Posts from April 2011

April 30th, 2011

Poetry Anthologies!

I could hardly let National Poetry Month come to a close without paying some kind of tribute to the main venue where most readers encounter poetry, now could I? Once, ages ago, that venue would have been the bard in the hall, the singer on the portico, but for most readers since Gutenberg, the main place where they encounter poetry is in books – and not just any books, but poetry anthologies. Poet jostling against poet, centuries eliding into centuries, styles and movements recklessly colliding with their polar opposites. Most readers out there first read poetry in just such heterogeneous company … it was only later, as a mature-feeling act of adulthood, that some of them began buying entire books of poetry written by only one person.

Since the poetry anthology is perfectly adapted to pedagogy, they proliferate in schools, and this forces us to specify our terms. In terms of sheer numbers in print and sheer numbers of eyeballs that have scanned its pages, by far the most important poetry anthology of all time is the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the various incarnations of which have been mainstays in schools for three or four generations. But there are two kinds of poetry anthologies: the itemized tour and the personal statement. The Norton Anthologies are very much the former – they have to be, if they’re going to work in classrooms. And while I don’t discount the viral vitality of all literature (you can get infected regardless of the vector), I’m concentrating today on the other kind of poetry anthology, the personal statement. These are usually no less scholarly, and in their hearts they’d certainly like to be as impartially inclusive … but they’re not boardroom-generated, so they end up being as much reflections of their creators as they are reflections of the state of the art when they’re made.

The ground-breakers in (more or less!) modern times were Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Verse … and the main thing we notice about their original versions today is how narrow and parochial they seem, how limiting their personal statements are. We know there’s a bigger verse-world out there than all those syrupy pastorals, but you certainly can’t tell that from the neat and well-tended confines of the volumes themselves. I’ve got three very different – one can’t help but think “better” volumes in mind.

The first is one that might actually compete with the Norton Anthology for academic sales: Hayden Carruth’s hugely popular 1970 book The Voice That Is Great Within Us. There was a time when I could walk into the ramshackle apartment of any young poet and find a dog-eared copy of this book with its signature white cover. Carruth was a rotten poet himself, but with the overseeing of this particular volume, he hit a fascinating balance – like all the best ‘personal statement’ poetry anthologies, this one can be very pleasurably read from front to back like a novel, rather than picked and pecked through. Although I’ll peck for you now, since I’d like to share one poem I love from each of the three anthologies mentioned here. From Carruth’s book it’s got to be Countee Cullen’s quick ditty “Incident”:

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

The most august of the three volumes I’m writing about today – indeed, quite possibly the most august poetry anthology in English – is Helen Gardner’s mighty successor to the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse. I prefer the Gardner even to its own successor, since that later version seems to me to be an Oxford Book that’s finally more concerned with what it’s not leaving out than with what it’s including, if you follow the distinction. Any personal statement that even so much as acknowledges consensus is irredeemably craven, which is why I prefer the magisterial perfection of Gardner’s version. Here are all the greatest names of English poetry, to an absolutely remarkable degree unmixed with baser matter, and here, unapologetically, are all the greatest poems by those great names, one after another in an astounding, uplifting fusillade. I’ll again pick only one, well-known and well-loved by me: Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which starts like this:

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

And that ends, wonderfully, like this:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;

There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And naturally, in any post like this, we must come at last to simple personal favorites, and I have one: the magnificent 1998 soup-to-nuts update of Mark Van Doren’s Anthology of World Poetry, this one edited by Katharine Washburn and John Major and full of 1300 pages of endless variety and wonder. Where the Gardner volume has one immortal standard after another, this volume is a steady stream of surprises, whole worlds of the unexpected on every page. It’s broken down roughly chronologically and sprawls across the whole of recorded human history – African chants, Elizabethan madrigals, Chinese miniatures, Beat imponderables. This is my single favorite poetry anthology, the book I would hand to somebody if they stood next to me in the Poetry section of the Brattle and asked me “What one book should I get?” In part this is due to the elastic range of the contents, because more than anything poetry should be about not letting our aesthetics calcify – but mainly due to the sheer beauty of so much of what’s in here. I could pick a dozen examples instantly, but I’ll stick to just one: a very loose adaptation of Horace by J. D. McClatchy, a poem called “Late Night Ode” that I’ve loved for long enough so that some of its terms are already outdated (CNN, beepers…):

It’s over, love. Look at me pushing fifty now,

Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,

The piles and the boggy prostate, the crooked penis,

The sour taste of each day’s first lie,

And that recurrent dream of years ago pulling

A swaying bead-chain of moonlight,

Of slipping between the cool sheets of dark

along a body like my own, but blameless.

What good’s my cut-glass conversation now,

Now I’m so effortlessly vulgar and sad?

You get from life what you can shake from it?

for me, it’s g and t’s all day and CNN.

Try the blond boychick lawyer, entry level

At eighty grand, who pouts about the overtime,

Keeps Evian and a beeper in his locker at the gym,

And hash in tinfoil under the office fern.

There’s your hound from heaven, with buccaneer

Curls and perfumed war-paint on his nipples.

His answering machine always has room for one more

Slurred, embarrassed call from you-know-who.

Some nights I’ve laughed so hard the tears

won’t stop. Look at me now. Why now?

I long ago gave up pretending to believe

Anyone’s memory will give as good as it gets.

So why these stubborn tears? and why do I dream

Almost every night of holding you again,

Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone,

Through the bruised unbalanced waves.

I can’t recommend World Poetry eagerly enough – if you ever find a copy, snatch it up. And if you should have the option to spend a few warmly drunken nights exchanging favorite finds with a beautiful young poet, don’t hesitate to do that too. It definitely adds to the experience.

April 27th, 2011

The Collected Poetry of Thom Gunn!

Our book today is 1994’s The Collected Poems of Thom Gunn, who was born in England and followed his lover to California at the height of the drug-soaked ‘counter-culture’ movement then cresting there. He dove into that movement with the same studied abandon he released on all the things that interested him, becoming at once its warden and its bard.

At Trinity College he’d absorbed phenomenal amounts of information and spent countless hours straining his way through what he called ‘a thicket of forms.’ He learned the names and measures of all poetic styles; he learned their limitations and their freedoms; he learned how to do them all, and how to make them do his bidding. In short, he learned what virtually no poets writing today bother to learn: the craft of poetry. Poets – especially young poets – today conceive of the status of ‘poet’ as something inborn, something cellular that they only need to proclaim in order to brandish. They call themselves ‘poets’ with the lazy arrogance endemic to work-shirkers, and they scurry from ill-lit reading to ill-lit reading with the bitter collegiality of people who’ve decided that as bad as ‘the scene’ is, it sure beats sitting down and studying quatrains. In the tangle of this misperception, “I’m a poet” is tortured into synonymity with sloth, or even disfunction. “I’m a poet” becomes the reason why “I don’t write well,” or even why “I don’t write at all.” Show me a ‘poet’ under the age of 25 today, and I’ll show you someone who couldn’t pick a sestina out of a police lineup and who thinks quintain is the crusty old shark-killer in “Jaws.” And worse: if you confront them with this ignorance, you won’t get shame – you’ll get a sneer: “I’m a poet – I don’t bother with those things.”

