Poetry corner: in memoriam

Joyce Kilmer, updated by John Leo:

Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal arrangements are fashioned by people of alternative intelligence such as myself, but only the divine entity, should he or she actually exist, can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material.

John Leo, a very funny, very serious writer whose columns were among the few things worth reading in the newspaper1 before the turn of the century, died earlier this month. His collection Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police2 is fun to browse through.

(Via Kim Du Toit.)

Just wondering

Does this distress you?

From the Daily Mail:

A University has slapped a trigger warning on some of Britain’s greatest Romantic poets because their work contains ‘representations of sexism and misogyny’.

Bath Spa University has told students that poems by William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Alexander Pope have the potential to ‘disturb’ or ‘distress’.

Is there any writer worth reading, anyone at all, who will not “trigger” some ideologue?

(Via Kim Du Toit.)

Why is the sea boiling hot?

I had planned to post a selection of epigrams for this year’s post-a-favorite-poem entry today, but Maureen Mullarkey’s commentary yesterday on Chicago finger food as served by Cardinal Cupich calls for more Lewis Carroll. So, here’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun.’

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

Continue reading “Why is the sea boiling hot?”

Catalogued

I recently received the White Flower Farm Spring 2022 Garden Book. As gardening catalogs go, it’s relatively dignified, with a University Roman flag, text that emphasizes accuracy over hyperbole, and no exclamation points. WFF prices are at the high end of the range, but in the past the plants they shipped were of consistently good quality. I might order a few items from them.

Nevertheless, the catalog was disappointing. Years ago the “garden book” was valued as much for the text as for the selections. Written by one Amos Pettingill, it had a degree of personality missing from other catalogs. Although the bulk of the text was devoted to describing the merchandise, he often digressed, as in his discussion of Exbury azaleas.

Lord Lionel Rothschild, a member of the famous banking clan and extremely rich in the days before the Great Depression and World War II, was not only a great banker but a great gardener. He was no dilletante; Lord Rothschild not only worked over every detail in the development of his lovely estate in Exbury, but he also worked diligently on breeding Rhododendron — and Azalea, a very close branch of the Rhododendron family. He spared no money in this huge breeding program, for he had started it late in life and knew it could be successful quickly only through massive expenditures. He once employed 225 men, 75 of them professional gardeners, to care for this estate of 250 acres. By working with tens of thousands of crosses, instead of thousands, Lord Rothschild used his wealth to telescope time…. Money, people are inclined to forget, is a very useful thing — whether we go to the moon or piggy-back a fine strain of plants with it.

Continue reading “Catalogued”

Mysteries of the plains

According to Jules Verne in Master of the World:

“Lake Kirdall in Kansas, forty miles west of Topeka, is little known. It deserves wider knowledge, and doubtless will have it hereafter, for attention is now drawn to it in a very remarkable way.
“This lake, deep among the mountains, appears to have no outlet. What it loses by evaporation, it regains from the little neighboring streamlets and the heavy rains.
“Lake Kirdall covers about seventy-five square miles, and its level is but slightly below that of the heights which surround it. Shut in among the mountains, it can be reached only by narrow and rocky gorges. Several villages, however, have spring up upon its banks. It is full of fish, and fishing-boats cover its waters.
“Lake Kirdall is in many places fifty feet deep close to the shore. Sharp, pointed rocks form the edges of this huge basin. Its surges, roused by high winds, beat upon its banks with fury, and the houses near at hand are often deluged with spray as if if with the downpour of a hurricane. The lake, already deep at the edge, becomes yet deeper toward the center, where in some places sounding show over three hundred feet of water.
“The fishing industry supports a population of several thousands, and there are several hundred fishing boats in addition the the dozen or so of little steamers which serve the traffic of the lake. Beyond the circle of the mountains lie the railroads which transport the products of the fishing industry throughout Kansas and the neighboring states….”

If Verne’s account is accurate, Lake Kirdall would be in the Manhattan/Fort Riley area. I’ve lived in Kansas the larger portion of my life, and I’ve never noticed any mountains in all my wanderings around the state, let alone mountain lakes. Evidently French science-fiction writers know as much about the plains states as Japanese blues bands do about the deep South.

Joseph Moore mentioned the lake in his review of Master of the World, cited by John C. Wright in his list of “The Fifty Essential Authors of Science Fiction.” I hadn’t read Verne since grade school1 and was curious, so I tracked the book down. It was okay, but just okay. I’m surprised that Wright included it in his note on Verne. It may be that I expected the wrong things from it, or that I need to have read more of Verne to fully appreciate it. Brandon Watson gives it a recommendation, along with a couple of related novels.

