A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. (America is the source of much irritation of this kind, to be sure.) I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provoked in us. One of those symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.
A.E. Housman, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, 1933.
June 21, 2016
April 21, 2016
I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.
When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.
Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.
The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
September 3, 2015
For no man, of course, ever quite gets over poetry. He may seem to have recovered from it, just as he may seem to have recovered from the measles of his school-days, but exact observation teaches us that no such recovery is ever quite perfect; there always remains a scar, a weakness and a memory.
Now, there is reason for maintaining that the taste for poetry, in the process of human development, marks a stage measurably later than the stage of religion. Savages so little cultured that they know no more of poetry than a cow have elaborate and often very ingenious theologies. If this be true, then it follows that the individual, as he rehearses the life of the species, is apt to carry his taste for poetry further along than he carries his religion — that if his development is arrested at any stage before complete intellectual maturity that arrest is far more likely to leave hallucinations.
H.L. Mencken, “The Nature of Faith”, Prejudices, Fourth Series, 1924.
August 25, 2015
Many years ago, when I was more reckless intellectually than I am today, I proposed the application of Haeckel’s biogenetic law — to wit, that the history of the individual rehearses the history of the species to the domain of ideas. So applied, it leads to some superficially startling but probably quite sound conclusions, for example, that an adult poet is simply an individual in a state of arrested development — in brief, a sort of moron. Just as all of us, in utero, pass through a stage in which we are tadpoles, and almost indistinguishable from the tadpoles which afterward become frogs, so all of us pass through a stage, in our nonage, when we are poets. A youth of seventeen who is not a poet is simply a donkey: his development has been arrested even anterior to that of the tadpole. But a man of fifty who still writes poetry is either an unfortunate who has never developed, intellectually, beyond his teens, or a conscious buffoon who pretends to be something that he isn’t — something far younger and juicier than he actually is […] Something else, of course, may enter into it. The buffoonery may be partly conscious and deliberate, and partly Freudian. Many an aging man keeps on writing poetry simply because it gives him the illusion that he is still young. For the same reason, perhaps, he plays tennis, wears green cravats, and tries to convince himself that he is in love.
H.L. Mencken, “The Nature of Faith”, Prejudices, Fourth Series, 1924.
May 14, 2015
Once, after plowing through sixty or seventy volumes of bad verse, I described myself as a poetry-hater. The epithet was and is absurd. The truth is that I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me. But what mood? The mood, in a few words, of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine. First its sweet music lulls, and then its artful presentation of the beautifully improbable soothes and gives surcease. It is an escape from life, like religion, like enthusiasm, like glimpsing a pretty girl. And to the mere sensuous joy in it, to the mere low delight in getting away from the world for a bit, there is added, if the poetry be good, something vastly better, something reaching out into the realm of the intelligent, to wit, appreciation of good workmanship. A sound sonnet is almost as pleasing an object as a well-written fugue. A pretty lyric, deftly done, has all the technical charm of a fine carving. I think it is craftsmanship that I admire most in the world. Brahms enchants me because he knew his trade perfectly. I like Richard Strauss because he is full of technical ingenuities, because he is a master-workman. Well, who ever heard of a finer craftsman than William Shakespeare? His music was magnificent, he played superbly upon all the common emotions — and he did it magnificently, he did it with an air. No, I am no poetry-hater. But even Shakespeare I most enjoy, not on brisk mornings when I feel fit for any deviltry, but on dreary evenings when my old wounds are troubling me, and some fickle one has just sent back the autographed set of my first editions, and bills are piled up on my desk, and I am too sad to work. Then I mix a stiff dram — and read poetry.
H.L. Mencken, “The Poet and His Art”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
April 9, 2015
One of the things to remember here (too often it is forgotten, and Dr. Prescott deserves favorable mention for stressing it) is that a man’s conscious desires are not always identical with his subconscious longings; in fact, the two are often directly antithetical. No doubt the real man lies in the depths of the subconscious, like a carp lurking in mud. His conscious personality is largely a product of his environment — the reaction of his subconscious to the prevailing notions of what is meet and seemly.