In the bright new light of a paradise state, Thom Gunn explored all the loose verse-styles making the rounds, and I read all the results (because this is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets) with interest and often pleasure, not because I like those looser styles but because I knew that with him they weren’t the results of mere cowardice – only genuine craft has the right to abandon itself: poets who don’t want to be charlatans learn poetry before they start crapping around with it.

Gunn paid his discipline the honor of knowing it in every quirk and detail, and his “Collected Poems” spans his whole working career, from his earliest volumes like Fighting Terms and My Sad Captains to the late masterworks he created when his fierce talents and fierce heart was confronted with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

These styles and moods range from the urbanities of Catullus in “A Map of the City”:

I stand upon a hill and see

A luminous country under me,

Through which at two the drunk must weave;

The transient’s pause, the sailor’s leave.

I notice, looking down the hill,

Arms braced upon a window sill;

And on the web of fire escapes

Move the potential, the grey shapes.

I hold the city here, complete:

And every shape defined by light

Is mine, or corresponds to mine,

Some flickering or some steady shine.

This map is ground of my delight.

Between the limits, night by night,

I watch a malady’s advance,

I recognize my love of chance.

By the recurrent lights I see

Endless potentiality,

The crowded, broken, and unfinished!

I would not have the risk diminished.

To the deceptively delicate miniature-work of Basho, as in “Considering the Snail”:

The snail pushes through a green

night, for the grass is heavy

with water and meets over

the bright path he makes, where rain

has darkened the earth’s dark. He

moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring

as he hunts. I cannot tell

what power is at work, drenched there

with purpose, knowing nothing.

What is a snail’s fury? All

I think is that it later

I parted the blades above

the tunnel and saw the thin

trail of broken white across

litter, I would never have

imagined the slow passion

to that deliberate process.

And all of it sadly culminates in the grey angers of his greatest book, The Man with Night Sweats, including what is for me one of the most true and agonized renditions of the sheer haplessness of surviving a loved one’s death, here at the close of the poem “Lament”:

Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a sense

Of being ejected with some violence

From vigil in a white and distant spot

Where I was numb, into this garden plot

Too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.

I was delivered into time again.

– The variations that I live among

Where your long body too used to belong

And where the still bush is minutely active.

You never thought your body was attractive,

Though others did, and yet you trusted it

And must have loved its fickleness a bit

Since it was yours and gave you what it could,

Till near the end it let you down for good,

Its blood hospitable to those guests who

Took over by betraying it into

The greatest of its inconsistencies

This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.

Thom Gunn was a resolute explorer. He sought out drugs to learn their gifts (of course they addicted him in the end), he sought out all conversations, always, to learn their speakers, he disdained no ‘pop culture’ until he’d searched it for both strengths and bankruptcies, and while it’s true that his open-mindedness stopped tragically short of appreciating the Legion of Super-Heroes (“there’s just too many of them!”), it had few other limits. And his talent, strong and resourceful to the end, met the catastrophe of its age with the only weapons at its disposal. And they were enough.

April 26th, 2011

Super-Exposure in the Penny Press!

Readers who might once have been irritated by the sight of a topless Rob Lowe on the cover of Vanity Fair (the top item in a strong Penny Press week) will, like all right-thinking individuals in the world, instantly recall his fantastic stint as Sam Seaborn on the still-intensely-missed The West Wing and crack a grudging smile instead. Lowe, it appears, has written some kind of book about his various adventures in Hollywood. I haven’t checked yet to see if it includes any wistful anecdotes about his tenure on one of the best TV shows of all time; the excerpt in this month’s VF is about his much younger days, when he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” with a whole team of fellow Hollywood he-boys, all under the watchful gaze of their passionate (and self-evidently insane) director. While it’s fun to watch Lowe contort himself to be nice-guy diplomatic rather than outright calling the young Tom Cruise a robotic authority-douche, neither the grossly overpraised book nor the soppy, ham-handed movie has ever interested me, so I quickly roamed away in search of greener pastures.

Luckily, this month’s issue had plenty. There was a bitterly, sinus-clearingly angry shout-piece by Joseph Stiglitz about the gigantic gap between the top wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everybody else. This is by a wide margin the angriest piece I’ve read in Vanity Fair in many, many years. Stiglitz rehearses the starkest inequities in America’s financial landscape:

Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century – inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years – whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative – went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards “performance bonuses” that they felt compelled to change the name to “retention bonuses” (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared to those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.

He ends up sounding a warning to the super-rich that their days might end in a public uprising of a kind not seen in America since Shays’ Rebellion – the warning is the only major flaw in the piece. It forgets that sage line from “1776”: Most people with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Comparatively few Libyans or Egyptians want to be military despots (I hope, anyway), so they have no ideological restraint in rising up against military despots. But virtually everybody in America – especially every young person – wants to be a plutocratic bastard who can buy a jet but can’t quickly recall his kids’ names. As long as that’s true, the super-rich in the United States have nothing to fear from the common folk they’re disinheriting.

After the fire and brimstone of Stiglitz, it was curiously peaceful to wade into Christopher Hitchens’ piece on the debt Western society owes to the stately cadences of the King James Bible. It’s a piece without surprises (we’ve read many similar things done on this, the anniversary of the publication of that epochal work), unless its own existence counts – these new long pieces from Hitchens can’t help but be viewed as extremely literary progress reports on the state of Hitchens’ illness. Encouraging progress reports, since for a while there last year it looked as if he wouldn’t be doing much of this kind of work again. I hadn’t realized until I saw this piece and his last one just how much I’d miss them if they were gone forever. And it’s interesting that he’s keeping up with his reading, although I imagine that would be the last thing to go in any case:

The rack and the rope were not stinted for dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned. (Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece historical novel, Wolf Hall, tells this exciting and gruesome store in such a way as to revise the shining image of “Saint” Thomas More, the “man for all seasons,” almost out of existence. High time, in my view. The martyrdoms he inflicted on others were more cruel and irrational than the one he sought and found for himself).

Much less satisfying was James Wolcott’s tired screed against superhero movies, which consists of him whining about how loud and confusing they all are, for all the world as if he were a crotchety 90-year-old who just wants the grandkids to settle down:

For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.

This quintessential complaint of the elderly – wanting things to be different from the dictates of their own natures – is unlikely to yield a Bergman superhero movie any time soon; I’ll just have to hope that instead Wolcott regains his sense of fun in time for the onslaught he’s so correct in predicting.

The New York Review of Books, as always, provides a corrective to that kind of complaining. There’s nothing quite as restorative as literary journalism done really, really well, and since I myself gravitate toward all things historical, The NYRB can often get my tail wagging – as in this latest issue, where the indomitable Gordon Wood reviews two books on John and Abigail Adams and Sean Wilentz reviews Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt. Both pieces are thoughtful, detailed, and wonderfully assured, which is tough enough to do when reviewing a contemporary novel that any schmoe off the street might pick up and enjoy (“what’s it about” will usually cover 99 % of their readerly needs) and is bloody murder to pull off when writing about history, about which the average reader neither knows nor knows to care. Reviewing works of history is doubly tricky: you’ve not only got to give your review-readers enough background on the book so they’ll appreciate your observations about it, you’ve also got to give them enough background on all of human history so they’ll know what the Hell you’re going on about. Both Wood and Wilentz do a great job at this every time they turn out a review – it’s an inspiration.

