A belated appreciation of William Empson from the haply mute

18 Jun

I ought to have read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity years ago.  Promotional blurbs don’t lie.  This book has, indeed, been “a landmark in the history of literary criticism” since 1930, but I just picked it up this year.

I like ambiguity and I agree with (and find charming) Mr. Empson’s opening assertion that ambiguity is a kind of deceit.

But very quickly, I begin to lose interest in the difference between ambiguities of the first type and the second type, and I’m not sure I have the stamina for a discussion of all seven types of ambiguity.

And, soon, I’m skipping the text and reading only the examples Empson has drawn from literature.  They’re fun.  For instance, in chapter one, as an illustration of how “a metrical scheme imposes a sort of intensity of interpretation upon the grammar,” there is this excerpt from a poem by Robert Browning:

I want to know a butcher paints,
A baker rhymes for his pursuit,
Candlestick-maker much acquaints
His soul with song, or, haply mute,
Blows out his brains upon the flute.

I’m with Browning.  I want to know a butcher paints, too. Actually, I really like almost all the material Mr. Empson has chosen as illustration.  But I get restless with his explanation of how it works:

‘I want to know that the whole class of butchers paints,’ or ‘I want to know that some one butcher paints’ or ‘I want to know personally a butcher who paints'; or any of these may be taken as the meaning, and their resultant is something like, ‘I want to know that a member of the class of butchers is moderately likely to be a man who paints, or at any rate that he can do so if he wishes.’

Couldn’t I just have the poem?  Maybe this whole enterprise (pinning down ambiguity) is wrong-headed, for my tastes.  Maybe ambiguity, like a few other mysteriously beautiful things, should just be left alone.  

Just show me an example of thing itself, instead of describing it, defining it.

That’s what I told my father, the last time my parents came to visit, when he picked up Seven Types of Ambiguity from my kitchen table, and asked me what I thought of it.  I think he laughed at my cranky answer.

When my parents left, I tried the book again, and found this inscription on the first page:

A Fiction for Men

1 Jun

This month Esquire magazine will publish a series of ebooks called “Fiction for Men.”  These will be “plot driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another,” says Esquire editor in chief, David Granger.

Even in my not-so-exciting feminine life, one thing happens after another.

For instance, after I read about “Fiction for Men,” I happened to pick up a Chekhov short story, “The Proposal.  A Story for Girls.”  It’s very short.  Just two plot-driven pages, beginning with the handsome young Valentin Petrovich Peredyorkin, hardly able to hold back his excitement, setting out for  the home of a certain Princess Vera Zapiskina.

How sad, dear reader, that you have never met the Princess. She is a gentle and enchanting creature with soft heavenly-blue eyes and hair like a silken wave.

Valentin Petrovich, whose soul, he tells the Princess, has been filled with unquenchable desires, will be utterly miserable if these desires are to remain unfulfilled.

She lowers her gaze.

A moment of silence.

Valentin Petrovich stammers: He regards the Princess as the most suitable . . . and he’s rich . . . and they’re neighbors, after all . . . .

More silence.

“Yes, but what is this all about?” asks Princess Vera in a soft voice.

He jumps impetuously to his feet: “My dear, permit me to propose to you . . .”

And, then, suddenly he sits down again, leans in close, and whispers: “I am making the most profitable proposal possible . . . . This way we shall be able to sell a million poods of tallow in a single year . . . . Let us start on our adjoining estates a limited liability company dedicated to tallow boiling.”

The Princess considers for a monent and consents.

Chekhov ends the story with this sentence:

The feminine reader, who expected a melodramatic ending, may relax.

That’s “A Story for Girls.”  No wonder we need “Fiction for Men.”

  1. Women read only romance novels.
  2. We care only for domestic themes: love, relationships, family.
  3. We’re obsessed with our feelings.

That’s what Chekhov is poking fun at.  I’ve heard it all before.  And how, I ask you, how do you think this makes me feel?  Vexed?

