ed, Garner's Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press):
The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a "rule" at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.
Winston Churchill's witticism about the absurdity of this bugaboo should have laid it to rest. When someone once upbraided him for ending a sentence with a preposition, he rejoined, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put." Avoiding a preposition at the end of the sentence sometimes leads to just such a preposterous monstrosity.
"Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you're picking up the pieces."
Saul Bellow, Letters.
"The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately."
-- Robert Warshow (The Immediate Experience)
You've heard of the Sewanee Review, everyone has, well maybe not everyone but certainly most English majors of a certain vintage are aware of that magazine's glorious history, it existed when there were very few others, the Kenyon, the Hudson, and of course the Partisan, back when the world was round, criticism was "new" if not new, the Iron Curtain preceded the Berlin Wall and we wore Davy Crockett coonskin caps watching the Yankees win the World Series.
Well, the Sewanee Review is still going strong. I just read some terrific poems there by the late Turner Cassity and an affecting reminiscence of the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose book The Last days of Hitler, published in 1947, is as good a work of historical reporting (if that's not an oxymoron) as I have ever read. Trevor-Roper worked for British intelligence during the war and was up front at the bunker in Berlin after Germany capitulated in May 1945. His account of the Fueher is unforgettable. "His whole body was trembling. His hand was shaking, his leg was shaking, and his head was shaking. and all that he kept saying was 'Shoot them all!'"
There is a second magazine associated with Sewanee, the Sewanee Theological Review, and the name doesn't lie. You find therein what you would expect to find therein -- except that the poems published in each issue are of exceptionally high quality due to the taste and judgment of poetry editor Greg Williamson (left). Twice in the last couple of years have poems from Sewanee Theological been chosen for the year's Best American Poetry. The magazine has an enlightened neo-formalist bent that prizes a tour de force when freshness of diction and intelligence of thought distinguish it from the usual thing. Erica Dawson's "Parallax" appeared in these pages as did Amy Glynn Greacen's "Namaskar."
The current issue features a well-made sonnet (Michael Spence's "Intersection");Alan Sullivan's metrical translation of Psalm 139; Stephen Kampa's "Reading Pilgrim's Progress While Waiitng to be tested for STDs," a poem in ABBA quatrains that matches the demotic and the traditional in ABBA quatrains, and Jim Murphy's "The Painted Men," a meditation on tattoos. The poems manage, in Michael Spence's phrase, to leave "Bouquets in corners where faith collides / With physics." The intersection of faith and doubt matches the crossing of traditional form and contemporary practice. Perhaps it is this quality above all that marks the poetry Greg Williamson selects for Sewanee Theological Review. Kudos, sir.
Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and a Sewanee graduate, caught my eye with this beautiful passage from the Baccalaurate Address he gave at the University of the South in May 2010, also in the current issue of Sewanee Theological Review:
"In my own life, whenever I have fallen short of the mark, or hurt someone, or done those things which I ought not to have done, it has always been because of the sin of pride, which is when love becomes self-regard, and my gaze, which is rightly dfirected outward, toward others, has turned inward, toward me, focusing on the devices and desires of my own heart." -- DL
"What is a lyricist except a poet who has the possibility of making cash?"
Steven Colbert to Stephen Sondheim, 12/14/2010
George Balanchine (pictured here with Suzanne Farrell) had a mischievous sense of humor that came out at unusual times. Toasting Stravinsky he reminisced, "In Russia, we drink the health of the guy that died." When Balanchine was presented with the Handel Medallion he said, "I can't Handel it. . .so I'll Haydn it."
When Balanchine and Richard Rodgers embarked on the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the composer was unsure how the collaboration should proceed. "Did he devise his steps first and expect me to alter tempos wherever necessary?" The choreographer immediately set Rodgers's mind at ease. "You write it, I put on," he said. That was exactly the way they worked. "I don't think that our arranger, Hans Spialek, had to change more than thirty-two bars," Rodgers wrote. The result was a masterpiece.
My favorite Balanchine line: "I disagree with everybody, and I don't want to argue about it." -- DL
James Merrill told Bill Matthews that his poetic line "limped after iambics" -- and Bill got the joke, knowing that "iambic" means, in its Greek original, "to limp."
It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or the emergence of a masterpiece . . . Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting's evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush-stroke. Music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician's ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn't explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.
But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens ... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?
“When you make movies about poetry, generally they backup wheelbarrows full of money for you."
'Mad Men' star Jon Hamm, on making "Howl." (the Craig Ferguson show, 9/23/2010)
Whitey Lockman stepped into the batter's box. Ball one. Campanella called time and went out to the mound to calm Newcombe down.
"My advice to you," Sinatra said, "is to live each day of your life as if it's your last. Because one day it will be."
Bishop led the laughter.
from The Gleason Chronicles
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.