Wednesday, July 29, 2015

These Delicates He Heaped

Although verbs and nouns are primary tools of writing, adjectives have been put in poor stead. I believe this might be only because adjectives are often used without precision or imagination. When chosen for economy and clarity, or at the prompting of some unconcious principle, they can take on a certain magic.

Consider one example, from "The Eve of St Agnes":

"Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguished, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet...."

Keats has presented a place, a moment, an action, and within a few lines, he will have to refer back to the limited light in the room. How? In the most beautifully economical way possible. The character in this patch of moonlight, Porphyro, places food on the table --

"These delicates he heaped with glowing hand."

That's it, right there: the night, the darkness, the small sector of light at the bedside, all conveyed by one adjective and its modified noun.

"Glowing hand."

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Artistic Morality

John Ciardi:

It has always been an astonishment to me that people of the highest moral principle in the world's terms will yet abandon themselves willingly to the immorality of the cliché.

For a cliché is not only a sinful slovenliness; it is an enemy of mind and hope, and it is not only a prostitution but a theft. Nor can the case be put, honorably and accurately, in milder terms. Every morality must be bound by both a blessing and a damnation, and on this point, within the morality of poetry, only damnation will serve. Our mass-media journalism, our collapsing educational system, and the insanities of the Madison Avenue-Hollywood axis have already put us in sufficient danger of becoming a mindless generation. If our poets and would-be poets are to be encouraged in such slovenly thefts within their own imaginations, then a primary cultured force for good intellectual order is seriously weakened. The ultimate sin of the mind is the failure to pay enough attention.

It is exactly at this point that one may locate the essential difference between the kind of morality that binds the poet and that which seems to operate in the general culture. The Christian tradition recognizes seven deadly sins, which I take to be another way of labeling seven moral failures. Of them, the culture at large seems to have an adequate sense of pride, envy, wrath, avarice, gluttony, and lust, but seems to be relatively unaware of Acedia. We translate Acedia as "sloth," but that translation tends to blur the essential meaning. "Sloth" tends to suggest mere physical slovenliness. Acedia is quite something else -- it is the failure to pay sufficient attention to one's devotions. It has many faces, but its essence is an intellectual haphazardness that springs from not caring enough. In the Middle Ages, interestingly, it seems to have been the sin most feared by the monks: the fear that they had not paid enough attention to God.

No failure of poetic morality (and of artistic morality in general) can be more fundamental than the failure to pay enough attention to the nature and requirement of one's chosen form. To perform sloppily for high causes and high moral issues is both an affront to the cause and issue, and as thoroughly bad as performing in this way for low causes and issues.

So to the fundamental difference between one morality and the other: the world tends to recognize six deadly failures and to pay little attention to the seventh. The poet, finally, has to care only about the seventh. It is not at all necessary for him to scorn the other six, but granted that he has talent enough, his work will finally live or die on his ability to keep his attention in disciplined and self-consuming order.



-- From "The Morality of Poetry," in The Saturday Review, March 30, 1957.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Night and Solitude and Silence

Ambrose Bierce:

From the vast, invisible ocean of moonlight overhead fell, here and there, a slender, broken stream that seemed to plash against the intercepting branches and trickle to earth, forming small white pools among the clumps of laurel. But these leaks were few and served only to accentuate the blackness of his environment, which his imagination found it easy to people with all manner of unfamiliar shapes, menacing, uncanny, or merely grotesque.

He to whom the portentous conspiracy of night and solitude and silence in the heart of a great forest is not an unknown experience needs not to be told what another world it all is -- how even the most commonplace and familiar objects take on another character. The trees group themselves differently; they draw closer together, as if in fear. The very silence has another quality than the silence of the day. And it is full of half-heard whispers -- whispers that startle -- ghosts of sounds long dead. There are living sounds, too, such as are never heard under other conditions: notes of strange night-birds, the cries of small animals in sudden encounters with stealthy foes or in their dreams, a rustling in the dead leaves -- it may be the leap of a wood-rat, it may be the footfall of a panther. What caused the breaking of that twig? -- what the low, alarmed twittering in that bushful of birds? There are sounds without a name, forms without substance, translations in space of objects which have not been seen to move, movements wherein nothing is observed to change its place. Ah, children of the sunlight and the gaslight, how little you know of the world in which you live!

- - - - - -

I repeat that Lieutenant Byring was a brave and intelligent man. But what would you have? Shall a man cope, single-handed, with so monstrous an alliance as that of night and solitude and silence and the dead, -- while an incalculable host of his own ancestors shriek into the ear of his spirit their coward counsel, sing their doleful death-songs in his heart, and disarm his very blood of all its iron? The odds are too great -- courage was not made for so rough use as that.

From
"A Tough Tussle."
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume III -- Can Such Things Be?
The Neale Publishing Company, New York, 1909.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Pure of Heart and Bare of Body

Some have said that Nakedness
Is but a prelude to a kiss
From the great temptation-master:
Satan, source of our disaster.
Yet the Sages often find
That labyrinthine Humankind
Is more perverse than one may guess,
And in this blessed twistedness
A truth is found, and it is just:
Clothing is the source of Lust.
Truly have the Sages chanted
Words that cannot be recanted --

As above, so below:
Wrap thy gifts in mistletoe
And watch their eyeballs grow and grow.
But if thy treats are open fair,
Familiarity will glare
And soon obscure their passion's flare.


And there we have it: cloth and leather
Tug the heart beyond its tether,
But a smoothly naked beauty
Bores the mind and most acutely
Testifies that flesh is lacking.
Burn thy clothes and send sin packing!

But Is The Pay Any Better?

Even though decades have gone by since I worked in a hotel, I was mistaken for one of the staff this evening as I biked along the Rideau River, when a red-winged blackbird shouted, "MON CONCIE-E-E-ERGE!" right in my ear.

I thought, "Sorry, bird, I was never a concierge. I was a janitor, nothing more."

But then other blackbirds hollered, "Parapluie! Parapluie!" as if I were a doorman on a wet night.

So, yes -- I've been promoted!