The greatest mystery to me is, why did Verne invent a lake in a spot where two minutes with an atlas would have told him that it couldn’t exist when there was the quite real and remarkable Crater Lake in Oregon available?

***

David Breitenbeck:

Among its many other marks, one sign that the American education system is a complete fraud is the fact that English classes never present H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, R.E. Howard, Walter B. Gibson, or the like as examples of American Literature for students to read.

The decline and fall of the English department

A long time ago I decided against a career in academia. It was one of the few major life decisions I got right.

… pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.

High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Miscellaneous quotes

Assistant Village Idiot:

Critical Race Theory, and Critical Theory in general doesn’t have any art I can think of. Not poetry, not music, theater, film, painting, sculpture, nor literature. It may just be that I am not up on such things. I don’t think it is mere recency, as both have been around for years, nor is it a bias from unfair comparisons from centuries ago. I am not asking that it produce an equivalent to the high Renaissance. Existentialism is also recent but does not suffer from the same lack. There is plenty of interesting theater, poetry, and literature from them, and I think only a little stretch of the concept brings in the visual arts including film….

This is a major red flag for the intellectual foundation of a philosophy, that artists in no medium can bring forth anything of interest. The heart of artistic expression is transposition, of reframing or new understanding of one concept and making it manifest in another. If you can find nothing to transpose, it means there is nothing there.

Jeff Sypeck:

How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

TS:

In 2008 I was wary of Obama but never bought into the “born in Kenya” crap and thought maybe he could do some great good in uniting our country racially. I think by 2012-ish I realized the enemy was within. By 2017 I realized we were in a Cold Civil War. And now in 2021 I think it’s a tossup as to who is the bigger enemy: the Left in this country or China.

Historical note: Dave Mustaine in 2012:

I’m just hoping that whatever is in the White House next year is a Republican. I can’t bear to watch what’s happened to our great country. Everybody’s got their head in the sand. Everybody in the industry is like, ‘Oh, Obama’s doing such a great job…’ I don’t think so. Not from what I see.

Looking at the Republican candidates, I’ve got to tell you, I was floored the other day to see that Mitt Romney’s five boys have a $100 million trust fund. Where does a guy make that much money? So there’s some questions there. And watching Newt Gingrich, I was pretty excited for a while, but now he’s just gone back to being that person that everybody said he was – that angry little man. I still like him, but I don’t think I’d vote for him.

Ron Paul… you know, I heard somebody say he was like insecticide – 98 percent of it’s inert gases, but it’s the two percent that’s left that will kill you. What that means is that he’ll make total sense for a while, and then he’ll say something so way out that it negates everything else. I like the guy because he knows how to excite the youth of America and fill them in on some things. But when he says that we’re like the Taliban… I’m sorry, Congressman Paul, but I’m nothing like the Taliban.

Earlier in the election, I was completely oblivious as to who Rick Santorum was, but when the dude went home to be with his daughter when she was sick, that was very commendable. Also, just watching how he hasn’t gotten into doing these horrible, horrible attack ads like Mitt Romney’s done against Newt Gingrich, and then the volume at which Newt has gone back at Romney… You know, I think Santorum has some presidential qualities, and I’m hoping that if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum.”

Literary footnote

I might have saved this for a second of February one of these years. However Theodore Dalrymple mentioned it in a recent column, so I’ll post it now.

The Latest Decalogue

By Arthur Hugh Clough

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp’d, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

The view from 1984

I’ve been browsing around in Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986. In his discussion of Free Live Free, he quotes a couple of passages that have gained force in the years since the year the novel was published. I thought I’d put them here, a bit more fully.

A history of America, delivered by a man in a duffel coat near the end of the story:

“Our country was founded on the principle of the destruction of the wild by the civilized. Let me … go back thirty thousand years before Christ, when the ancestors of the Indians crossed what are now the Bering Straits to occupy what some people have called an empty land. Those Indians represented civilization. The beavers felled trees and built lodges, but the Indians killed the beavers and skinned them.

Barnes said, “Then the whites came and skinned the Indians.”

“Precisely. But the frontiersmen who destroyed the Indians and their culture were destroyed themselves, with their culture, by the settlers who followed. Those settlers lost their farms to the banks, and the banks sold them to companies who have brought the advantages of corporate existence—immortality and amorality—to agriculture.

“In the cities, the same thing occurred. The early city of independent shops and restaurants is properly being displaced by one of the chain outlets, so that progressively greater control is exercised. Perhaps none of you have ever understood before why they are called that—chain outlets….

