An op-ed piece in The New York Times prompts my post. A creative writing teacher makes a case for our memorizing and reciting poetry in public school. What has attracted me to her piece, "A Lost Eloquence," is the example Carol Muske-Dukes makes of her own mother, "who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson." She writes:
She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) "quote." Poems are still memorized in some classrooms but not "put to heart" in a way that would prompt this more quotidian public expression.
Muske-Dukes' recollection has put me in mind of my own father's example. Though he didn't get a high school education "on the prairie of North Dakota during the Great Depression," he did get, on the prairie in Alberta during World War I, schooling enough to make an elementary difference. I recall with delight his reciting Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal" over his morning breakfast — this when his short-term memory from multi-infarct dementia was nil. During his last three years with us (till 88) Dad "quoted" just enough to make a good case for Muske-Dukes' larger implication, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Quotation and Originality":
We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.
Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.
Of course, Carol Muske-Dukes recommends here what Emerson only observes, that, indeed, "we all quote."
Trees hereabouts mark Christmas all year. They seem to go with the territory. Of course, you seldom see trees decorated save with what you perceive, rain or shine, quite naturally to hang from their boughs. Here hangs, for example, thanks to the miracle of digital technology, the light of the world caught suspended in fir.
Such radiance seemed to deserve sharing today. Of course, those indoor trees around which we may have gathered will all soon enough be put away and, with them, the bright lights that have artificially but happily, I hope, graced your Christmas Day. In any case, I have thought to reflect on how my own web of words — this technology in which we live and move and have our being — may itself be neither so artificial as is sometimes thought nor so ignorable as might still be imagined. For as old St. John has said, the light of the world does in fact hang in there with trees.
In any event, around here it does — and may it do so where you live, too. Merry Christmas!
A four-day stay in Vancouver prompts my post. I go back a long way there, to 1966 when Stylish and I first visited British Columbia's most cosmopolitan city. In addition to spectacular views, we discovered something new, two public libraries keeping Northwest books in style today.
It was good to find just two blocks from the Georgian Court, where we stayed, the impressive Vancouver Public Library. If you visit, VPL is a must-see. Built in 1995, the building gestures to the Roman Coliseum architecturally but remains alert to the rich, variegated life of Canada's most diverse, multicultural city. Designed in 1992 by Moshe Safdie & Associates, its 9 floors house 2.5 million items adjacent to a new $50-million, 21-floor Federal Tower. An upbeat gathering spot, the VPL has been among the first of North American libraries to have included, with great success, adjoining retail shops.
No less impressive was the 1997 Walter C. Koerner Library on the campus of the University of British Columbia. Commanding spectacular views from its 920 carrels, the Koerner rises five floors above ground, its lowest belted in rock granite and its remaining in plate glass. For UBC's humanities and social science students, it offers an impressive blend of literary, natural, and technological sophistication unequalled, in our experience, elsewhere. We did find it amusing that benefactor Walter C. Koerner, an important UBC backer, made his initial fortune as a clever verbal stylist — simply renaming our low-grade "Hemlock" as "Alaska Pine."
It goes to show you how far a little bit of style can take you. But here it has simply taken us from Vancouver to home, where, if our books are not so well housed, they are, we think, just as well loved.
· Aldo Leopold: Good Oak, Good Cedar, Good History ·
Log spliting has put me in mind of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949). It is a treasured text in the plain style, simple and direct, honest but subtle, and indeed, like a weblog, ordered monthly and topically. Here begins, for instance, Leopold's "February" — written by the warmth of "Good Oak" burning in his fireplace: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger," he says, "of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." Admirable thought. Though I work no farm and own a furnace, yet as I garden and burn logs in season and end toiling today in three quarter-sections — herein called my classes — I'm happily at ease.
What Leopold has happily set me to thinking about today is a famous passage near the end of "February." Leopold reflects on the tools of good history in it — and meditates simply and deeply on a glowing oak on his andirons, one cut, bucked, and split from an eighty-ring giant scarred by lightening and transecting, twice, American history from 1945 to 1865. He considers especially the environmental-geographical, not political, history of his oak, and dwells, at last, on the aforementioned tools making good wood of it. It is to these tools — "requisite to good oak, and to good history," as he says — that he points: namely, the saw, the wedge, and the axe.
The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character of the samples thus made visible without. It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.
The wedge, on the other hand, works only in radial splits; such a split yields a collective view of all the years at once, or no view at all, depending on the skill with which the plane of the split is chosen. (If in doubt, let the section season for a year until a crack develops. Many a hastily driven wedge lies rusting in the woods, embedded in unsplittable cross-grain.)
The axe functions only at an angle diagonal to the years, and this only for the peripheral rings of the recent past. Its special function is to lop limbs, for which both saw and wedge are useless.
Tomorrow, you should know, I am going to be making myself useful with the wedge (probably between rain showers). But I'm working on "Good Cedar," not "Good Oak." Two summers ago a Stihl chainsaw felled the cedars I'm splitting — indeed, cedars killed not by lightening but by tree bugs. But like Leopold's oak my cedar will soon warm the holidays (as it has warmed me twice already in summer) in a doubly reflective glow of Leopold's environmental meditation. Understandably, though, Leopold is an especially difficult stylist to follow.
Sometimes my cousin Grace, who figures discreetly around here (she found the Harvard joke for The First Grace of Style), sends me brief, cryptically blank, occasionally really hilarious emails. Recently, she sent, for example, "Excuses" and "Excuses . . . (second try)," suggesting ever so graciously, of course, that I've been neglecting my posts. Well, yes, of course, but the phrase on my About page is "occasional takes," not daily, and as for excuses, Grace, your blank notes and collegial jokes are on the one hand, and the other — as you should know — stylish enough to publish. But if you won't, here's my excuse.
