· The Pen Commandments and "I've Got a Crush on You" ·
I've always been a sucker for free books. Last week in San Francisco, at the mere cost of an old email address (employed so that the publisher couldn't easily find my current one), I became the proud owner of The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer. As Quill and Scroll says, Steven Frank has written a "highly readable book that entertains as it instructs. . . . Even veteran writers will find a new perspective on the whole writing venture. . . . Almost anyone will find the book a delightful, useful tool for writing well."
Well, with such a pointedly elliptical recommendation, how could Styles resist: I mean, with so punny a take on a truly biblical theme, Frank's The Pen Commandments seemed even naturally to commend itself to me. And no wonder; its injunctions are wonderfully witty:
Thou Shalt Honor Thy Reader
Thou Shalt Not Waste Words
Thou Shalt Not Kill Thy Sentences
Thou Shalt Not Pick on the Puncts
Thou Shalt Keep Thy Structure Holy
Thou Shalt Describe Thy World, Express Thy Opinions, and Preserve Thy Past
Thou Shalt Take Pleasure in Thy Pen
Thou Shalt Not Take Essay Tests in Pain
Thou Shalt Overcome Writer's Block
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Prose
It wasn't long, though, before I found myself succumbing to the sad temptation of envying Steven Frank his own style. "Was it a good or a bad sign," I wondered, "right or wrong?" Then suddenly I remembered what Terry Teachout had remarked in his own take on such envy through that old Gershwin standard, "I've Got A Crush on You." You can see as much in A Terry Teachout Reader (2004), where he says this of his long fling with the famed artist-critic Fairfield Porter:
A few years ago, I fell in love — with a prose style. . . . My eye fell on this passage: 'Some art has a very open meaning, and can be written about in terms of this meaning; but the chances are that if the meaning is the most interesting thing about it, it does not stand alone, it does not assert itself. It leans on what it means. An implied meaning is richer.' I immediately snapped to attention — it was as if an invisible man had clapped his hands next to my ear — and by the time I put the book down, my cheeseburger was stone cold.
You can see that I've found in Steven Frank a somewhat less-good teacher than Teachout himself. That's why I thought to end on TT's rather more gracious explanation of style envy:
I do know that for me, style is a project, something at which I am constantly working. Rereading Raymond Chandler made me feel that my prose was too dry, and so I resolved to fertilize it with metaphor; my encounter with Fairfield Porter, by contrast, has made me want to be more direct (not to mention smarter). And, of course, one can also work on matters that go deeper than style: reading M. F. K. Fisher, for instance, filled me with a parallel longing to write about the place of music in life as it is lived. . . .
That's why I'm not planning to settle down with Fairfield Porter. . . . Does that make me promiscuous? No, just a hopeless romantic. . . . That's me, in spades. My bookshelves, like my writings, are haunted by the ghosts of influences past, all remembered with great tenderness, much as one recalls an old flame from college days: Whitney Balliett, Edmund Wilson, William F. Buckley, Jr., A. J. Liebling. Somerset Maugham, Diana Trilling, Randall Jarrell. Otis Ferguson, Joseph Epstein, Neville Cardus. In time, Porter will join them; I hope his spirit is pleased by the company it keeps.
· Musical Paper Grading: Joseph Haydn to the Rescue ·
I've been marking student papers recently. Always trying work, it's nevertheless pleasant, particularly so if, when fortified with coffee, I can pen comments to the accompaniment of Joseph Haydn's fine piano sonatas. They've long been favorite marking aids — especially as interpreted by Sir Alfred Brendel. Brendel's recordings, 11 Piano Sonatas, I've almost burned through with the intense laser light shed on Haydn in sunrise bouts with student writing. In fact, I'm listening to the man now, and he's again having his salutary effect: calming, regulating, teasing, stimulating, provoking, ironizing — all, of course, what teachers most need to mark, beyond accuracy and correctness, what Robert Frost once called "the part where the adventure begins."*
It was yesterday that I began to understand Haydn's heretofore mysterious effect on me. The revelation came from the book I quoted just last week, Russell Sherman's stylish Piano Pieces. Since there's no rule against repetition — especially with some theme and variation — I've thought to share Sherman's grasp of Haydn's use. Though he approaches his own work from a musical standpoint, I can by analogy, at least, mark mine also from a literary. Both go hand-in-hand.