“You see the progress? The old stores had to sell things their customers wanted. As they’re eliminated, the need for their type of slavery is eliminated, too, and the chains can sell whatever they want. Their customers have to buy it because there is nothing else to buy. I ask you, all of you—how often have you gone into W. T. Grant’s and found there was nothing at all you wanted?”

And:

“The Indians used to be Americans—that’s what an American was. Then the trappers were Americans, the Americans of their day. Then the farmers, with their buggies and plow horses and white clapboard houses. Even today when you look at a picture of Uncle Sam, you’re seeing what those farmers were like dressed up to go to the county fair. Only farmers aren’t real Americans any more. Neither are Indians. Poor bastards of Indians aren’t even foreigners, and we like foreigners more than Americans, because foreigners are the Americans of the future. The trappers are gone, and pretty soon you’ll be gone too.”

After further provocation, one of his audience responds:

“… I am a gypsy and a princess. And a dupe, because you have made me one. But I will speak for the Indians too, because they were nomads when they were shaped by their own thoughts and not by yours, and we are nomads now, who will remain so though you will slay us….

“You have overcome us, but you have not conquered us. To conquer us you must beat us fairly, and you have not beaten us fairly, and so you have struck us to the ground, but you have not won. To conquer us, you must have dignity too, and for that reason you have not conquered us. A man may flee from a wasp and be stung by the wasp, but he has not been conquered by the wasp; it remains an insect and he is still a man. You deck yourselves like fools and chatter and hop like apes, and your princes marry whores. That is why even those you have crushed to dust will not call you master, and none will ever call you master until you meet a nation more foolish than yourselves.”

Earlier in the book the gypsy does some “catoptromancy.” She explains, “… what I have done is the verso of necromancy; I summoned the spirits of the unborn to reveal the future.” According to her,

“The greatest event of the coming decade will be the quadrumvirate. Four leaders, unknown today, shall unite to take political, financial, artistic, and judicial power. They shall create a revolution in thought. Many who are now rulers shall be imprisoned or exiled. Many who are now powerless shall rise to places of great authority. The rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. Old crimes, now concealed, shall be made public, and their perpetrators given to the people as to a pride of lions. The four shall be hated and idolized, but their rule will not end within the period specified by my prediction.”

It’s time for the quadrumvirate to reveal itself.

Today’s word

Schleppoisie, noun.

When [Tom] Wolfe lets his own point of view peep through, it isn’t always pleasant to behold. His hatred for the high and vacuous celebrity culture is undisguised; his Olympian amusement at the nouveau riche has long been known. But what is surprising in his novel is to find him looking down his nose, as in the examples cited here, at the lower-middle class, or (as Marx neglected to call them) the schleppoisie.

Second-hand links

Via Edward Feser.

Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury:

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph….

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in.

Update: See KT’s comment for more glimpses of Bradbury.

***

My first college may be one of the few not run by lunatics and quislings.

***

Trevor C. Merrill on Milan Kundera’s insights and limitations:

In the minds of many, Kundera and his specific political and national context were bound inseparably together. And so, once he was no longer surrounded by the dissident’s aura, his meditations on life behind the Iron Curtain felt passé; a new regime, and a new set of global concerns, had taken over: “… when communism vanishes, Kundera’s insights into humans under communism lose immediacy, too,” wrote novelist Jane Smiley in 2006.

A lot can happen in a decade. Those certain that the situations in Kundera’s novels were unique to the Soviet era, and that they were thus shrinking in history’s rearview mirror, turned out to be mistaken. In 2016, an essay by philosopher Ryszard Legutko argued that EU-style neoliberalism had become an oppressive ideology like the communism he and others in the Polish Solidarity movement fought to overthrow. More recently, Rod Dreher draws on the experience of Christians under Soviet rule in Live Not by Lies, a handbook for Americans faced with soft totalitarianism. Kundera’s novels now seem less like reports on a bygone disaster, and more like crystal balls showing aspects of our own society, and foreshadowing what could happen if current trends accelerate.

***

I haven’t noticed any pigs on the wing, but Dennou Coil was finally licensed for the USA a few years ago, and Texas has frozen over. Now it looks like The Last Dangerous Visions may at last be published. We’ll see.

In related news, Neil Gaiman confirms that Ellison did indeed mail a dead gopher to Ace Books.

Noise and pessimism

It is no coincidence that, as our culture has become stupider, it has also become noisier. Here’s an 1851 essay by Schopenhauer. He focuses on the wanton cracking of whips; I wonder what he would have said about subwoofers.

On Noise

Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.

Continue reading “Noise and pessimism”