Of course, since nobody reads history it’s those fiction-reviews that keep the show on the road, and they, too, very often elicit inspiring performances. Over in the London Review of Books, for instance, Adam Mars-Jones (easily the coolest reviewer-name we’ll see today) out-does every other writer in the issue by turning in a fantastic piece on Philip Hensher’s new novel King of the Badgers. This is a classic case of the review being every bit as interesting, fun, and well-written as the book it’s reviewing, a contemporary novel about a crime that might have been committed in a benighted seaside town. Mars-Jones concentrates a chunk of his review on the novel’s gay characters, a discussion he opens in the most inviting way, by highly literary rambling:
For a straight writer to have a gay hero is highly unusual …The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during the war that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T. E. Lawrence and Alexander the Great.
Mars-Jones returns to this subject of ‘writing gay’ all through his long and fantastic review, including a great little bit on the imagined popular reception of the 1950s novels of Angus Wilson:
Wilson was running the risk of having his novels labelled sordid and unwholesome. Awkward breakfast-table conversations were on the cards, with the brigadier’s wife saying brightly, ‘Doesn’t he do all those spivs and pouffs well?’ and her husband muttering: ‘Damn sight too well, if you ask me.’ If he had put more homosexual reality into the book [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes], it would either have been rejected by publishers or else approached by reviewers with gas masks, pomanders and tongs.
And it’s entirely fitting that right there in the midst of the best review in this issue of the LRB there’s a big, beautiful ad for … none other than Open Letters Monthly! Where readers will find many excellent reviews every single month! The ad was superbly designed by Greg Waldmann and features a generous quote from the always-discerning Scott Esposito … and best of all, it’s sitting right there, in the middle of another great review journal. The air of confraternity is salubrious, to say the least – and if the appearance of such an ad should move writers like Adam Mars-Jones and his most talented peers to peruse Open Letters, well, so much the better.

April 24th, 2011

Comics: Essential Thor Volume 5!

Our book today is Marvel’s new Essential Thor Volume 5, which for some unknown reason features a retouched version of this cover:

– which is just a run-of-the-mill John Buscema (the volume claims the cover is done by Buscema and John Romita, even though that’s visually not the case) fight scene with the dialogue removed, instead of this cover, which is a vibrant basic from the tuxedo-neat pen of John Romita:

And the mis-choice of cover maybe gives readers a hint of the trouble to come: this is an uneven volume, to put it mildly. It collects 25 issues from the early 1970s, all written by the great Gerry Conway, almost all drawn by the great John Buscema (a couple are done by his perennially-underrated brother Sal, and a couple more are only roughly laid out by either Buscema, with finishes done by the, shall we say less inspired? pen of Don Perlin), almost all inked by the great Vince Colletta. And don’t get me wrong: the volume has dozens of great moments in Thor’s comic book history. But unlike previous Essential Thor volumes, it doesn’t really boast a classic Thor-style epic storyline like some we’ve examined here over the years.

Not that it doesn’t try real hard! Gerry Conway took over the writing and plotting chores on “Thor” directly from the master himself, Stan Lee, but even if you’re encountering the stories in this thick black-and-white volume for the first time, you’ll notice right away that Conway doesn’t quite have the knack that Lee had for crafting just the right mixture of super-heroics and bargain-rate Wagnerisms to keep Thor a believable character. And again, it’s not from want of effort – there is, in fact, the sketchy idea of a great big epic-storyline unfolding across a large number of the issues contained in this volume, but it only comes close to coalescing.

Festivities start off with him again – Mangog, the mole-clawed prehensile-tailed super-baddie with the strength of … wait for it … a billion billion beings. He’s wreaking havoc in Asgard as this volume’s set of reprints gets underway, and he’s once again intent on killing Odin, the king of the Asgardian gods, killing Thor just ’cause, and last but not least, drawing the Odinsword from its scabbard and thereby killing the universe (Mangog only and always talks about revenge, so the point of that last part is a little trick to follow). The Asgardians are losing badly – including Odin: Conway very much liked the concept of Odin as an older and wiser-but-still-powerful king-god figure, rather than the energy-wielding cosmic heavyweight favored by Lee.

But Odin, as always, has a plan. Many plans, in fact, so many plans that not only Thor and the readers but Odin himself have no hope of understanding them. Take this storyline, for instance: Odin has sent Thor (and his comrades the Warriors Three) to the Twilight Well at the World’s End, to collect some of its mystical waters, and he’s sent Thor’s beloved goddess Sif (under the protection of Hildegarde, a gigantic fur-caped warrior woman of Conway’s invention, a wonderfully hard-bitten character who’s never used again in “Thor” and really should be) to a mysterious world populated by dragons, knights, and steamboats. Odin has his reasons for both these decisions – but they make no sense and end up only pointlessly complicating things and, briefly, costing him his life. The reasons involve Kartag, the huge but noble guardian of the well, the Norns, who have some interest in Thor’s errand, Ego-Prime, a giant-sized avatar of the living planet Ego, and three apparently normal humans who’ve been picked by Odin to play a part in some kind of cosmic-upgrade to godhood. No explanation of the need for three brand-new gods is ever given, nor do we ever see those brand-new gods again, although Thor’s outrage over the manipulations involved in their creation causes Odin to banish him to Earth forever for about the tenth time. During this banishment Thor and his friends interrupt their bouts of self-pity to fight various Earthbound menaces like the Absorbing Man, but when Balder the Brave shows up and has a nervous breakdown because of what he’s seen back in Asgard.

Thor and crew determine to go back to Asgard even though they’ve been banished, to see what’s going on. They find the city deserted of gods and infested with talking, gun-toting reptiles who inform Thor that Asgard was attacked by marauding space-ants in flying saucers who somehow defeated all of Asgard including Odin and took the whole of them back to their homeworld to sell as slaves. Anybody familiar with comic books would have sniffed out the falsehood underneath this story in two seconds: in comics as in the movies, reptiles are always the bad guys. But Thor must not have read comics when he was a kid, because he trusts the lizards and voyages with them to the space-ants’ world, where he does indeed find a battered and drugged Odin being held as a slave. The rescuers are briefly held as slaves as well, until Thor discovers that the stinking gruel the prisoners are being fed is the thing that saps both their will and their power. He refuses it eat it, breaks free, frees everybody else, deals with the lizard-men (who – duh – turned out to be playing a treacherous game of their own), and everybody sails back to Asgard, having adventures along the way.

Like I mentioned, all of this raises a lot more questions than it answers. For instance, how the hell does an invasion force of space-ants conquer Asgard? And how do they manage to break the will of every single Asgardian – including Odin – so quickly? And how’s come Balder made it out in one piece? And no matter how he escaped, why did it cause him to lose his mind – isn’t he a several-thousand-year-old warrior god?

The last story-arc in this volume concerns Tana Nile and the Colonizers of Rigel, whose far-off space empire (curiously unused elsewhere in the Marvel Universe) is being threatened by the Black Stars, enormous wandering space-bodies that consume every planetary system they touch. Throughout these stories, Conway yields over and over to the temptation to mix the mythological elements of Thor’s world with this kind of science-fiction plot (there are no fewer than six space-related menaces in these issues), and the results often make for great moments. Thor and his comrades travel in the Starjammer, a Viking-style wooden longship complete with rudder and sails but mystically capable of interstellar flight, and Buscema does some wonderful work juxtaposing its archaic appearance against the space-hardware called for by Conway’s plots.