[A]ll teachers are likely to recommend certain favorite composers and pieces deemed useful [Sherman writes] to the growing-up stages of their students. To promote discrimination of ear and execution, some teachers assign Bach; others start with Chopin as the ground of touch and control. For me, the exemplary guide and mind-opener is Haydn.
Haydn instructs in thinking: heart-thinking and brain-thinking. Haydn instructs in faith; Haydn instructs in skepticism. Haydn instructs in resolve and in resignation; in structure and strategy; in caprice and tenderness. Haydn instructs, above all in that which is root, premise, and condition of all else: composition, or how the notes are put together, broken apart, reassembled, and transformed. Everything is up-front, exposed. Life is tragic, life is amusing; things come and go; one is at the center of the storm, and at the periphery.
For the notes are alive. They create and crumble right in front of our bloodied nose.
Haydn provides a pedagogical example in one other respect [Sherman adds], a lesson imperative to contemplate in this day of media glut, of the siren call of cheap fame, and of the triumph of notoriety over talent. In his writings Haydn reflected on the fortunate fact of his relative isolation at the Esterhazy estate, where he served as music man to the prince. For a crucial period of maturity and growth, he was thankful to be distant from Vienna, from the center of fashion and commerce, and thus allowed him to develop his own ideas, personality, and vision.
This is not to say, of course, that I'm not going to enjoy fashionable San Francisco.
But while I'm gone — all of you, please — do give Joseph Haydn a listen.
*"You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness. But if I am going to give a mark, that is the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins."
· Pianoforte-Style: Russell Sherman on Spontaneity and Tension ·
When I last wrote on music in November I collected in my Soul Music of the Night some random thoughts on pianists, classical and modern, black and white — all the way from Ray Charles to Rachmaninoff — and I have thought to extend my theme by focusing on Russell Sherman, a player whose book I've been reading recently.
Long with the New England Conservatory, Sherman is also a fine teacher and, for me, in Piano Pieces, his rare gift of bringing theory to practice is what makes his writing appealing. Take these elegantly, neatly styled two paragraphs on "fluid sponaneity":
Heralitus said that you can never step in the same river twice, a chilling insight into the evanescence of all things. But even the flow of water abides by certain principles, an illustration of the more comforting perception that chaos itself has laws.
The sponaneity of Artur Schnabel or of Thelonious Monk does not flow from unrehearsed consciousness, or because they never thought about things. It flows because they thought about things so hard and honestly that they were attuned to the puzzles and contradictions which demand a leap of faith, or play. Only from a thorough preparation which teaches all and the limitations of all can the conditions arise for inspired "accidents." Only the anguish and amusements of hard work can train one to perceive the charms of chaos, the dynamics of its properties and improprieties.
One sees here that Sherman asks much of his students, and rightly so. But in such cerebration look also on what he asks of their working a "distributive tension" into their performing bodies. It reminds me of Frank Conroy's Body and Soul (1993), a fine novel by another pianist, and, indeed, by yet another teaching writer.
The bouncing up and down of happy hands [Sherman writes] represents the physical analogy to feel-good methods for boosting the psyche. The bogeyman here, as always, is vile tension, lean as Cassius and mean as Iago. But, in fact, how does tension develop?
Tension arises from insecurity, and insecurity arises from ignorance. Ignorance, in our line of work, means not knowing the notes — an umbrella charge covering a multitude of sins, such as not knowing how the notes are organized, related, structured, and composed. That is, one's not knowing the composition leads to a good deal of insecurity even if all the tactile and mnemonic devises are functioning. Spurious gestures of liberation superimposed on a shaky foundation and insufficient grounding in the detail provide only a film of authority.
If, however, the notes are securely fastened and the mechanism is orderly, the answer lies not in the elimination of tension, for tension is the sword and glue of music, but in the distribution of tension. The spine, the arms, the shoulders, the legs, the torso all must share in the musical enterprise, and by their breathing and coordination convert it into a statement of convictions. Tension, nerves, psychic and metaphysical uncertainty are in fact the actual ingredients of musical pathos if properly balanced and exploited.
Today I've thought to note Sherman's book not so we can perform on his keys, but so that we can grasp "the keys to performance" — in writing and music alike.