Here, of course, I wander into platitude, for the news that all men are frauds was already stale in the days of Hammurabi. The ingenious Freud simply translated the fact into pathological terms, added a bedroom scene, and so laid the foundations for his psychoanalysis. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me that Freud made a curious mistake when he brought sex into the foreground of his new magic. He was, of course, quite right when he set up the doctrine that, in civilized societies, sex impulses were more apt to be suppressed than any other natural impulses, and that the subconscious thus tended to be crowded with their ghosts. But in considering sex impulses, he forgot sex imaginings. Digging out, by painful cross-examination in a darkened room, some startling tale of carnality in his patient’s past, he committed the incredible folly of assuming it to be literally true. More often than not, I believe, it was a mere piece of boasting, a materialization of desire — in brief, a poem. It is astonishing that this possibility never occurred to the venerable professor; it is more astonishing that it has never occurred to any of his disciples. He should have psychoanalyzed a few poets instead of wasting all his time upon psychopathic women with sclerotic husbands. He would have dredged amazing things out of their subconsciouses, heroic as well as amorous. Imagine the billions of Boers, Germans, Irishmen and Hindus that Kipling would have confessed to killing!
H.L. Mencken, “The Poet and His Art”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
March 21, 2015
In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn discusses our evolving views of the poet Sappho:
One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus — the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.
Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines — repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth — he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.
Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”
Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”
But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies — about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.
October 16, 2014
I’d like to say it’s great to be back from vacation, but frankly it’s not. A lot of people think the biggest problem with being a pundit is all the blood sacrifice and unlicensed steel-cage shovel fighting. That’s true. But there’s obviously nothing to be done about that. Another problem is that when you usually write several thousand words a week — at least — you build up muscle memory. It’s like exercise — I’m told. When you train yourself to run every day, taking a week off doesn’t make running easier, but harder. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t been able to find my groove (this isn’t it). I had to delete the first 700 words of this “news”letter because it turned into a lengthy poem in Esperanto about chinchillas. Frankly, I nailed the iambic pentameter. Maybe someday I will publish “Kiam la Chinchilla vekas el sia dormado en la pantalono de mia koro” (Loosely: “When the chinchilla awakes from his slumber in the trousers of my heart”), but today is not that day.
Jonah Goldberg, “The Goldberg File”, 2014-04-04
September 7, 2014
It is my conviction that no normal man ever fell in love, within the ordinary meaning of the word, after the age of thirty. He may, at forty, pursue the female of his species with great assiduity, and he may, at fifty, sixty or even seventy, “woo” and marry a more or less fair one in due form of law, but the impulse that moves him in these follies at such ages is never the complex of outlandish illusions and hallucinations that poets describe as love. This complex is quite natural to all males between adolescence and the age of, say, twenty-five, when the kidneys begin to disintegrate. For a youth to reach twenty-one without having fallen in love in an abject and preposterous manner would be for doubts to be raised as to his normalcy. But if he does it after his wisdom teeth are cut, it is no more than a sign that they have been cut in vain — that he is still in his teens, whatever his biological and legal age. Love, so-called, is based upon a view of women that is impossible to any man who has any experience of them. Such a man may, to the end of his life, enjoy the charm of their society, and even respect them and admire them, but, however much he respects and admires them, he nevertheless sees them more or less clearly, and seeing them clearly is fatal to true romance. Find a man of forty-five who heaves and moans over a woman, however amiable and lovely, in the manner of a poet and you will behold either a man who ceased to develop intellectually at twenty-four or thereabout, or a fraud who has his eye on the lands, tenements and hereditaments of the lady’s deceased first husband. Or upon her talents as nurse, or cook, amanuesis and audience. This, no doubt, is what George Bernard Shaw meant when he said that every man over forty is a scoundrel.
H.L. Mencken, “The Nature of Faith”, Prejudices, Fourth Series, 1924.
June 23, 2014
In BBC News Magazine, Alan Little looks at some early WW1 art that fell afoul of the censors for being too accurate:
What you notice first about the two figures in Christopher Nevinson’s painting Paths of Glory is the banality of their deaths. Their commonplace, mundane fate. They lie face down in the blasted earth, two men in British military fatigues, their helmets and rifles lying in the mud beside them.