Another aspect that crops up again and again in Conway’s stories is his conception of what Asgardians are like as a people – especially, that they love to fight. Time and again in these stories, we’re told that their eyes gleam at the prospect of battle, that they enjoy it for its own sake, etc. I think this kind of characterization is a whole lot more sensible – and enjoyable – than the saintly oafs who so often cropped up in Stan Lee’s Asgardian mini-epics; Conway’s Asgardians aren’t saintly, they’re bloodthirsty (and, in another refreshing twist, unapologetically randy) – and their immortality can make them fairly obnoxious … most certainly including Thor himself. One of my favorite moments in this volume illustrates both these things, when, gazing in wonder at the vast space fleet carrying the entire fleeing race of Rigellians out of the path of the Black Stars, Balder asks the quintessential Asgardian question:

Nine billion people, milord … the entire population of the Colonizer’s lost world, in flight from a menace they cannot escape! ‘Tis a most strange insanity. Why do they not stand and fight?

To which Thor replies:

Because they are only mortal, brave Balder … and their lives are too short to be spent on useless warfare. They seek only to live, and honor can mean nothing to such creatures …Only life matters, and only death is feared. And, in the end, who can say if this is strange insanity … or a strength we may never hope to understand!

There are lots and lots of other great moments scattered liberally throughout this volume, of course. Just because Conway was usually much better suited to writing more down-to-earth stuff doesn’t mean he doesn’t rise to the cosmic occasion quite often. We see Hildegarde chewing out Thor for yelling at the Avengers’ butler Jarvis; we see a depiction of the king and queen of the Trolls that’s actually sympathetic; we get some fascinating Freudian exchanges between Thor and his evil half-brother Loki during one of their obligatory fight-scenes (Loki’s angry because Thor connived to steal Odin’s love! Apparently he hasn’t been reading “Thor” back-issues, or keeping up with all those banishments-to-earth); we get a wonderful sequence where Tana Nile complains that a massive door is made of “Mondurian steel – a foot thick and electronically sealed as well! It would require a company of good Rigellian battlecraft to even penetrate it!” To which Thor responds, “Hildegarde – I shall have need of thy good arm! Shall we see if the strength of two lone Asgardians be equal to that company of Rigellian battlecraft?”

And in a charming little scene, we get … Gerry Conway himself! He and some of his colleagues in the Marvel bullpen (including Glynis Wein, whose fantastic coloring work is uncredited through most of this reprint volume – and invisible anyway, the only price readers pay for the cheap cover price and bountiful contents) have travelled to Rutland, Vermont to watch the famous Hallowe’en parade presided over by Tom Fagan, and in a move that was almost unheard of at the time (the classic example being the moment when Nick Fury’s men turn Stan Lee and Jack Kirby away from the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm), we hear a little of their banter before the fighting erupts.

Great moments, then, though no really great sustained story-arcs this time around. But a collection of great moments is certainly justification enough for this volume, especially since otherwise many of these issues would just crumble to dust unread by anybody. It’s my hope that Marvel’s craze to cash in on the hoopla surrounding the upcoming “Thor” movie will push them to reprint just about everything Thor-related they’ve got in their capacious archives. There’s a LOT of great stuff there, and it all deserves a new audience.

April 20th, 2011

The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick!

Our book today is the 1968 Norton printing of J. Max Patrick’s 1963 edition of the complete poetry of Robert Herrick, if that isn’t too derivational for you. Patrick’s volume is a no-nonsense scholarly affair, the kind of thing that features very few concessions to the educated layman who has always been Norton’s key audience. The notes are extensive but often recondite, although they wouldn’t have seen themselves as such back fifty years ago. Herrick was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics in the very best way somebody can be: he loved them, he absorbed them through his very reading pores, and he breathed their air when he was singing his songs and composing his verse. Some critics have complained that his verses smell of the lamp, that he’s at times merely showing off his pithy allusivity. I disagree: it’s not the quotation-hunting fug of the study that fills his verses but instead the quiet joy of the reading-chair, the side-table crowded with much-read and much-beloved volumes, the marvellous feeling that classical world gives of being an actual place, a retreat into sanity from the chaotic modern world.

Herrick certainly knew his fair share of that chaos, although he devoted quite a bit of energy to avoiding it. He was born in London in 1591 to a prosperous goldsmith and banker who the following year died in a fall from one of his house’s high windows. Suicide was suspected, and if it had been proven, the family would have lost everything. Herrick’s mother – a thoroughly remarkable woman named Julian Stone – called in every favor she could think of and fought to prove accidental death … and eventually she succeeded. The result was that young Robert could be apprenticed to his uncle, another prosperous goldsmith, and sent to Cambridge, where he got a B.A. in 1617 and an M.A. in 1620. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1623 and was the Vicar of Dean Prior in Devon by 1630.

So by age 38 he had a comfortable living (and a small inheritance from his mother when she died), no wife, no children, and no very pressing demands on his time – which was all good news, since he was an incurable reader and writer in the best English clerical tradition. He filled his days, his months, his years with Ovid and Juvenal and Virgil, and it’s perhaps no surprise that by 1640 he was in the Stationer’s Register as a writer of poems.

In a normal world, Herrick might have expected to go on like that, serenely serving his flock and filling his evenings with writing in his study. But when Cromwell and Parliament took up arms against King Charles I in 1642, the world stopped being normal. Like most people, Herrick kept his head down and hoped the turmoil wouldn’t touch him. But if you believe in your bones that the king is the king and your country is taken over by men who believe otherwise, turmoil will find you – and it found Herrick. He was expelled from his vicarage in 1647.

For twelve long years, he was adrift. It happened to countless other men in the England of his time, and it arguably hit hardest the ones just like Herrick – the ones who for whatever reason found it next to impossible to shift with the times. Those twelve years have resisted detailed historical inquiry – probably his relatives supported him for part of it (despite his long apprenticeship to his uncle years before, it’s permissible to believe he was never a very good goldsmith, and those contacts need to be scrupulously upkept anyway, not allowed to wither while you write sermons in Devon). It’s possible he tried to be optimistic about the unwanted changes in his life, possible he sought a small re-invention of himself. 1648 was the year his big work, the Hesperides, was published, but we have very little historical indication of what that meant to him.

It should mean more to us today than it does. The Hesperides and the Noble Numbers contain a great many wonderful things. Patrick lays both works out alongside various other verses of various lengths, works that were almost certainly written by Herrick, and the resulting volume is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a definitive collection of his work. Here we get our poet using all the voices at his command – never a great array, but all fully inhabited. He can quip:

I’ll write, because I’ll give

You Critics means to live;

For should I not supply

The Cause, th’ effect would die.

And he’s not afraid to echo the great authors who provided so many happy hours in his study, as in this salutation to his book as it journeys out into the world:

While thou didst keep thy Candor undefil’d,

Deerely I lov’d thee; as my first-borne child:

But when I saw thee wantonly to roame

From house to house, and never stay at home;

I brake my bonds of Love, and bad thee goe,

Regardless whether well thou sped’st, or no.

On with thy fortunes, then, what e’er they be;

If good I’le smile, if bad I’le sigh for Thee.

Or when he offers a pretty – and familiar – little note on a child who’s died:

Here she lies, a pretty bud,

Lately made of flesh and blood:

Who, as soone, fell fast asleep,

As her little eyes did peep.

Give her strewings; but not stir

The earth, that lightly covers her.