Oh, come on.   It’s Chekhov, a gentle and enchanting creature.  I laughed.

The masculine reader, who expected a shrill feminist ending, may relax.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov with hair like a silken wave

I have a dream

14 May

Last week President Obama told America that same-sex couples ought to have the right to marry.  It was, as Diane Sawyer said, “an historic political and cultural moment in this country,” brought to you by special report on ABC.

Get ready for some history.  Here it is:

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

At a certain point

I’ve just concluded

that for me

personally

it is important

for me

to go ahead

and affirm

that I think

that historic moments shouldn’t hide at the end of the sentence after so many

empty words.

WTM?!?

17 Apr

Last week, the New York Times reviewed Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems.

His poems would not be complete without the most famous one:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

In the Times, the reviewer paraphrases (and cleans up) the first line of the poem, according to NYT stylebook rules:

They mess you up, “your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”

Mark Liberman responded with a fun piece on Language Log (Larkin v. the Gray Lady) about this and other taboo words at the Times.

Here’s my call to action, in a form suggested (this time) by Jan Freeman’s blog post They f— you up, those stylebook rules:

They mess you up, the New York Times.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They paraphrase your zesty rhymes
In bland and bloodless book reviews.

But they were messed up in their turn
By prissy readers who deplore
The sight of those four letter words
They’ve heard a million times before.

If you’re a Philip Larkin fan,
And think Grey Lady’s rules too prim,
Jot off a letter to the Times,
And tell her not to mess with him.

What we talk about when we talk about reading

13 Apr

I expect Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” to be a downer.

Not just because of Anne Frank, but because of the simple words that lead up to her.  Those aren’t innocent words.  They echo Raymond Carver’s classic story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

And when we talked about love in Raymond Carver’s story, things ended badly.

Two couples, both on their second marriage, sit around a kitchen table with a (soon empty) bottle of gin, talking about what love is and what it isn’t.

It’s a dangerous topic.  Reality falls so short of the ideal.  By the end, all four at the table feel lost:

“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
Terri said, “Now what?”
I could hear my heart beating.  I could hear everyone’s heart.  I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

I’m as uneasy about love as Carver’s characters.  And his story reminds me of it.  But I’m feeling better than Mel and Terri at the end.  That’s because I’ve been reading a story.

In a collection of essays called How to Be Alone, Johnathan Franzen explains (to me, anyway) why reading a good story is the best cure for that creeping feeling that you’re alone in the world: Reading creates a group of two: faithful writer and trusting reader.

That’s what gives me the courage to tackle whatever Nathan Englander plans to throw at me.  Even talk about Anne Frank.  Even in the manner of Raymond Carver.  It’s going to be the kind of sad that makes me feel good.

It isn’t until late in the story that Nathan Englander’s characters (two Jewish couples) shift their conversation from figurative Anne Frank (kosher laws, the Israeli occupation, the modern holocaust of intermarriage) to the actual Anne Frank.

Maybe because they find themselves in the enclosed space of the host’s pantry, or maybe because they’ve smoked some very strong marijuana, or maybe because (my husband tells me) this is not an unusual preoccupation, they fashion an Anne Frank game.   The object of the game: examine friends and neighbors to figure out who would hide you the next time they come for the Jews.

But what are they really talking about when they talk about Anne Frank?  Pretty soon, the couples jokingly (they’re stoned) turn the game on one another.

Orthodox Jewish wife (with ten daughters) puts her husband to the test: Does she believes he would hide her, Anne Frank style, if it came to that?

 . . . And she says,  after a pause, yes, but she’s not laughing.  She says, yes, but to him it sounds as it does to us, so that now he is asking and asking.  But wouldn’t I?

. . .

She does not say it.  And he does not say it.  And from the four of us, no one will say what cannot be said–that this wife believes her husband would not hide her.  What to do?  What would come of it?  And so we stand like that, the four of us trapped in the pantry.  Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked in side.

