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…Book Blog by Dolly Delightly

Tag: Randall Jarrell

Writers On Writers

“If I were to read, cold, something by Anaïs Nin, I would probably say that it was written by a man trying to write as a woman.”
Joan Didion

“Spinoza’s ‘human bondage’ is the condition of one who identifies himself with his own desires, emotions and thought processes.”
Patrick White

“I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand.”
John le Carré

“I was being forced to read Henry James at school. I hated it. With the result that James became one of my favourite writers.”
Jeffrey Eugenides

“One Whitman is miracle enough, and when he comes again it will be the end of the world.”
Randall Jarrell

“This general inspissation of the Sacks worldview can seem both stimulating and disturbing.”
Will Self

“I have often thought Ian McEwan a writer as unlike me as it is possible to be.”
Zadie Smith

“If you’re trying to finish a book, steer clear of Nabokov—he’ll make you feel like a clodhopper.”
David Mitchell

“Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money.”
W.H Auden

“Larkin was a person who had profound and unforgettable things to say about common experience.”
Andrew Motion

Sources: Guardian, Wikiquote, The Believer, The Paris Review

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Washington Irving: A “poor scholar, fond of roguery” with a penchant for irresistible ridicule

 “Hell must be exactly like this,” wrote Randall Jarrell about New York City. I guess a city can be as divisive as anything. Jarrell clearly hated it. Washington Irving loved it. In fact, he loved it so much he wrote a whole book about it. What’s more, he made me fall in love with it although I think I fell for Irving rather more quickly. “The world in which we dwell is a huge, opaque, reflecting, inanimate mass,” he writes in the opening of A History of New York, “floating in the vast ethereal ocean of infinite space.” There is something distinctly Kierkegaardian about Irving’s voice, which shifts from numinous to witty, from pessimistic to ebullient, seamlessly and in perfect turn with each varying topic.  The book, initially conceived as a parody of another called Picture of New York by Dr Samuel Mitchell, was a combined effort on behalf of Washington and his brother Peter. Originally intended ridicule pedantic historians and their inkhornism it gradually evolved into something quite different; a kind of kaleidoscopic and prosaic synthesis of witty and light-hearted contemplation upon philosophy and history. There are many interesting aspects to this book, one of them being the cunning and crafty advertising campaign that preceded its publication. When A History of New York was completed, on 6th December 1809, classified ads were circulated in local New York newspapers announcing the disappearance of a Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, “a small, elderly gentle-man, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat”. Each week, news about his disappearance would appear in the papers stating that the historian absconded owing his landlord money and that a manuscript he had left behind would be sold to pay his bill.  The whole of New York soon fell prey to the campaign and sought to get their hands on a copy, making A History of New York an almost immediate hit. Relayed entirely from Knickerbocker’s point of view, A History of New York documents the city’s 50 years under the Dutch Dynasty in the 1600s.

A History of New York is a robust literary work of subtle language, loaded with epigrammatic wit and wry mockery. Irving condensed the mass of mock-affected learning, written with his brother, into the first five chapters and wrote the rest with a new slant. Speaking about it once, however, he said that the book would have been greatly improved had he reduced the collaborative work fourfold, into a single chapter and then dispensed of it altogether. It is a book of considerable length, and can be tiresome but is often rescued by its writers humour. “I shall not occupy my time by discussing the huge mass of additional suppositions, conjectures and probabilities respecting the first discovery of this country [US], with which unhappy historians overload themselves, in their endeavours to satisfy the doubts of an incredulous world,” writes Irving in the opening,  “I shall take for granted, the vulgar opinion that America was discovered on 12th of October, 1492, by Christovallo Colon, a Genoese, who has been clumsily nick-named Columbus, but for what reason I cannot discern.” The book’s spontaneity, breadth of conception and joyous vigour give it an enduring quality that hasn’t paled with time. This is in part because Irving’s vision is ingenious in many ways, such as when, for example, he uses a metaphor comparing the greed of early American colonists with that of hypothetical inhabitants of the Moon. “Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an ærial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet,” Irving writes, and having done so then “taken possession…and that whereas it is inhabited by none but a race of two legged animals, that carry their heads on their shoulders instead of under their arms; cannot talk the lunatic language; have two eyes instead of one; are destitute of tails, and of a horrible whiteness, instead of pea green – therefore and for a variety of other excellent reasons -they are considered incapable of possessing any property in the planet they infest, and the right and title to it are confirmed to its original discoverers. And furthermore, the colonists who are now about to depart to the aforesaid planet, are authorised and commanded to use every means to convert these infidel savages from the darkness of Christianity, and make them thorough and absolute lunatics.” A brave and imaginative man to convey a serious point with inspired jocularity.

Washington Irving was born in New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War on April 3rd 1783. Although he trained as a lawyer, and was active in the field of diplomacy, Irving was unable to remain faithful to any prescribed profession that demanded set hours and duties. He travelled a lot, fleeing from one place to another, from one country to the next, taking up work as chance presented itself. In his student years, he preferred to spend his time north of Warren Street in Manhattan, describing himself as a “poor scholar – fond of roguery”. Irving had begun writing while he was still at school, contributing literary letters of eccentric and humorous inclination under the sobriquet of Jonathan Oldstyle to his brother Peter’s publication, the Morning Chronicle. It was after the journal had folded that Irving thought up the idea of a historic pasquinade. Sadly, while he wrote with great enthusiasm and alacrity, much of his literary passion ceased before he had completed A History of New York. The last chapters of the book were composed while Irving was grieving the loss of Matilda Hoffman. The two were set to marry, but after a short illness at the age of 18 Hoffman died leaving Irving grievously bereaved.The loss changed Irving’s entire life and after his own death, in 1859, in a private repository which he kept under lock and key, was found a miniature of Hoffman, a braid of her hair and a slip of paper with her name. In a journal, written years after her passing, Irving recorded his state of mind following Hoffman’s death by saying: “I seemed to care for nothing: the world was a blank to me. I abandoned all thoughts of the law. I went into the country, but could not bear solitude, yet could not endure society. There was dismal horror continually in my mind that made me fear to be alone… the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition, which ever since hung about.”  He also mentioned A History of New York, saying it had become a thing which reminded him most of the loss, and thus he was never able to “look upon it with satisfaction.” 