The Restoration of course changed his stunned and rootless life back into something resembling its old shape: in 1660 he was returned to his vicarage, and there he lived in resumed peace and presumed happiness until 1674 when death took him at a ripe old age (and, we can hope, quickly and quietly, in his study, after a particularly good night of reading). He had to wait a while for critical reception to warm to his work, but there have been some wonderful recent books about him – most especially Floris Delattre’s Robert Herrick from 1912 and S. Musgrove’s The Universe of Robert Herrick from 1950 – but as always with poets, he epitomizes himself as well as anybody, including during one of his thrice-yearly melodramatic renunciations of his art:

Ile sing no more, nor will I longer write

Of that sweet Lady, or that gallant Knight:

Ile sing no more of Frosts, Snowes, Dews and Showers;

No more of Groves, Meades, Springs, and wreaths of Flowers:

Ile write no more, nor will I tell or sing

Of Cupid, and his wittie coozning:

Ile sing no more of death, or shall the grave

No more my Dirges, and my Trentalls have.

He kept right on singing about all of those things, naturally – probably right up to the end. Poets have very little choice about that, after all.

April 19th, 2011

Hay Fever in the Penny Press

Sometimes, the Penny Press is just plain depressing. This season that feeling is occasioned by the requisite avalanche of hipster posing and screeching lies accompanying the publication of a posthumous novel-fragment by David Foster Wallace. I knew months ago that this fragment was coming, and its approach has all this time felt like the dread of hay fever. There were the first faint trickles in Vanity Fair and Men’s Journal (“Could it be … the greatest unfinished novel of all time? I don’t know, dude … I just don’t know”), then shooting buds all over the place in literary journals that ought to know better, and now it’s reached full bloom, with Tom McCarthy’s 150,000 word review in the New York Times Book Review.

By far the most depressing thing about all this – more depressing than its sadness (the author killed himself, after all), more depressing than its fraud (it’s a fragment of a novel – it doesn’t warrant reviewing at all), and more depressing than its misdirection (its author was never, even at his most productively controlled, all that talented) – is its lumbering inevitability, like a Zeffirelli production at the Met. I’ve seen it happen many times before; I watched it with Hemingway, I saw the talentless Sylvia Plath become venerated, I cringed as the execrable Kurt Vonnegut got the process started himself. It’s always unpleasant, and I always hope it’s only the craze of a single season (Henry Green, for instance, and, I sure as Hell hope, Elizabeth Bishop), not the zeitgeist taking hold.

I read Wallace’s posthumous novel-fragment, The Pale King, months ago. There was no way for me to either like or dislike it, since it’s a fragment rather than a completed whole. All I could do was notice things about it, and I did – negative things, such as the continuation of the author’s apparently endless willingness to masturbate intellectually in public, but also positive things, the slow accretion of the habits of craft, the possibility – now heartbreaking – that this writer might very slowly be learning the disciplines he should have had in place before he started his career. I doubt there was ever any danger of him returning to his old vomit ala Scott Turow or Bret Easton Ellis, but in this fragment there were hints that he was dreaming of finally leaving the narrow estuary of himself and venturing out into the wider world (not many hints, I grant you – there are something like six characters in this fragment who have the author’s name and are loving reflections of him – but some). I would have applauded that, because I never doubted his intelligence.

That’s never going to happen, of course – David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, thereby both preventing The Pale King from getting finished and virtually guaranteeing this hay fever season. In his New Yorker piece last week, Jonathan Franzen hinted that perhaps Wallace was on some level planning that glut of posthumous reactions, maybe even relishing the thought of it. I’m hoping not, but in either case, I’m also hoping the NYTimes Book Review Haggadah represents the worst of it. Because it’s pretty damn bad.

Tom McCarthy himself has some talent as a novelist, but that just makes it worse. He’s as self-indulgent as Wallace was and very nearly as self-infatuated, which has the distasteful effect of making his “review” read like a Gospel According To. Reading his name at the top of a “review” doesn’t bode well for any kind of impartiality in the passages that follow.

And it isn’t there. McCarthy writes his 900,000 words under the shadow of two completely immovable assumptions: that Wallace was a great writer, and that The Pale King is not only a book but a great book. So we’re told things like “The Pale King is pervaded by an air of melancholia, an acute sense of loss” even though it’s a manuscript-fragment and so can’t be pervaded by anything. Treating a badly unfinished manuscript as though it were a completed novel – or worse, far worse, acting like the difference is immaterial – is the hallmark of this hay fever.

To his credit, McCarthy senses this on some level. But just when that hint might force him to, you know, write about something else, he takes his Gospel act to the next level in order to stay on-topic:

Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – in an age of data saturation.

But it’s not the age’s data saturation that’s the point – it’s the parallel saturation in Wallace’s fiction, including in this novel-fragment. And that saturation is not only there by choice, it’s also the most visible and most annoying of Wallace’s flaws as a writer. That cutesy-poo over-bombardment of the manuscript with 200-page digressions, rafts of footnotes, endlessly tail-chasing syntax, all of it geared to make the writing of that manuscript – and by accidental side-effect the reading of it – as close to the simulation of a video game as possible. The fullest manifestation of this insane cowardice is Wallace’s dark gift to literature: that you have to concentrate on the fizzy thrills of weird typography in order to, like, enjoy a book – because otherwise, God help us all, you’d have to, you know, concentrate – otherwise, boring old things like plot and character development would have to matter … and if they mattered, somebody calling himself a writer would have to work at them, in order to do them well. Wallace wrote a 1000-page novel in part in the smug assumption that such an act would protect him from any accusation of laziness – and yet he was the laziest American author since Sydney Sheldon. In writing as in life, laziness isn’t defined by how little you do – it’s defined by how much you’re willing to do to avoid work. Wallace buried his editors and publishers with hundreds of pages of ‘notes’ and ‘clarifications,’ buried his books in hundreds and hundreds of pages of pointless verbiage, but he didn’t do any of that for the reasons he helped the literary world to craft. There was never any of the ‘tortured artist with so much to say‘ involved in all that over-production … it, all of it, every page of it, was produced in order to avoid doing the actual work of writing, the shaping of plot and character and action, the whittling and revising and precision that are supposed to separate the novelist from the tyro. That’s epic, Biblical laziness.

And it prompts laziness in turn. McCarthy at one point is practically asleep at the keyboard when he writes, “The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction.” I’m not at all sure what any of that means, but I’d hazard a guess that “issues of emotion and agency” are central to pretty much every novel ever written. These are the kinds of things reviewers write when the grip of a celebrity season is upon them, and even Wallace deserves better.

He almost gets it in this same Book Review, when Jennifer Schuessler turns in a very good Essay on some of the ways the I.R.S. has featured in American life and literature. She almost takes Wallace to task for shoddy plotting – she doesn’t quite do it, but she almost does. Even a partial hint at any of the dead author’s defects is yards and yards more than the literary world has been doing in response to this novel-fragment, but if Schuessler disliked The Pale King, she buries it under talk about tax codes, tax code novelists, and that bad old literary tax-dodger, Edmund Wilson. It’s a good piece, but at one point she writes, “One wonders what Wilson would have made of ‘The Pale King’ …”

I, for one, don’t wonder.

April 17th, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree in the Penny Press!