And that’s the end of the story.

All of it works for me except the phrase in boldface (the boldface is mine; the words are the author’s).  With those words my group of two with Nathan Englander evaporates.  Did he think he had to explain everything to me?

I’m sorry about it.

I think: This writer believes his reader would not understand him.

But to you, trusting reader, I say: I put down the book and the room went dark.

There’s more enterprise

30 Mar

When I listen NPR’s This I Believe, I start to feel sorry for myself.  All those people earnestly believing things.

I could be a regular contributor to a cranky spin-off called This I Don’t Believe, but I think most people can conjure those feelings without my help.

But I do like (let’s leave belief out of it) playing with words, especially riffing on a poem as if I’d wrought it.  It’s a silly passion.  But I’m not the only fool who’s caught it.

Check out what Kenneth Koch does with “This is Just to Say,” the very William Carlos Williams poem that charmed me a few months ago.  You can’t miss Koch’s wink at Williams (“I have eaten the plums…”) in the first three lines:

To High Spirits

You have taken the vodka
That I was probably
Saving for tomorrow.
Go on and take it
For there’s more enterprise
In waking naked.

And what about those last three lines?  “Go on and take it” sounds like a hangover talking, followed by the suddenly literary “for there’s more enterprise,” and then back down in tone for the big finish: “in waking naked.”

This poem winks twice.  Once at Williams, and, then, at Yeats.

You’ll see what I mean, and I bet you’ll like Kenneth Koch even more.  Here is “The Coat” by William Butler Yeats:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

This is just to say that I love the game that Koch is playing.  There’s enterprise in it.

April is National Poetry Month.  Grab some poem (go on and take it!) and wear it in the world’s eyes.  Yeats and Koch don’t mind.  I bet Williams doesn’t either.

We’re the pimps

3 Mar

What does it say about the conservative talk-radio celebrity who goes before the country and says whatever will inflame his supporters and outrage his opponents just to promote himself and make a buck?

What does that make him? It makes him a slut, right? It makes him a prostitute.

He wants you and me to talk about him and write about him and help him promote himself.

What does that make us?

We’re the pimps.

So, here’s the deal: If we are going to help you sell yourself, we want something for it.

If I had my way, the media with its liberal bias, the Democrat party, and all you feminazis would stop talking about him-who-will-not-be-named until he gives us a cut of profits.

Send me the first check.

I’ll be seeing you

27 Feb

It’s a relief to see Macbeth at the karaoke bar after the show.

The last time I saw him, he was dead.  Lying in a pile of bodies on the stage.  And don’t think I took pleasure in his demise.  I, too, have felt so charmed that no man of woman born could harm me.  But, really, there’s always some fellow from his mother’s womb untimely ripped lurking out there.

Isn’t this better?  Seeing the actor who played Macbeth sing karaoke, I mean.  It dissolves Macbeth into fiction.  He struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.  Now, back to steady reality.

Here’s the truth: all of them–the whole cast–are young, happy and alive.  Tonight, opening night, they’re a little tipsy, but certainly not evil. They’re just my husband’s actors.

I see one of them (Macduff, I think) give Macbeth a slap on the ass as he grabs the microphone and jumps on stage.  They’re chummy.  The witches and Lady M., now in jeans and t-shirts, sing along, laughing, as if nothing happened.

And Birnham Wood never comes to high Dunsinane Hill.  This isn’t Scotland; it’s Illinois.  We’ve got no hills.  No kings or witches or thanes (whatever a thane is).

Your children–all your pretty chickens–are safe.  And everybody sleeps tonight.

Hannibal and Me?

14 Feb

I’m an unlikely reader for a book about history’s greatest military strategist.

When I read War and Peace, I thought about skipping whole chapters.  Life is short, and military history doesn’t interest me.  Even without the war chapters, that novel is long enough.