They are indistinguishable from each other, stripped of individual identity. Nothing marks them out as the unique human beings they must once have been with names, and families, and remembered childhoods, and desire and love and hope and ambition.
From the bottom left of the composition, where the corpse in the foreground lies with the soles of his boots facing you, your eye moves diagonally upwards and to the right, to the second dead man, who has fallen forwards towards you, and you see the top of his dark head but Nevinson denies you a glimpse of his face. He has no face, no personality, no story of his own. In colour, texture and even contour, the lifeless bodies are almost indistinguishable from the land on which they lie, and which will now swallow them.
In my time as a war reporter for the BBC I have come across scenes like this. You cannot mistake the recently dead for the sleeping, for there is something bloodless, something shockingly, arrestingly lifeless about them. I have found myself transfixed by odd detail — a bootlace tied just a few hours ago, by fingers that will now never move again. What talents lie locked into the muscle memory of those fingers? Could they, as recently as this morning, have picked out a melody on a piano? With the death of each individual, an entire universe vanishes.
I think of those two young men whose names I never learned when I look at Nevinson’s Paths of Glory. Its title is taken from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard. “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave / Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Government censors did not like Paths of Glory. They judged it bad for morale and refused to pay Nevinson for it. But he included it anyway in the first exhibition of his war paintings in London early in 1918, with a brown paper strip across the canvas carrying the word “censored”. He was reprimanded both for exhibiting a censored painting and, bizarrely, for unauthorised use of the word “censored” in a public place. But the painting was bought, during that exhibition, by the Imperial War Museum, where it remains.
February 26, 2013
In the Guardian, Alison Flood talks about the newly discovered Rudyard Kipling poems:
Kipling scholars are celebrating the publication of lost poems by the author whose exhortations in “If” to “keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” are regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem. Discovered by the American scholar Thomas Pinney in an array of hiding places including family papers, the archive of a former head of the Cunard Line and during renovations at a Manhattan house, more than 50 previously unpublished poems by Rudyard Kipling will be released for the first time next month.
The collection includes several poems dating from the first world war, which Kipling initially supported, helping his son John to gain a commission in the Irish Guards.
A short poem, “The Gambler”, finishes with the couplet: “Three times wounded; three times gassed / Three times wrecked – I lost at last”, while another fragment runs: “This was a Godlike soul before it was crazed / No matter. The grave makes whole.”
After his son’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915, Kipling regretted his earlier enthusiasm for the conflict, writing in his “Epitaphs of the War”: “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied”.
November 30, 2012
Virginia Postrel charts the ever-expanding copyright protections under US law:
Even as digital technology has made reproducing, remixing and repurposing creative works easier — with potentially enormous benefits for consumers and producers of new works — the monopoly privileges of copyright have expanded. The result is a bizarre combination of rampant copyright violations, frequent encroachment on legitimate fair use, suppression of new technologies and business models, and the ever-present threat of draconian penalties.
Consider how the law applies to Robert Frost’s classic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” first published in 1923. Back then you only got copyright privileges for works officially registered with the copyright office, and only for a term of 28 years, which could be renewed if you filed again, as Frost did in 1951.
Requiring such simple procedures reserved copyright privileges for creators with strong commercial or sentimental interests in limiting the publication of their works. Today, by contrast, copyright automatically applies to every eligible work, including your vacation snapshots and your 4-year-old’s handmade Mother’s Day card.
Under the law when Frost wrote his poem and renewed the copyright on the volume including it, it would have presumably entered the public domain in 1979, more than a decade after its author’s death in 1963. That’s not what happened. Beginning in 1962, Congress gradually extended copyright terms, and in 1976 it passed a new copyright act that gives works already under copyright a new term of 75 years from their first publication. That meant “Stopping by Woods” wouldn’t go into the public domain until 1998.
