Friday, July 4, 2008

The unquiet grave

"Several times a year articles arrive called 'Where are our war poets?' The answer (not usually given) is 'Under your nose.' For war poets are not a new kind of being, they are only peace poets who have assimilated the material of war.... It is unfortunate from the military point of view that war poetry is not necessarily patriotic. When the articles ask 'Where are the war poets?' they generally mention Rupert Brooke, because he wrote some stirring sonnets and was killed in action, though his poems were mostly nostalgic or amorous. They want real war poets and a roll of honour."

- Cyril Connolly


Good used bookstores are disappearing as fast as bookstores that carry new books, and poetry inventory is shrinking in inverse proportion to the rate at which it gets published, so it was a pleasure to visit a city, on a road trip, that had both kinds, well-stocked. I like used bookstores better, and in the same block on which we found ourselves, there were two I loved instantly: you know, the kind where you fight over a find with your companion. J. is quicker on the draw than I am; maybe not wearing bifocals gives her an edge - she got to Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisited first, darn it; and also The Condemned Playground, a 1945 collection of essays by Cyril Connolly, and a stack of other enviables about a foot high. Well, today, in exchange for helping her out a little with the computer, I borrowed the latter and spent much of the day enjoying the heck out of it.

As a young literary mite, I adored, and still think I do, Connolly's The Unquiet Grave - ostensibly by a fellow named Palinurus - the name originally belonged to a helmsman in Aeneas's fleet. I'll let you discover that minor classic yourself if you haven't already. But despite the kind of sniggering I can already hear about it among my theorizing, problematizing contemporaries in the beehive, I've always liked Connolly - so there! He was a lively reviewer, and had lots of nerve (struck, in fact, a nerve) when he complained about the quality of Housman as a so-called "classical" poet when AEH's body literally was still chilling down. Connolly has no analogue today.

It's a long weekend, so I'm not inclined to bore myself or anybody friendly enough to pass by this blog with anything so severe as a compendium. So here are just a few tidbits:

"Although there is very little new being written, there is a vast amount of old being forgotten. Blake told us to 'drive our harrow over the ones of the dead'..."

"To jot down nostalgic dreams, to flaunt a private damnation, a Delphic obscurity, will no more make a Rimbaud than an arrangement of dots would produce a Seurat."

"Those who have been influenced by [Rimbaud]... accept the lovely ejaculations and suspira of Les Illuminations and ignore the concentrated realism of Une Saison en Enfer, like guests who look away from the bill when it arrives."

And Connolly also quoted at length La Bruyère's famous description of the little town ca. 1687, a part of which, what do you know, ended up in Auden's Viking Book of Aphorisms:

"There is something which has never been seen yet, and which, to all appearances, never will be, and that is a little town which isn't divided into cliques, where the families are united, and the cousins trust each other; where a marriage doesn't start a civil war, and where quarrels about precedence don't arise every time that a service, a ceremony, a procession or a funeral are held; where gossip and lying and malice have been outlawed," etc.

His essay "1843" is salutary: a must-read, and his findings incredible and illuminating. He takes that year and looks at it "as if looking at children in a class-room," to see "which artists are creating and which are marking time." Someone should do this again. "Past, present, and future exist in the arts simultaneously. According to our courage or to our inclination we are all free to choose." And more poignantly: "What shall we choose? - a lifetime of pleasure, immune from all the horrors of life except the one supreme horror of finding that life has by-passed us, and of finding it out only at the last moment, when the unused potential of the mind is about to crumble into dust - or a lifetime of belonging to the age, fighting its battles, espousing its causes, wallowing in its optimism, or its fashionable pessimism, enjoying its respect and gathering its praise?"

Talk about your avant-garde: "There is always the other life which does not hide from time behind the skirt of pleasure, nor, underneath the umbrella of duty, ignore it, but which defies it, and defies it intelligently, to triumph in the end over time. This is the life of those artists who are ahead, who so identify themselves with reality, the reality of the spiritual discoveries of their age, that they achieve a complete timelessness in their art and through the intensity of their vision become identified with the future."

Always interested in "writers and society" - writers carrying what he called a "dark lantern" against the practical inventions and interventions of scientists, reformers, administrators, and middlemen ("the keepers of order and the pillars of trade"), as well as the "invincibly ignorant, the obstructive and destructive, the power-grabbers, the back-street Napoleans, the incurable egoists and prima donnas, the gangsters, whether poor or rich" - he noticed without pity or self-pity that in democracies:

"... the artist finds himself tolerated rather than appreciated. Unless he is a purveyor of amusement or a mouthpiece of official cliche he is there on sufferance, and before suggestions for the betterment of his condition can be made, we must consider his ideal status in life. Just as education cannot improve until the world for which children are educated improves, so the artist cannot receive his due until the society in which he lives fundamentally revises its conception of the objects of existence. Many people would accept the idea of a benevolent world Socialism as their political aim, a world in which all the resources were available to its inhabitants, in which heat and fuel and food were as free as air and water, in which Marx's familiar definition of an ultimate civilization, 'to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability,' was realized. But this world does nothing for the spiritual life of humanity except to provide for its inhabitants the material comfort and security which has hitherto provided the point of departure only for the spiritual life of the few.... To achieve a material Utopia, however difficult and desirable, is still to doom the race to the disintegration of satiety, and to the decay inherent in its own limitations."

Most books are eventually and unsurprisingly consigned to the unquiet grave of a dusty bookshop... until folks disinter them, fingers itchy from the intangible grunge that lives between long-unopened pages.

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