“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.

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Denise Levertov, “Conversion of Brother Lawrence”

I particularly love the lines “your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant” – which neatly summarises Brother Lawrence’s way of deceptive simplicity.

Let us enter into ourselves, Time presses.’

Brother Lawrence 1611-1691

1.

What leafless tree plunging
into what pent sky was it
convinced you Spring, bound to return i
n all its unlikelihood, was a word
of God, a Divine message?
Custom, natural reason, are everyone’s assurance;
we take the daylight for granted, the moon,
the measured tides. A particular tree, though,
one day in your eighteenth winter,
said more, an oracle. Clumsy footman,
apt to drop the ornate objects handed to you,
cursed and cuffed by butlers and grooms,
your inner life unsuspected,
you heard, that day, a more-than-green
voice from the stripped branches.
Wooden lace, a celestial geometry,
uttered more than familiar rhythms of growth.
It said By the Grace of God.
Midsummer rustled around you that wintry moment.
Was it elm, ash, poplar, a fruit-tree, your rooted
twig-angel of annunciation?

2

Out from the chateau park it sent you
(by some back lane, no doubt,
not through the wide gates of curled iron),
by ways untold, by soldier’s marches,
to the obscure clatter and heat of a monastery kitchen,
a broom’s rhythmic whisper for music,
your torment the drudgery of household ledgers. Destiny
without visible glory. ‘Time pressed.’ Among pots and pans,
heart-still through the bustle of chores,
your labors, hard as the pain in your lame leg,
grew slowly easier over the years, the years
when, though your soul felt darkened, heavy, worthless,
yet God, you discovered, never abandoned you but walked
at your side keeping pace as comrades had
on the long hard roads of war. You entered then
the unending ‘silent secret conversation,’
the life of steadfast attention.
Not work transformed you; work, even drudgery
was transformed: that discourse
pierced through its monotones, infused them w
ith streams of sparkling color.
What needed doing, you did; journeying if need be
on rocking boats, lame though you were,
to the vineyard country to purchase the year’s wine
for a hundred Brothers, laughably rolling yourself
over the deck-stacked barrels when you couldn’t
keep your footing; and managed deals with the vintners
to your own surprise, though business was nothing to you.
Your secret was not the craftsman’s delight in process,
which doesn’t distinguish work from pleasure—
your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant:
everything faded, thinned to nothing, beside
the light which bathed and warmed, the Presence
your being had opened to. Where it shone,
there life was, and abundantly; it touched
your dullest task, and the task was easy.
Joyful, absorbed,
you ‘practiced the presence of God’ as a musician
practices hour after hour his art:
‘A stone before the carver,’
you‘entered into yourself.

What do you want? (or, You Are What You Want)

From Gil Bailie‘s “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love”:

“In any case, they were hardly prepared for a colloquy with the Lamb of God, the one poised to take away the sin of the world. Not wanting to make complete fools of themselves, perhaps they tried to quickly formulate questions that might at least appear to be worthy of so exalted a figure, serious questions about the Law, for instance, the weightier and more imponderable the better. In our mind’s eye we can imagine them hastily rehearsing the enigmatic puzzles they think commensurate with this man’s stature in John’s eyes. But suddenly something quite shocking happens: Jesus turns to them, and before they can get a word out, he says: “What do you want?” (Jn. 1:38).

There are many ways this question might be verbally inflected, each decisive for assessing its implications for the two men who stood for a moment speechless before Jesus. “What do you want?” “What do you want?” “What do you want?” However inflected and whatever its nuances, in the hands of the most theological evangelist, the question resounds with universal meaning, and we ourselves should ponder it further. What do we want?”

It can hardly be dismissed as merely fortuitous that the first words spoken by Jesus in the most theological and in many respects the most historically reliable of the gospels are: “What do you want?” It would not be too much to say that Jesus came into the world to help humanity come to grips with that question. We spend much or all of our lives wanting, punctuated only momentarily by fleeting moments of satisfaction, rarely pondering the implications of this gigantic fact of our existence or realizing that it is what defines our species. Other creatures don’t want as humans do; they don’t desire. They try to satisfy instinctual appetites: hunger, sexual release, exhaustion, survival.

Wanting is not what defines them as it does us. Even the mimeticism of our pre-human primate ancestors is constrained by appetite and/or limited to the immediately obtainable. We want. But what do we want? A magazine cartoon comes to mind, one depicting a small child surrounded by toys and clearly pampered by parents who are anxious to satisfy every wish of the child, who nevertheless is obviously bored by the resulting largess.

Noticing the child’s sullen dissatisfaction, the exasperated mother asks: “Well, what do you want?” To which the child, somewhat confused by the question, replies: “I want… I want… I want to want!” As Dante among others testifies, we are desire. We are creatures who have inexhaustible and insatiable wants. In truth, man’s discrete wants or desires are but kaleidoscopic refractions of the single desire to which his teeming desiderata of longings must be properly ordered if he is to flourish and find fulfillment.

