It has been awhile since I have visited my bookshelf. I have not felt like being honest with myself. There's too much to say! We have had more than our share of rainy days. This entire week in September I have been fed up with rain. But I have a better excuse because I have a confession to make, and that is what has been holding me back. I confess that in my lifetime I have read and, I am ashamed to say, admired too much European and Russian literature. You can start with Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoyevski and Freud. My copy of The Brothers Karamazov, a funny little pback, is a total wreck. At one time I gave these four authors each a quarter slice of the world. But even such an authority as Hemingway, when he compared Main Street with Buddenbrooks, remarked about how much more interesting Buddenbrooks was. I might wonder what I imagine Hemingway wondered: why so little interesting American literature? I'm glad I wasn't the only one to get fooled.
It has always astonished me, with the great empty nature of the American west available to finish off a boy's education, that the noble patriarch of the James' sent his two boys, Henry and William, to Europe! Europe almost finished them off. But on the other hand this education he clobbered them with gave to America two stones for the foundation. The Adams' did likewise. In my lifetime alone I have watched a dozen kids grow up in the White House. You would think that they would at least get an education that would make them useful. They turned out nice people, but not a one very bright. Lately, the young Clinton has turned an eye or two for some reason. One recent presidential candidate, a multibillionaire, has adult children who speak with embarrassingly bad judgment, as if they were not educated at all! Maybe their father should pack them off to Europe now the west is as mall crazy as the east! When I learned in my school days that Eliot and Pound and all the numerous others found succor in Europe–is Great Britain Europe?–, I did not blame them. But I did not admire them either. Incidentally, I have never been able to read either Main Street or Buddenbrooks from cover to cover.
Now that I have confessed my own shortcomings, if you were born in a country other than America, I don't hold it against you. Take Boris Pasternak, for instance, whom I extol as a prose story teller. I wish he had come to America on the boat; he would have made a fine American. Pasternak wrote a few good prose works, one of which is especially interesting to me because it is autobiographical, Safe Conduct. Then he wrote Dr. Zhivago. Just thinking about Zhivago makes me want to read it again. It balances an epic period in Russian history with Pasternak's personal characterization. Everything is dramatized, and not a phrase wasted in tiresome exposition, and transitions are as concise as possible. No doubt a Russian would take from it a thousand special meanings unknown to me; still I happily share in the universality of its love story. Imagine the great story he could have written, if he had been an American, about the depression decade, or better still, my own favorite, the Viet Nam decade, the '60's! No such luck, I guess. Mother Russia turned him into a crabby and obscure poet.
But while writing prose, he couldn't have been better. Although Zhivago is greater than the sum of its parts, its parts are complete and well drafted. You can start reading anywhere in the book and become immediately engaged. (Incidentally, engagement is one of the requirements that push a book into my special bookshelf. I mean by that you can open up the book on any page and it sucks you in for a swim.) The 1957 translation by Max Hayward was hurried but passible. It has an echo of the American language in it. (A fellow can dream, can't he? They say Hem wanted to write a similar book about WW2, but never got around to it. I doubt anybody would think Islands in the Stream was an attempt.) There have been other translations of Zhivago since. I am troubled by Pasternak's arduous poetry. But Dr. Zhivago has me scratching the back of my head to find praise enough. The movies are paltry, dust off the jacket. Zhivago easily made the shelf. If my special shelf were ten books, Zhivago would make the shelf. I have placed beside it Leaves of Grass basically because of "Drum Taps".
The use of Europe by Americans to murder themselves continued through a great part of the twentieth century. Numerous American pilgrims sought out European existential cross purposes. Even Frost took the boat, but beat a quick retreat from the city into the English countryside. The first of these pilgrims, of course, was Thomas Sterns Eliot, the poet. I have rarely had a good word to say about Eliot because in school they fed him to me ad nauseum, especially "Prufrock", which I consider to be the worst poem ever written in the history of mankind. But Eliot also wrote "Murder in the Cathedral", "Four Quartets" and a few other very fine poems—among them not necessarily "The Wasteland". His dramatic works are worth getting into if you like to suffer. Recently, while my father was dying, I sought to occupy myself. Wonder why I picked out Eliot's Complete Poems and Plays? It's a good looking volume with very nice typography—in short, unlike most modern computer typeset books, it doesn't look like hell. I thought I might hide behind it, my eyes bugging out and my fingers up my nose. My father was still a strong man at 90 and I desperately prayed to see his big nose sticking out of a Smucker's label. Eliot must be good for something.
Eliot had not changed much since my school days. To me he is the same noisome High Anglican. I guess in Britain he was a Conservative? But he has an hellova English vocabulary which nobody wielded with more precision, so his hyper religiosity couldn't keep the book off my shelf. I think that unlike many poets, whose dirty little secret is their non-intellectualism, which they call faith, Eliot was honestly profoundly fond of the intellect. Sometimes I put the book up there on the shelf, and take it down in a few minutes. Can't I keep it up there for "Four Quartets"? But Frost didn't make it either, and his narrative poems are the best kept secret in American literature. This argument between Frost and Eliot has bothered me for a long time. Yeats didn't make it. Maybe there's something wrong with me? A few of Yeats' later poems are very fine, like "Under Ben Bulben". It took him a lifetime to figure out that ornament too easily gets in the way of clarity. The road to drivel is lined by ornament. Pound's Cantos made it. This is for me. Most modern poetry is drivel, and most of the Cantos is drivel, but there are stirring and soul searching parts, too. A small volume of Tennyson's poems made it, though he is like wise as Pound—good in parts. Walt made it because I am an American and he wrote "Drum Taps".
Modernity is not cut out for writing good poetry for several reasons. The first, probably, is because the notion of brevity has been lost in the dust and distance of history. A few pages of some good lines padded out with noisome or boring exposition is preferred over one page of all good lines. For instance, psychology is a common subject to rant about obscurely. Form is attended to after a fashion as a posture rather than an integral explication of the real. Sentences feel coerced, phrases jangle unnaturally in industrious self-indulgence. Conciseness is unpoetic. The second reason is the all-encompassing belief that without faith we are less than human. Science is a game, a short sighted habit, a superficial style, a passing mannerism useful but meaningless, which one should look down his nose at, and therefore science is a wreck waiting to happen. For poetry to reflect an age, which it has done from time to time in human history, for us moderns some balance between faith and technology has to be achieved, or most modern poetry will continue to be a haven for the difficult and obscure and irrelevant–and, I might add, the depressing.
Prose has seemed to fit in a little better with me. Short fiction has stuck with me. Although I load up my man cave with novels, which I used to love in my younger days, I seem not ever to have time to read any. I am only half joking with myself when I wonder what a novel is. But I usually know what a good short story feels like, and I get sucked in. I believe that I would be very happy with one good solid book of short stories, no tricks. But now I am looking out my window, and I notice that the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. I cannot resist going outside for a walk in the woods around my house. Sunshine, my dog, is poking at my elbow. There will be other rainy days and I have much more yet to say on this matter.