Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison’s friend, remembers a short poem, which I will call a haiku, from their days as students together: Murray recalls the author of Invisible Man as the smartest-dressed upperclassman at Tuskegee. Murray was impressed that Ellison always seemed to check out the best books in the library, and he presented a “nascent elegance” in his two-tone shoes, bow tie, contrasting slacks, and whatever else the best haberdasher in Oklahoma had to offer.
“I even remember the poetry Ralph wrote,” Murray said:
“‘Death is nothing, / Life is nothing, / How beautiful these two nothings!’ “
“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.
“I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.
I just finished Moby Dick for the second time. A hybrid, genius work way ahead of its time, combining a nonfiction, direct address to the reader and narrative fiction, in short a swirl and swerve that follows Melville’s daemon to tell his tale like no other, which he did. By the end, he’s understandably exhausted. But we have been told in a new, pre-modern archetype.
Red Pine, Stonehouse and Gary Snyder are mentioned in Jim Harrison’s new trilogy of novellas that was just released, The Ancient Minstrel:
“After attending and giving at least a hundred poetry readings he could remember only one that struck him as a hundred percent genuine and honest. A poet named, simply enough, Red Pine read from an ancient Chinese poet he had translated, called Stonehouse. Red Pine read with quiet integrity just what he translated. Usually after a reading he was in a private snit and needed a drink, but now he walked down and looked at the harbor, his spine still tingling. The other true exception was Gary Snyder. He never wanted Snyder’s readings to end.”
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
A quick rundown on recent reading, just to get the ball rolling again.
In the past three months, I’ve read:
1 Advertisements for Myself by Mailer (for the second or third time), and what can I say, it’s Mailer at his best and his worse. That’s not a negative review, it’s just a reflection of what you get with an original artist who talked out his issues and interests in public to make it real. Someone said Mailer can be good and bad in the same sentence, much less a book, but overall I’m struck by his core artistry which by my lights never left him during his 50-odd year career, including his worse outing in Barbary Shore. He had to get that dialectic, intellectual writing out of his system and he did it in that book. What value does Advertisement’s offer? His fascination with God, Manichaeism, orgasm, a belief that each person is engaged in a spiritual struggle in life, a belief that America is geared to become totalitarian and to engage in wars – it’s all there in bits and pieces which are developed in full later. You get the tone of the times in the ’50s. Mailer was a young bear in a cage and from the 60s on to the end of his career (his death) he broke out and roamed the American times like no one else. He was basically fearless with a huge ego. The story of how his The Naked and the Dead came together is a lesson in itself. Such discipline at such a young age; 25 years old when it was published, one year younger than Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, and Naked is a much larger, more ambitious work. Mailer’s heros were Hemingway (as the elder) and James Jones, his young contemporary, who he said probably wrote the better war novel and who made Mailer feel inferior as a person. Jones had great magnetism.
2 William Empson by John Haffenden. I completed the 1,700-odd pages of the two–volume biography in about two weeks. Empson, a poet and language/word-lover, is a new love of mine. The first volume is perfect. The second volume is good, but it has a jagged edge in the prose, very poor editing and proofreading that threw me off. For the Oxford Press, it’s a weak show of editing skills, really embarrassing. But Empson’s story is good, compelling, and adventuresome. The private school section is vivid; he was so precocious. People used the word genius when he was still in his teens. At Oxford, his teachers were in awe of him. He taught in Japan, China and later Brittain. His literary criticism is original, and I like his turn of mind and phrasing. Earlier, I read his Seven Types of Ambiguity and On Complex Words. He would have made a good AP writer, so direct and clear – one of the clearest writers I’ve ever read. He had a bohemian, free style of living, a beautiful wife, and he made most English eccentrics look middle-class normal. A line in one his poems: “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” You have to love his mind. Next on my list are his Selected Letters and Argufying, his essay collection.
3 Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson is a classic of nonfiction reporting, a plunge into the gut and heart of Hemingway, the man, the image, the failure, the tragic hero, the dissembler, and the enduring saint-like writer. I’ve read everything Hemingway wrote, and most of what’s been written about him: fiction,biographies, et al, and this book forged new ground in so many ways – it’s a cliche to say it’s a rounded, fair portrait of the man, but it is. What you don’t know, you don’t need to know; what you know will make you defend him against all possible criticism. If you want to study fame, read the book. It sends a cold chill through your mind. And yet, he wrote well throughout his life, despite unfair pot shots at his later work. Even the posthumous books, the so-called worse books, are far, far better than 90 percent of the serious fiction and nonfiction published. Many critics have a tendency to talk down real talent in order to lift themselves a little higher (in their own mind). I know his books will read even better, stronger as time goes on. They’re specific yet they all carry a large frame of universalism in the language and stories. When his public image fades and people again read the words fresh, they’ll cherish the record he left. At heart, he was a master reporter of his life, both in fiction and nonfiction. Hendrickson’s book is a classic, no question.
4. After the Boat, I re-read Papa by Gregory Hemingway, the wayward son. It surprised me. I couldn’t remember the book from my first read a long time ago. I was prepared for some insights and revelations, but they never came. The writing was commercial and coy, and I felt he wrote the book (if he did write it) without real interest. Read Hendrickson on Gregory Hemingway and you’ll be enthralled by Gregory’s life and the strange dance he and Ernest put together. Of more interest was the book by Gregory’s wife, Valerie Hemingway, Running with the Bulls; it completes the portrait of that wing of the Hemingway family. Strange fruit, but like the Old Man brave and strong each in their own way.
5. Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison. Jim is my kindred spirit poet-novelist-bear-man trail blazer, raw-souled writer. He writes poems as journal jottings. I relish his words. His whimsical cast of mind. This poetry book is right up to the present day, reporting on his illness, his life, his wife (who recently died) and the insults and pleasures of old age. I shudder to think about his life going forward and hope he can hold up and hold on to give us a little more of his heartening, everyday wisdom and brio, his realism: he says, ok, gang, just pay attention and get your work done while observing and living your life as truly as you can.
Galaxies are grand thickets of stars
in which we may hide forever
6 The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Larry, next time you publish a book at least get someone to proofread it before it’s published. Clumsy repetition and typos run through the sentences like stray yearlings. Otherwise, it had some potential but it came up woefully short in the dust. Cardboard characters. Bang, Bang, Blank… It’s best to read it as a big joke – on the reader.
7 Paris Dream Book by Lawrence Osborne. Osborne wrote a wonderful nonfiction book, Bangkok Days, about his life in Bangkok that reads like fiction. Paris is nothing like it. It’s like going through a florid garden of the past and present, Paris as muse, as lover, as sensual friend, as a palpable state of mind with roots and branches coming out of the past and going into the future. There’s no story, or maybe a tiny bit of story (Turkish baths), there’s unfurling fields of description written in a twisted brew with shades of Lawrence Durrell, Oscar Wilde and one hallucinating tour guide. It’s not a travel book. It’s a language-tour book of the streets, buildings and neighborhoods of Paris. Very original, non-repeatable, the work of a young writer intoxicated by language as he responds to his life of the senses.
8 Norman Mailer: A Double Life by Michael Lennon. This is an important book. It captures Mailer’s genius and his swashbuckling approach to life. He would have been a hell of a sea captain when the unknown world was new. An outright genius. Hemingway repressed his sexual nature; Mailer expressed it, lived by it, and strangely it seems not to have inhibited his energy or creativity but only increased it. I loved the description of how he approached his wide body of work, what triggered his demon. Lennon is understanding, because he knew Mailer intimately and it comes through in the steadiness of his prose, its subtle way of capturing Mailer’s thoughts and reasoning at important moments. If you pair up the books by Hemingway and Mailer from the ’20s to the first decade of this century, you have an arresting narrative of the past 100 years. For any would-be writer, you should study their lives and writing as early in your life as you can. Lasting lessons.
9 Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene. This is a selected overview of the decades of Greene’s life, the earliest to the end. He comes across differently from the impressions you get from his books. He’s less angst ridden, less depressed (at least he doesn’t express his depression much, he just mentions it in passing), morbid, selfish and he’s more attentive to his friends and family than you might have expected. You get the feeling that he’s observing himself and his life in the letters – there’s a strange distance here for a book of letters. That may be a key to the man. There are many, many more letters to come, which may change the picture considerably, especially if some letters address his life with his mistresses and his nocturnal jaunts through the brothels and opium dens of Saigon, Cuba, Europe and Africa. This book has none of that, but those other letters must exist unless, of course, his secret nature prevented him from writing such accounts in letters. I doubt it; at least there should be journals with those details at some later date.
10 Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Robert Lindsey. I grew up fascinated by Brando and I’ve followed his career and his evolution from farm kid to mythical American presence to Orson Wells-like obsolescence. This book gets us fairly close to who he was and gives us some understanding of how he became what he ended up to be, a failure in his eyes. There’s a connection between Brando and Mailer that’s interesting: where their lives crossed. A key is Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, or Mr. Peepers, if you remember him from TV. They came out of the same little town and they were young buddies and gave each other some sanity as they lived out their lives in Hollywood. Cox created that Mr. Peepers character as an actor, and he died young of alcoholism.
11. The Rhetoric of Religion by Kenneth Burke. A deep, revealing look at the words in the Bible, the Logos and the language, the specific words that account for the lasting spell of the story, especially Genesis. You see how the story is lashed together by words that are the bedrock of our innermost self. The hallowed words. The book has a strange parallel to the work of William Empson, who was an atheist, but who admired the book and thought it was excellent work as a study of language. Burke is not concerned with theology or religion as subject, only the way the words convey the message that is conveyed. He calls his interest “logology.” It’s a clumsy term, but it provides a description of his approach.
12 The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. In the tradition of his crime noir novels, but set in high-octane Africa. It has the clarity and intensity of his Nobody Moves. He follows two erstwhile adventurers who’ve lost their way, their morals, their sanity almost, and are in the deepest of dark times with a scheme to rip off intelligence agencies and fellow spies and mercenaries with an outright con. Only idiots would believe and do what the do, but they do it with a sense of “this can be done,” a feeling that takes many people over the edge. There are many people walking the streets and living bizarre fantasy lives, crazy, twisted people trying to con crazy, bad people. The writing is beautiful. There are few laughs. Only paralyzing grins.
13 Finding Them Gone by Bill Porter (Red Pine). This is a travel book masterpiece for lovers of Asian poetry. Porter’s prose is light and fine and imbued with a Taoistic topping of pure joy as his days unfold touring the temples, homes and home ground of China’s greatest poets from earliest times to the last century. You get a sense of how it feels to travel in rural and urban China today. The book is a capstone of a great career by a master-layman-practitioner of Zen and Taoism, a follower of Cold Mountain, Stonehouse, and a host of worthies who he has translated and wrote commentaries about, not to mention his translations and commentaries on the core Buddhist sutras and the Tao Te Ching. I’ll write more about this book in a coming post.
Looking For a Recluse and Finding Him Gone
Below the pines I ask the boy
he says his master has gone to find herbs
he’s somewhere on this mountain
but the clouds are too thick to know where
– Chia Tao, (799-833)
Bill Porter’s (Red Pine) new book is a meditative tour of the grave sites and homes of China’s greatest poets, another one-of-a-kind journey by America’s most interesting Buddhist scholar and travel writer. It will be published in January 2016.