The linear procession that is my weekly plow through the latest furrow of the Penny Press couldn’t have started off worse this time around – not even with a ‘short’ story by Alice Munro: The New Yorker featured a long piece by Jonathan Franzen that was just about as appalling an exercise in narcissism as anything I’ve seen from somebody who doesn’t run a book-blog. Franzen, of course, is the author of Freedom, the big gaseous novel that’s going to win the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Zee-Magnee Prizes for Greatest Thing Ever Created By Anybody, Including When God Created the Universe. He’s also one of the ground-zero survivors of the suicide of his friend and fellow author David Foster Wallace, and I understand and accept where that confluence leads. It’s probably inevitable that some writing would result from it – after all, in such circumstances, even the least literary person in the world might be moved to put pen to paper. Franzen is not the least literary person in the world – he himself has commented many times on his apparently uncontrollable urge to, as he puts it, “narratize” himself – so something like this essay was probably going to happen at some point.

But I find myself asking the same question about this piece – a clumsy half-cloning of a literary appreciation of Robinson Crusoe (for which an expedition to Selkirk Island was enacted, of course – nobody reads at home anymore, silly!) and a reminiscence of a lost and troubled friend – that I ask about so much of Franzen’s work: did it have to be so bad? Did it have to show so little thought, or rather, so much completely misdirected thought? I know Franzen would probably say it’s his arch and awkward impulses that make him worth our time as a writer, but there’s a difference between adopting an arch and awkward kitten and working full-time at the animal shelter.

Franzen’s been writing things – fiction, nonfiction, and the pure self-absorption he and Wallace perfected for a whole new generation – for years; how could he not have seen how maladroit this piece would end up being, if he insisted on keeping the mechanical framework of the Defoe device? It’s maddening to watch him churn out the requisite travel-essay paragraphs (it’s so windy there!), the requisite lies (tobacco addicts always, always, always claim their vacations from the busy world were also vacations from tobacco, when if that’s how addiction worked, nobody would be addicted), and the requisite posturing (litt’rary authorities are startled awake and hauled on stage, as though Franzen felt compelled to say, “hey, don’t forget – I’m an incredible intellectual heavyweight, in addition to being this shy and sensitive guy”) – especially maddening because behind all that stuff, he’s actually got something to write about this time. I would have read a Daniel Defoe essay from him with interest, but yoking it so stubbornly like this to a very, very different kind of essay – more interesting, yes, but also more shameful to actually publish – is a beginner’s mistake, or else the mistake of somebody who no longer has those ‘first readers’ every writer needs so badly.

So our author goes to Selkirk Island to read Robinson Crusoe – but also because he has to do something in the wake of his friend’s suicide. As a result, neither the trivia nor the trauma is well-served, but the trauma is at least arresting … and interestingly conflicted. I was surprised – and I shouldn’t have been – by the sharpness of the anger in Franzen’s writing about what Wallace did. And of course I was fascinated, who wouldn’t be, by the new personal details Franzen reveals about Wallace’s final year and downward spiral, the idea Franzen has that Wallace considered his suicide to be, in drug addict terms, “one last score” and an act of vengeance against both himself and his closest friends. But just because such details are fascinating doesn’t mean I should have been reading them – the personal, wounded parts of this weird piece are the best writing Franzen’s ever done, but they should have remained in his journal where they belong. I wish I could get this point through the Yaddo-addled brains of all our most lionized young writers: the reading public doesn’t, in fact, need you to “narratize” every aspect of your lives – exercising more restraint and more narrative control would actually make you better writers.

Fortunately, that first course didn’t ruin the meal. I moved on to the new Harper’s, and once there I did what I now happily always do: I turned straight to the “New Books” column and settled in to read Zadie Smith. I don’t know Smith, and I have no idea what she thinks of her new gig as Harper’s fiction critic, but sometimes even Irish Catholics know when not to question a good thing, so I just sit back and enjoy the show. I’ve rhapsodized here before about Smith as a literary critic, and here that rhapsody is put to the worst test the love of any book critic can face: what do you do when a great critic writes about a book you just don’t care about?

In this case, Smith writes about Edouard Levy’s Suicide and Peter Stamm’s Seven Years, and I couldn’t care less about either book, which made the going tough. But even so, the wonderful, winning tone, the voice Smith is creating in these columns won me over (finding the right voice being, of course, essential to the long-term business of writing anything) – won me over to her column, that is, not to the pretentious pieces of poop she reviews in it this time around. Here’s hoping next month she gorges herself on murder mysteries, or else takes in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon and tells us all about it. And in the meantime, this particular issue of Harper’s has one other thing that’s enormously worth your attention – no, not that laughably hideous cover illustration, which struck me as a bizarre practical joke until I remembered what century I live in … no, Nicholson Baker’s scintillating essay “Why I’m a Pacifist” is the non-Smith highlight of this issue, a refreshingly meaty essay where I’d expected to find yet more Franzen-style narcissism. It was so good it almost convinced me that some of its daffiest contentions just might be true.

But, much to my surprise, the real saving grace of my Penny Press trawling this time around came from a source I’d almost completely discounted: the good old Atlantic, whose slide into just another Beltway glossy has been decried here and elsewhere. Much to my dismay, I’ve come to associate the Atlantic with reading disappointment, and certainly a glance at this issue seemed to confirm that: a ‘genius’ issue without one true genius on display, a ‘culture’ issue as though that were a special, distant place (Selkirk Island, perhaps?) for which we should designate an isolated visit once in a while … and that Editor’s Note! Has 2011 yet seen so vertiginous a combination of arrogance and cringing? The Editors intend, I think, to offer some kind of justification for their decision to include to short stories in their ‘culture’ issue even though they’ve long since banished fiction from their ordinary (non-culture?) issues. Airy words are aired about the special qualities shared by the two stories in question, one by Stephen King, the other by Mary Morris, but I knew better than to get my hopes up, and I was right: the stories have a lot in common, beginning with the proudly-declared triviality of their origins and ending, I suppose, in how boring and awful they both are, but when the Editors describe them as “entertaining, interesting, and gloriously open,” they’re adding a whole lot of sawdust to the bread.

No, it wasn’t the special ‘cultural’ offerings on hand that made the issue for me: it was the workhorse rear-end (…) of the thing that did the trick, as always. Once all the ‘geniuses’ are done being interviewed about how incredible they are, the real power-hitters come out, and we get three fantastic essays in a row. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the impossible: an essay about Malcolm X that I actually found interesting. Christopher Hitchens reassures me that his medical treatments must be going well, because he turns in a long and utterly beguiling essay on yet another subject that doesn’t usually interest me at all: the poet Larkin and his various smutty doings. And best of all, towering over this week’s Penny Press offerings, there’s the mighty Benjamin Schwarz, writing about James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce – and in the process writing about yet another subject that doesn’t interest me at all: Los Angeles. Only a whole lot of money could ever possibly induce me to visit Los Angeles again, and nothing on Earth could make me re-read Mildred Pierce – and yet there I was, eagerly lapping up every word Schwarz wrote about both, solely on the basis of how wonderful those words are:

Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained of Mildred’s technique, “but found that it didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce – the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy – not just absorbing but romantic.

As usual with this critic, I could go on quoting (Hitchens on Larkin is equally quotable), and reading this piece by him and that piece by Zadie Smith (and knowing that Sam Sacks is there, every week, over in the Wall Street Journal) reminded me yet again that the current state of heavyweight American book-criticism is in good hands. Even if they all occasionally write about books I wouldn’t cross the street to read.