For example, you might have caught me passing over Book 2, Chapter 14.  It begins:

Prince Bagration, having reached the highest point of our right flank, began riding downhill to where the roll of musketry was heard….

Bagration, flank, and musketry…I might not even finish the sentence.

So, I had a hunch that I was the wrong audience for Andreas Kluth’s book Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us about Success and Failure. 

Mr. Kluth’s book has a natural audience.  I’ve seen it. My son’s face lit up at the mere mention of Hannibal, and the bright orange book in my lap instantly started a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane last week.  (There’s a tip for single women in all of this.)

For me, though, Hannibal is just Bagration on an elephant.

But a wonderful thing happened when I read Book 2, Chapter 14 of War and Peace.  (I didn’t skip it; I just thought about it.)  At some point after Bagration famously rides down the hill, a human story replaces History.   Young Nikolai Rostov is knocked off his horse.  He sees French soldiers running toward him and he wonders what they could want from him.  Could they be coming to kill me?, he thinks incredulously.  Me, whom everybody loves?

I like that bit.  At that moment, I understood Nikolai Rostov, or, rather, Tolstoy understood me, and chapter 14 of Book 2 might have been called Nikolai and Me. 

So, maybe there’s a future for Hannibal and me.

About 100 pages into Hannibal and Me, in a chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, Mr. Kluth imagines a conversation between Hannibal and his Greek tutor, Sosylus.  Sosylus is prodding Hannibal to recognize that his winning tactics might not be in the service of a clearly defined strategy.  Hannibal struggles to identify what he wants out of the war with Rome.  We struggle to believe that Hannibal (Hannibal, whom everybody loves?) might have screwed something up.

The next part  got Mr. Crotchety’s attention.   Mine, too.  (I should be any less discerning than Mr. C?) Sosylus suggests that in order to defeat Rome, Hannibal might need to think about where its center of gravity lies:

I have a friend in Syracuse, Archimedes, the best mathematician among the Greeks. He showed me once how to move any object, no matter how large, by identifying its center of gravity and then shifting it by use of a lever.

OK, Mr. Crotchety is right: it’s a cool idea, this center of gravity.  But for me, the idea of an imagined conversation is even cooler.

It’s all made up, this exchange between hero and tutor.  Pure fancy.  And it was the turning point in the book for me.  This is where footnotes stopped distracting me and I settled in to read a story about people.  Hannibal, you might say, having reached the highest point of our right flank…and so on…became human.  He outgrew Bagration and was as real as the fictional Nikolai Rostov.

There’s a lot of talk in Hannibal and Me about how we construct stories about our lives.  We demand stories.  We’ve got to have them.  It’s sort of a reader’s center of gravity.  Writers who recognize it move us and conquer.

For my mother, on her birthday

23 Jan

My mother gave me a collection of poems the day I graduated from high school.

That might not sound like such a big deal, but this particular anthology was inscribed to her by the Kansas City, Missouri branch of the American Association of University Women “For Highest Scholastic Achievement,” and given to her the day she received her diploma as valedictorian of the class of 1957.

It’s a little piece of my mother’s past that my sisters and brother would also have been very happy to receive.  It’s mine.

On the flip side of the page occupied by the University Women (whoever they were), my mom wrote out for me, in her own hand, a familiar poem featuring my name.  A sweet gesture, especially considering that she chose the name herself.

But, aside from that, who doesn’t like receiving a poem?  And who doesn’t like hearing her own name?

Since that day, I have been placing myself strategically in a chair next to the door, ready to meet all who enter.  Some perceptive folk have remarked that there is something studied about the way I jump up and greet newcomers with a kiss.

I have my reasons.

And yet, despite all my efforts and all the years that have passed, my mother remains the only person ever to present me with that poem. It’s discouraging.

But I still have the book.  A thousand pages of poems.  One in my mother’s handwriting.

Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!

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