A History of New York can be a little dense at times, veiled in gauzy layers of hypothesis and made obtuse by grandiloquent use of the English language, but it is also a book brimming with brilliant wisdoms and observations. At one point and in a somewhat self-mocking fashion, Irving posits that: “To let my readers into a great literary secret, your experienced writers, who wish to instil peculiar tenets, either in religion, politics or morals, do often resort to this expedient – illustrating their favourite doctrines by pleasing fictions on established facts -and so mingling historic truth, and subtle speculation together, that the unwary million never perceive the medley; but, running with open mouth, after an interesting story, are often made to swallow the most heterodox opinions, ridiculous theories, and abominable heresies. This is particularly the case with the industrious advocates of the modern philosophy, and many an honest un-suspicious reader, who devours their works under an idea of acquiring solid knowledge, must not be surprised if, to use a pious quotation, he finds ‘his belly filled with the east wind.'” Irving’s spoof is even self-ridiculing. His work, however, shaped the reading habits of his day, beyond its leather-bound confines.

Whatever Plato, Aristotle, Grotius, Puffendorf, Sydney, Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine may say to the contrary, I insist that, as to nations, the old maxim that ‘honesty is the best policy,’ is a sheer and ruinous mistake,” Irving writes toward the end, “It might have answered well enough in the honest times when it was made; but in these degenerate days, if a nation pretends to rely merely upon the justice of its dealings, it will fare something like an honest man among thieves, who unless he has something more than his honesty to depend upon, stands but a poor chance of profiting by his company.” And there is also something of a wonderful storyteller that comes through in A History of New York, which later emerged in all its refulgent splendour in the wonderfully macabre The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving earned a reputation as the father of the American story and came to be admired in Europe as much as in his own homeland. Toasting in his honour during a dinner party, Charles Dickens once reportedly said that he wouldn’t dream of going to bed without taking Irving “under my arm” and that’s perhaps the best compliment.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

Randall Jarrell: A very tender and gracious terror

I never realised what a treasure trove an Oxfam bookshelf can be until I snagged myself a brand new copy of Randall Jarrell’s Letters for the exiguous sum of £4. The letters, thoughtfully selected, edited and annotated by Jarrell’s second wife Mary, span three decades and chronicle the life of a man whose “work-and-amusement” revolved around literature. In writing to Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and other contemporaries Jarrell speaks habitually of the vertiginous peaks and dells of professional life, most often through a sustained colloquial effulgence that allowed his imagination to roam discursively not only over matters of literary interest but also on issues of social and historical importance.

The general consensus about Jarrell is that he was a better, more emphatic and puissant, critic than poet. I am inclined to agree and although his academic brilliance, intellectual dexterity and critical acumen were largely unmatched, his poetry has often been described as “derivative” and “technically lacking”. Admittedly, his verse does not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (perhaps with one or two exceptions), but this cannot be said of his collective missives, studded and spiced with humorous musings, clever cogitations and spiffy apophthegms, often vacillating in tone and resulting in a quaint mixture of swagger, reticence, irreverence, coyness and superiority. If there is one aspect that defines Jarrell’s epistolary prose, however, it is his tendency to dash-off quick philippic sentences that strike the reader like a riding-crop. While this device repeatedly buoys the witty, jokey and affectionate argot of his letters, it also comes to the fore in his professional undertakings – most notably his critiques which saw him soar as an important, if formidable, arbitrator of American cultural climate from the 1930s onwards.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Jarrell was feared among a smattering of garreteers, who ducked like frightened mergansers each time he poised his fountain-pen, much like a rifle, in their direction, since his astringently veracious outbursts went some way to making-and-unmaking reputations. I think it is important to point out, however, that this critic did not discriminate in favour of his friends, nor mind their lepidopterous egos, accosting them in print whenever he felt necessary. Ironically, he did not enjoy this vital sideline, once quoting George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the critic’s fate in reference to himself: “His hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him.” Endowed with infallible taste and a daunting acuity, he often quipped about his subjects but avowed that he would never sacrifice a poet for the sake of a witticism (while the word “never” may not be entirely accurate, the statement is essentially true). “It would be a hard heart,” Jarrell once said “and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe.” Yet condemn he did, quite frequently if without much pleasure, and thereby earned himself a reputation as a “terror”.

The letters give us the man behind the polemic, behind the poems and the public-face which he himself at times detested. As such they are a priceless offering providing an extraordinary plenitude of biographical, archival and personal information which plays a vital part in revealing the polarity between Jarrell’s private and professional persona. And so it seems that Lowell, who once described Jarrell as “very tender and gracious” but also as someone whose “frankness” was often thought “more unsettling than the drunken exploits of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas,” was right because in the end, irrespective of how you look at it, the truth is always the same: “People ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

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