April 13th, 2011

Reel & Read: Jaws!

Our book today is Peter Benchley’s mega-bestselling 1974 novel Jaws, which was subsequently made into an obscure art-house film some of you may have seen. That film caused three horrible things to happen (well, four if you count prompting millions of people to go sit in dark movie theaters instead of taking a walk in Central Park): it made every single person in the Western world permanently terrified of swimming – or even wading past knee-deep – in the ocean, any ocean; it declared an open season on the killing of sharks which hasn’t lessened in fervor in the last forty years, even though most species of large shark are now all but extinct; and it took a wrecking-ball to the writing career of its author, who was capable of good work and might have been capable of great work (his father and grandfather certainly were) but who instead will be known forever only as “the author of Jaws.” Those are three heavy indictments to lay at the feet of a movie, but despite its gazillion readers, the book is largely innocent.

I’m turning my attention to the book today even though I wrote about it only (!) two or so years ago here. The reason? Why, because my “Reel & Read” partner in crime, Mr. Anderson, has decided to take time out from his wall-to-wall schedule reviewing new-release movies in order to take in Steven Spielberg’s super-hit again, and I really don’t need much excuse to revisit this novel.

Last time, as some you may recall, I brought up the parts of Benchley’s novel that were not only effective but essentially impossible to capture on film. In retrospect this seems to me a snotty and short-sighted assertion: of course virtually anything that can be conveyed in prose can be conveyed on film, if the film-maker has some talent and puts his mind to it. Re-reading Jaws for this post, I could easily picture all of it being filmed – but the book is in so many ways so different from the Spielberg movie that I found myself imagining the unimaginable: a “Jaws” remake directed by somebody else. That somebody else might decide to stick closer to the actual plot of the novel, in which there’s a lot more subtlety and land-based goings-on than makes it to the screen.

I read the novel before I saw the movie (I remember its original, dorky cover), and re-reading it has reminded me of all those goings-on. In the novel, ichthyologist Matt Hooper is still the idealistic nature-lover who can blurt out things like “Sharks have everything a scientist dreams of. They’re beautiful – God, now beautiful they are! They’re as graceful as any bird. They’re as mysterious as any animal on earth” (apparently, Benchley’s Hooper isn’t much of a reader, or he’d know not ever to say such things in a book … it’s just bound to, er, bite you) – but he’s also a stuck-up little prick quite a lot of the time, one who happily goes along when a distraught Ellen Brody awkwardly approaches him about having an affair. She and Hooper meet at a restaurant safely up the coast from Amity, the Long Island beach town where Ellen’s husband is chief of police, and the scene that follows, in which they fantasize aloud about what they’d like to do to each other, certainly wouldn’t be impossible to film – but it would sure as hell be impossible for Spielberg to film. I doubt he could even understand the words on the page.

Benchley is expertly parsimonious with words, when he’s narrating such hard-edged, adult scenes. There’s one excrutiating sequence where Ellen throws a small dinner party and Chief Brody, broiling with resentments he can only half-name, proceeds to get very nearly drunk enough to torpedo the whole evening. Benchley keeps the narrative focus tightly on Brody, and yet there’s no sympathy in the action at all … the reader hears all of Brody’s internal complaints and justifications and yet is never moved to empathy, is horrified the whole time by how he’s behaving. It’s expertly done: it’s a shame so many readers probably missed it while thumbing forward looking for the next shark-attack scene.

Naturally, this being a work of prose not film, there’s a good deal more straightforward exposition than any action-movie could support – including a scientific digression (by Hooper, of course) that might ring some bells for modern readers:

Look, the Latin name for this fish is Carcharodon carcharias, okay? The closest ancestor we can find for it is something called Carcharodon megalodon, a fish that existed maybe thirty or forty thousand years ago. We have fossil teeth from megalodon. They’re six inches long. That would put the fish at between eighty and a hundred feet. And the teeth are exactly like the teeth you see in great whites today. What I’m getting at is, suppose the two fish are really one species. What’s to say megalodon is really extinct? Why should it be? Not lack of food. If there’s enough down there to support whales, there’s enough to support sharks that big. Just because we’ve never seen a hundred-foot white doesn’t mean they couldn’t exist. All their food would be way down in the deep. A dead one wouldn’t float to shore, because they don’t have flotation bladders. Can you imagine what a hundred-foot white would look like? Can you imagine what it could do, what kind of power it would have?”

Fortunately, thanks to later masterpieces, readers in 2011 need not wonder about such things (although they might wonder how such a careful researcher as Benchley could get his archeological time-tables so scrunched up) – nor, indeed, does the book itself ponder on them for any length of time. Instead, it unfurls its various plot-lines with careful skill, including one plot-line that owes everything to what a certain wind-bag once described as the anxiety of influence. In the book, it turns out that Larry Vaughan, Amity’s mayor, has a clear-cut motive for insisting that Chief Brody open the town’s beaches even though two people have died, and his motive is cinematic: he’s in debt up to his eyeballs to … the Mafia!

That would be more or less the same Mafia that starred in the book-world’s previous mega-bestseller, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather from 1969. That novel had done the ultimate magic trick in the publishing world: it had become its own currency, an immediate part of every single Western individual’s functioning cerebellum. Long before the Harry Potter books or The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it had become a cultural phenomenon – and that phenomenon was quadrupled by the 1972 movie. Peter Benchley would have been something more than human if he hadn’t hoped, at least in some part of his heart, that someday he could write a book that would do the same thing.

He did exactly that. He squeezed the not-so-innocent town of Amity between a feckless mayor who needs to keep the beaches open if he’s ever going to repay his mobster ‘partners’ and a remorseless predator prowling beyond the surf. And it’s not just Larry Vaughan: most of the characters here (with the notable exception of Quint, who’s every bit as ridiculous a figure in the novel as in the movie, but who’s at least graced in the movie by an indelible performance by Robert Shaw) are caught between the lone shark and the loan shark, and none more than Ellen Brody, who belatedly comes to regret her fling with Matt Hooper:

As she pondered what Vaughan had said, she began to recognize the richness of her life: a relationship with Brody was more rewarding than any Larry Vaughan would ever experience; an amalgam of minor trials and tiny triumphs that, together, added up to something akin to joy. And as her recognition grew, so did her regret that it had taken her so long to see the waste of time and emotion in trying to cling to her past. Suddenly she felt fear – fear that she was growing up too late, that something might happen to Brody before she could savor her awareness.

Nothing happens to Brody, of course – unlike in the movie, he’s the sole survivor of the Orca, who returns alone to tell the tale. Benchley’s book outsold Puzo’s by two or three to one, and then a few years later the movie made from that book out-grossed the movie made from Puzo’s by more than twice as much (although, again, you’ll have to check with Mr. Anderson to see how it holds up after all these years). And most importantly, Puzo’s novel reads like it was written in fifteen minutes by a megalomaniac 15-year-old, whereas Peter Benchley – may he rest in the deep – wrote a really good book, an almost perfect intelligent summer-read, provided you’re not on a raft at sea.

April 11th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Wordsworth!