I'm suffering from a quarterly-acute case of anecdotal polysyndetonitis. It goes like this:
Styles to Therapist:And I was grading and conferencing and grading again and committeeing and assigning essays and grading and conferencing and grading again and not-committeeing and then . . . fortunately . . .
Therapist:Look, Styles: please, slow down: It's clear that you've had little time for dalliance lately. So I'm prescribing a week's break.
That's the case. So wouldn't it be nice, Grace, if folks could see the strikeouts and home runs you send me, Mariner-style, in the off-season. If not last week's whiff marking my week here, then today's A-Rod home run. It deserves, I think, a laugh all the way to Texas. So how about commenting? But now I'm testing and grading and conferencing and
Styles to Stressed-Out Student:And you want WHAT? Help with "College Pressures, Really Fast Relief, and the Art of Writing"?
Over the holiday weekend I read Nickolson Baker's U & I: A True Story (1991). A book of one-hundred-and-seventy-nine pages, it marks in impressive, if exasperatingly obsessive, often meandering detail, Baker's imaginary "friendship" with John Updike. It slyly wraps Updike's lifework, as Baker writes there, in "crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation," detailing in long and very stylishly-crafted sentences Baker's desire for (and dread of) Updike's well-earned literary "mastery." For example, he well describes Updike's peculiar knack for finding right words in short occasional forms:
I wanted so much to have the assured touch, the adjectival resourcefulness, that Updike had in all his occasional writings; for though early on he eloquently disparaged the "undercooked quality of prose written to order," the truth was that some of his finest moments were to be found in the aforementioned introductions, award-acceptance speeches, answers to magazine surveys, the last sentences of reviews (like the one that leaps blurb-driven, to memory concerning Nabokov's Glory: "in its residue of bliss experienced, and in its charge of bliss conveyed, Glory measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels" — terrifying mastery!), prefaces to his own writings, dedications (like the one that I think about all the time, in Problems and Other Stories, to his children, which includes the phrase "with the curve of sad time it subtends" — imagine him applying high school geometry to the mess of his own divorce in such a perfect figure!): those incidental forms that induce his verbal tact to close around some uncomfortable chip of reality even as it reaches to reawaken our dulled sense of why certain conventions (like book dedications) or stock phrases (like "last but not least") exist and what limber life can be found in them; those forms whose mastery seems to me to be more convincing proof of the spontaneity of true talent, its irrepressive oversupply, than any single masterpiece is; and forms which for emulous younger writers can be more important as objects of study than the triple-deckers they besprinkle, because they are clues to the haberdashery of genius, its etiquette, its points of specific contact with recognizable obligations of life, independent of some single lucky choice of subject that bigger forms such as the novel demand.
Baker possessed the gift, I recognized, to assess Updike's career whole, not only in his narrative work, but in the little jobs of his everyday life. But then I noticed (more disturbingly) Baker's confessed negligence as a reader — his precise, but curiously careless admission that among Updike's thrity-plus books, he had read then "most or all" of just eight, "more than half" of six, "less than half" of four, "fewer than twenty pages" of five, and "fewer than five" of five — and, presumably, none of the rest.
That set me to thinking: might not Updike himself — in one of those occasional forms Baker's says he's mastered — might not this same U have himself replied in kind to this I's self-confessed literary negligence? At first, of course, I checked the net, quickly finding a short interview (scroll down half way) expressing Updike's admitted "liking" there for Baker — as "a younger writer with a real gift and vocation," perhaps a little "pedantic" but with a curious, "Bakeresque precision." But Updike's (parenthesized) laughter reminded me of Baker's own advocacy of library-, not just net-sleuthing — so I immediately went off to my own local library (a Carnegie public library) to find, indeed, a handy, hardback copy of Updike's Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991). Checking to see if Baker's obsessive "Hobby Horse" as well as his stylistic meandering was Shandean — after Laurence Sterne's great novel — I directly found there Sterne's name in the index and, after three dry runs — on page 848 — also this undated but intriguing quotation from The New York Times Book Review — "as to 'important' books one has never been able to finish reading" (my emphasis):
Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it. With considerable pleasure I devoted a youthful summer to reading through Don Quixote; in my early twenties I made my blissful way, over several years, through all of Remembrance of Things Past. War and Peace, Portrait of a Lady, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Iliad, and The Odyssey all in their season fell to the buzzsaw of my reading. I had every expectation of relishing Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. My taste ran to prankish books, British books, and books of pivotal importance in the history of Western thought. Tristram Shandy, modernism's first masterpiece, triply qualified. Had I not, furthermore, read through Ada and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, thus somewhat straddling the case? I remember well more than one summery occasion when my increasingly tired-looking Modern Library edition of Sterne's facetious, mind-addling classic was hauled down from its shelf into the sun and shade; once I took it with me to a week alone on Martha's Vineyard, thinking to force the issue. Alas, even the boredom of utter solitude was no match for the boredom that poured in waves off the chirping pages of this particular great book. I made it as far as page 428, a half-faded bookmark tells me; but, like Scott on his return from the South Pole, I did not quite have the stuff to complete the job. I should have eaten the sledge dogs, like Amundsen.
I can't help but see in the "blissful" way his "buzzsaw" reads through "the case" — in fact "straddling" Nabokov's "Ada" on the one hand and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" on the other — the long and short of Updike's "terrifying mastery!" (all the way to page 428). Subtract 179 from 428, and you'll see who still thinks he plays Amundsen's #1 to Scott's #0 in this short, "odd job" of polar trekking here.
Naturally, should someone doubt my take, just call U or I for the definitively right "factual" answer, though I may still be right stylistically.