30 December 2012

Twaddling as Rome Burns

De la Mare again:

"In [some] ways [the author] became so real to me that at last I would do things as if he had asked me to do them. For this reason, I think, I persevered with his book, swallowing some of the poems as if they were physic, simply because he had written them there. But the more I read, the more I came to enjoy them for their own sakes. Not all of them, of course. But I did see this, that like a carpenter who makes a table, a man who has written a poem has written it like that on purpose. 

"With this thought in my head I tried one day to alter the words of one or two of the simple and easy poems; or to put the words in a different order. And I found by so doing that you not only altered the sound of the poem, but that even the slightest alteration in the sound a little changed the sense. Either you lost something of the tune and runningness; or the words did not clash right; or you blurred the picture the words gave you; or some half-hidden meaning vanished away. I don't mean that every poem is perfect; but only that when I changed them it was almost always very much for the worse. I was very slow in all this;  but still I went on . . . 

"Having discovered, then, that every poem must have been written as it was written, on purpose, I took a little more pains with those I cared for least. In some even then I could not piece out the meaning; in others I could not easily catch the beat and rhythm and tune. But I learned to read them very slowly, so as fully and quietly to fill up the time allowed for each line and to listen to its music, and to see and hear all that the words were saying. "

- Introduction to Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages (London: Constable & Co, 1923), pp. xxix-xxxi 

Now as I've said - and no doubt amply demonstrated - before, I'm no expert judge of poetry. Yet it seems to me the above quotation is about as good a piece of advice as one could get anywhere, concerning good reading. And not just of any poem, but of any other living thing.

Think about it for a moment. Imagine if you had even the rudimentary (not in the least bit polished or cultivated) patience to be able to look, in much the same Way as de la Mare prescribes for the good reading of a poem, at another human being. At, say, that particular human creature with whom you're obliged to share a common cubicle border. Or negotiate a place in line. Or co-occupy a space on the bus. Imagine if you could regard even the most frustrating, or off-putting, or ridiculous-seeming individual into whose company you've been thrown as, why, just another difficult or otherwise unmemorable poem to memorize. (And while you're at it, be sure to thank God nobody ever sees you in those ways). Remember, you have to learn that sorry piece of "literature." Might it not also be in your interest to make some serious effort to enjoy it?

But now let's go back to our unpleasant poem for a moment. Suppose you had, for that poor work's author, not too much respect, but just enough to glean even a small sense of why he may have written it the way he did. Think how much more you'd get out of that else tedious exercise, by making just a little more sympathetic effort to grasp all of the author's meaning, and most of his music. How many even of the sorriest works of "art" might gain, to our critical minds, at least a more intelligible context, if not a more compelling urgency, could we but grasp a certain extra something of what may have compelled the artist to write, or paint, or compose, in the first place? Indeed I wonder if this isn't at least a portion of what the Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote:

HIPPOLYTA [watching an amateur dramatic production]: This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.

THESEUS:  The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them. 

HIPPOLYTA:  It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.

THESEUS:  If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men. 

Finally, who's to say that every such character as our Author writes into being (and how much more the ones He sends our way?) isn't just as rich, and absorbing, and irreplaceable a message as - as, well, not just every seemingly worst poem that's ever been written. But maybe even every one of our profoundest human ideas? Why should Divine concreteness play second fiddle to human abstraction? And how much less so when you consider that, just maybe, the whole point of all our abstract universals is the better to understand, and (gasp!) even to serve, those "excellent men" -  in short, all of us, of every mold and capacity - whom God has made individual and particular?

*                                                  *                                                    *                                                *

Now wait a minute. What on earth am I thinking of? I talk of urgency. But have I no sense of the urgency of the present hour? Have I lost all sense of chivalry? Don't I realize what a monstrous indignity our Most Glorious Ship of the Global Economy has been suffering? Can't I grasp that for far too long she's been stuck in doldrums shamefully unworthy of her 30+-year track record of historically unprecedented growth, innovation and progress (GIP)? ("Can't somebody PLEASE get that man out of the White House?!") 

So tell me, if you can, what sort of remedies might such a crisis call for? And no, I don't mean the next round  of QE's (or cutbacks). What else ultimately, I ask you - if not truly MONSTROUS, family-faith-and-country-be-damned levels of drive, speed, hustle, ambition, innovation, workaholism, and all-around get-out-of-my-wayness?

Ah, but if only stagnation were even half the problem! But to live to see that same poor, bereft, benighted ship rapidly edging towards falls of a size and depth as might mortify the wildest flat-earth fancies of medieval peasants! And what in turn might that crisis demand, if not the Promethean energy, enterprise, efficiency and hell-for-leather fury of SUPERmonsters? TITANS, I tell you, ready to push that supreme monument of humanity not only well away from the impending rapids, but far enough into safe harbor - nay, inland of harbor! - to ensure that, when that Best of All Ships re-embarks, her course will be imperturbably sound. And meanwhile, not trifling over what miserable little fishermen's boats, urchins' hovels and peasants' huts should chance to be crushed in the course of rescue.

The stakes have never been higher. To think of all that world of greatness, seedbed of each and every one of our most permanent and valuable human legacies ("The best is WAY yet to come, buster"), in danger of collapsing round our ears any week - any day? - now. And the best I can offer is those first four paragraphs of twaddle?

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