Some Penguin Classics might almost fairly be said to overdo things, and if ever there were such a case, it’s the two-volume edition of the poems of William Wordsworth that came out in the Penguin Classics line in 1990. These two volumes, called The Poems: Volume One and The Poems: Volume Two, are edited by John O. Hayden, and each is a brick of over 1000 pages. They run more or less chronologically for the entire ghastly length of time Wordsworth was churning out poetry, and even at their finished length, horrifyingly, they don’t represent the whole of the man’s catalogue: his epic, “The Prelude,” isn’t included here, nor are any of the five or six variant editions of that impenetrably dull work. So, believe it or not, the 2045 pages of these two volumes represent only about a working half of the extant verse. It boggles the mind – I don’t know of any other Penguin Classic like it. There are many other ‘complete poems’ volumes, true, but the life’s work in those cases is always that of an ordinary poet, not some dodderer caught in the grip of a logorrhoea mania as helpless as it was unsleeping.

In other words, apart from ruefully satisfying that bitter little rump of Wordsworth-fans that has existed in the world since their idol first decided, at age 15, to write a gaseous ode about something that happened to him five minutes ago (and then keep revising it for the next sixty years), there can’t really be any good editorial reason for anybody – even Penguin Classics – to publish two volumes containing every single poem Wordsworth ever wrote. It goes beyond being zealous; it’s just plain rude.

Nevertheless, here these two fat volumes sit on the shelf, offering the same mildly dyspeptic reprimand they always have to readers who glance at them, consider for half a second finally grappling with all the Wordsworth in the whole world, and then veer off and take a slim volume of Keats to the park. Being Penguin volumes, they’re attractively made and beautifully researched. Hayden’s end-notes are masterpieces of succinctness, including both his own glosses on Wordsworth’s obscurities (a going business, that) and brief relevant extracts from the glosses of those glossers who’ve glossed before him. Those obscurities most certainly extend to whole poems, as anybody who’s ever actually read “The Prelude” can attest. As noted, these two Penguin volumes don’t include “The Prelude,” but since they include everything else, there are still plenty of examples of poems that might have turned out sharper and more memorable if they’d been in less sententious hands. Think, for instance, how evocative this one might have been if its author hadn’t been so hell-bent on thinly-veiled political commentary:

‘Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high’

Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high

Travelling where she from time to time enshrouds

Her head, and nothing loth her Majesty

Renounces, till among the scattered clouds

One with its kindling edge declares that soon

Will reappear before the uplifted eye

A Form as bright, as beautiful a moon,

To glide in open prospect through clear sky.

Pity that such a promise e’er should prove

False in the issue, that yon seeming space

Of sky should be in truth the steadfast face

Of a cloud flat and dense, through which must move

(By transit not unlike man’s frequent doom)

The Wanderer lost in more determined gloom.

Still, if you write 10,000 verses in your life, you’re bound to write some that Steve will like, even if you do so sarcastically or accidentally. No matter how Wordsworth has bored me over the years (ironic, since I worked for a long time in a bookshop bearing his name), there are poems of his I still turn to every National Poetry Month. Two of those poems are intensely predictable of me, but here they are anyway:

‘She dwelt among untrodden ways’

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the spring of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

And then there’s this one, probably my favorite Wordsworth poem:

The Solitary Reaper

Behold her, single in the field,

Yon Solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt

More welcome notes to weary bands

Of travellers in some shady haunt,

Among Arabian sands:

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of today?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending; –

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that those last two poems are frequently anthologized. And come to think of it, they’re always included in the various “Selected Poems” Wordsworth volumes Penguin Classics has published over the years. If you take my meaning.

April 9th, 2011

The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse!

Our book today is 1990’s  The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse edited by Christopher Hicks, in keeping both with April being National Poetry Month and also with my own ongoing fascination with all things Victorian, which has been true since that little slip of a thing came to the throne and made all the left-hand front-page columns in the Boston papers. Of course, it’s a frustrating thing to be fascinated with the Victorian era – more than any other relatively recent time (the ancient Romans surely win for all time), that era has been mischaracterized by subsequent eras, used by them to make points about the present, almost always at the expense of the past. ‘Victorian’ began appearing in dictionaries as a synonym for ‘prissy,’ ‘moralizing,’ and most of all ‘repressed’ almost before the old queen’s corpse was cold, but that was always much more a function of what the Edwardians wanted to believe about themselves than it was ever about the Victorians themselves. Indeed, Victorians who were rude enough to live on into the ‘modern’ age were always surprised by how new generations described those vanished decades.

To the Victorians, they lived in a young age, one exploding with new and undreamt-of possibilities in science, culture, government – and art. They were far more likely to challenge the past than to venerate it mindlessly. And if they were often maudlin and sentimental, well, before modern societies – especially modern America – criticize them too stridently for that, they might want to look at the books currently topping their own bestseller charts. Any good anthology of Victorian verse will present the reader with an age he never met in school. And Ricks’ anthology is quite possibly the best one ever compiled (despite rather too much Arthur Hugh Clough for anybody’s well-being).

The fun starts, as it should be so seldom does, with the Introduction (uncredited, but presumably Hicks’ own), which bemoans the necessity of all such Introductions and the temptations they provide for the unwary sod called upon to write them:

Then there is the anthologist’s temptation to write a review, or at least to see that the reviewers have their work cut out for them; perhaps by covert self-congratulation on the choices and the finds (Remark how unknown are A and B! How hitherto misprized were X and Y!); perhaps, with sheer statistics, by implicit deprecation of the beknighted predecessor.

And further:

The anthologist ought at least not to preclude the chance of being truly surprised, and not just by an unexpected instance of something anticipated; and the trouble with narrowingly circular definitions is that they ensure that the unexpected becomes not only the unlooked-for (and therefore missed) but the uncalled-for (and therefore resisted and resented).

That sense of surprise carries the reader the whole way through this plump volume, even though its A-list roster is as familiar as it is impressive. There’s Wordsworth here, and Tennyson, John Clare and both Brownings, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, a clutch of Brontes, all of “Goblin Market,” Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, and refreshing amounts of George Meredith and Robert Louis Stevenson. But there are also plenty of lesser lights, shining all the brighter in this more luminous setting, including Digby Mackworth Dolben (1848-1867), whose little “Song”is about as Victorian as Victorian gets:

The world is young today:

Forget the gods are old,

Forget the years of gold

When all the months were May.

A little flower of Love

Is ours, without a root,

Without the end of fruit,

Yet – take the scent thereof.

There may be hope above,

There may be rest beneath;

We see them not, but Death

Is palpable – and Love.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) is here in all his melodic glory, including this favorite bit from “The Garden of Proserpine”:

From too much love of living,

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.

And there’s the aforementioned Arthur Hugh Clough (1819 – 1861), whose excerpt from Dipsychus isn’t as well-known today as it should be:

As I sat in the cafe, I said to myself,

They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,

They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking,

But I cannot help it, I cannot help thinking

How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!

How pleasant it is to have money.

And of course there’s sonorous Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892), without whom any Victorian anthology would be unthinkable. That witty Introduction does right by Tennyson too, correctly telling us that “Tennyson could do things that were entirely beyond the capabilities of Tennyson’s apes.” Certainly I could go on reading him all day, as in this excerpt from Tithonus:


The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,

Here at the quiet limit of the world,

A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Of course, no anthology can be perfect, because we all make our own mental anthologies from all we read. My own favorite Christina Rossetti poem, for instance, isn’t in Ricks’ volume. But how could I do even so small a Victorian round-up as this without including it? After all, who knows when I’ll get another chance?

Up-Hill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?

A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

Yea, beds for all who come.