That’s not what happened either. Just as the poem’s copyright was about to expire, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which gave existing works a new copyright term of 95 years. (The 1923 Frost volume including the poem was one of the works cited in a lawsuit unsuccessfully challenging the act’s constitutionality.) So Frost’s poem won’t enter the public domain until 2018 — assuming that Congress doesn’t pass yet another extension.
July 29, 2012
The amusing “real” story of how Percy Bysshe Shelley was inspired to write Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Out in a field just off I-27 south, maybe 15 minutes away from Amarillo, our beloved Stanley Marsh 3 commissioned this statue, “Ozymandias.” Of course, being a merry prankster, he pretends on an introductory plaque that these “ancient ruins” in fact inspired Shelley’s poem.
H/t to “Fishplate” Jeff for the link.
June 30, 2012
Rex Murphy in the National Post on the worst month in Newfoundland’s calendar:
T.S. Eliot did not write for Newfoundlanders. April is not the cruelest month. For us, it’s July. Both the first and second day of July are marked indelibly in the province’s common memory, the first perhaps the saddest day in the historic calendar, the second as the day of the most fundamental change in the essential makeup of the province.
The greatest tragedy in Newfoundland’s history occurred on July 1, 1916 the opening day of the Battle of the Somne, when nearly 800 men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went “over the top” at Beaumont Hammel, only to suffer close to 700 casualties within less than half an hour. It was a virtual annihilation of the entire Regiment. The shockwaves from Beaumont Hammel went through every town and village, city and outport of the time. There was not a place unmarked with grief. To this day, the memory of Beaumont Hammel commands deep respect and notice.
A different kind of event, one not drawn from conflict or war, marks the second day of the month. Just 20 years ago, for the very first time since the late 15th century and the arrival of the Europeans and John Cabot to the fish-crowded waters off Newfoundland, catching cod-fish was declared illegal. The fishery, that great and traditional fishery of Newfoundland, was shut down for the first time in nearly 500 years.
It’s been 20 years since the fishery was closed, and there’s still no sign that it will be re-opening any time soon.
February 2, 2012
John Scalzi, several years ago, wrote a tribute to Wiarton Willie, who was in the news in an unaccustomed way at the time:
To tell you the truth, the most disturbing thing is not that the groundhog died — certainly this animal earned his eternal rest — but that his handlers couldn’t think of anything better to do but tell a festival crowd that he had croaked. Those kids in the crowd will be forever traumatized. Groundhog Day will no longer be a happy time, but a constant reminder of death and mortality in the bleak midwinter. 10 years from now, I expect that Wiarton, Canada will become the new North American epicenter of dark, gothic teenage poetry.
Lying frozen in the snow
The groundhog soul resides far below
Gone to a place of doom and gray
Now winter will always stay.
Die Groundhog Die!
Mommy and Daddy Lied!
But wait, there’s more:
Now, on to the groundhog Wiarton Willie, who, as you know from yesterday’s entry, died before Groundhog Day and whose body was photographed lying in state in a dinky little pine coffin. Or was it? Now news comes from the sordid little burg of Wiarton, Canada, that the rodent corpse in the coffin was not Wiarton Willie at all, but a stuffed stand-in. The real Willie was apparently found so decomposed that the gelatinous remains were unsuitable for public display. So the town elders found a stuffed groundhog that just happened to be lying around (apparently the body of a previous “Wiarton Willie,” who was no doubt poisoned by the current, and now rotting, Willie in an unseemly palace coup), plopped it into that Barbie coffin, and presented the remains to a horrified public. Here’s the groundhog you’ve all been waiting for! And he’s dead! Winter for the next ten years!
The people of Wiarton meant well, I’m sure. But I’m having serious doubts as to their combined mental capacity. First off, the real Willy was found in a state of advanced decomposition, which means he had been dead for weeks. Weeks. How could that happen? This rodent is the cornerstone of Wiarton’s entire tourism economy for the month of February, and no one bothers to check on him from time to time? Did they just stick him in a cage after last Groundhog Day and then forget to feed him? Every kid in the world had a hamster they forgot to feed, but you’re usually, like, five at the time. These were actual adults. They say he was hibernating when he died. Sure he was. I used that excuse about the hamster.