Writes the Stanford neurobiologist, William Hurlbut: “Desire is essential to having a mental life at all. In California we used to say ‘you are what you eat.’ It is, perhaps, more true to say ‘you are what you want.’ Desires, more than pleasures, define and sum up personal identity.

Widespread and unconvincing assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, desire today is weak and altogether tenuous, the more tenuous the more fickle, the more fickle the less any object is desired and the more necessarily dramatized is the desire for it. Though testimonials to desire are everywhere to be found, they betoken its attenuation, not its vibrancy. The word, like so many others, has been debased as fast as have the moral constraints that once protected it from debasement. Much that passes for desire today is so ephemeral and evanescent that it must be acted upon posthaste before it dissipates or is replaced by yet another mimetic enticement. Such feeble desires are quickly recycled, each giving rise, phoenix-like, to yet another effervescent faux desire.

Girard has shown that as mimetic desire moves from model to model, with each new mediator the subject surrenders some of its psychological coherence and ontological weight. In advanced stages of this mimetic promiscuity, such as we find in Western post-modernity, the halfhearted impulses that pass for desire are likely to grow more fickle, more impatient, and more in need of external stimulants and pharmacological enhancements. All the more must such evanescent desires be flamboyantly exhibited and promptly—if perfunctorily—acted upo

The past and future of handwriting- David Rundle in the TLS

In the current TLS there is an excellent review by David Rundle of two recent books on handwriting.

Anyone who knows me, or more specifically had had to read my handwriting, will no doubt be amused to discover I am actually quite interested in handwriting. I have tried various pens, pen grips and other means to improve my scrawl. Alas, when time is short all these are abandoned and I revert to type (in every sense)

It is comforting to find out from the piece that St Thomas Aquinas also had difficult-to-read handwriting:

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Anne Trubek’s book sounds like it exemplifies a current belief that handwriting is irrelevant anyway in the digital age. I am not so sure. Quite apart from anything else, I suspect handwriting to be a skill with much far transfer. And writing is an opportunity for artistic expression, something at a premium in a homogenised, noisome culture.

Rundle is quite sceptical of Trubek’s claims, which as he points out are rather First World centric, and concludes:

Pen and paper, then, will remain because they are cheap. Meanwhile, in the West, many of us may fret over the scrawl we inflict on the page, but we can reassure ourselves that bad handwriting is not an invention of modernity: ask anybody who has tried to decipher pages written by Thomas Aquinas. He would certainly not make it into a gallery such as that Patricia Lovett provides. Her selection of scribes necessarily concentrates on those with the most skill, but enough specimens survive to remind us that few mastered that level of artistry. Many wrote less accurately, less consistently and simply less presentably. If they had been Xerox machines, they would have been the ones in urgent need of a visit from the engineer.

A volume chronicling cacography – poor handwriting – might not sell as well as one on calligraphy, but it deserves its history too, and will certainly have its future. For those who are truly latter-day Aquinases, with a natural difficulty in being legible, the keyboard is a saving grace. Others too prefer it as their medium of self-expression. Yet, it is a “self” sublimated to the font choices of the corporation whose software you use. Of course, when we write by hand, we are also confined, individuality restrained by the requirements of the script, but there is a certain licence for variation and idiosyncrasy, however badly it is executed. Many may find such latitude engenders lassitude and choose to allow the computer to decide for them. That is not a freedom available to everyone in our world – if true freedom it is.

Rundle’s Twitter feed is full of interesting and entertaining snippets from manuscripts:

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Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Been a while since I <a href="https://seamhow much a local cat frequents our gardenussweeney.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/bird-feeding-notes-mid-july/”>I published bird-feeding notes. I was perhaps chastened by my unintended killing of greenfinches and felt there was a hubristic tone to the notes…

I have returned to bird feeding in recent months, taking care to rotate the location of feeders and to wash them out – properly – regularly. I have also paced myself in terms of feeding. A little and often is better than a lot irregularly. I have had chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches (not as many as last year, I think), collared doves, blackbirds, a mistle thrush, starlings, robins, great tits, jackdaws and rooks. No sign of magpies, although further afield I have noticed a couple more locally.

Every year I intend to take part in the Garden Bird Survey and every year something comes up around the start of December which leads to missing the beginning, and then feeling it is too late to catch up.

The recent snowy weather led me to put out a little more food and a steady stream of visitors ensued. One of the other features of the snowy garden is the ability to track birds – and other creatures – by their footprints. It confirmed to me how much the garden is frequented by a local cat.

Vic Damone RIP

Vic Damone has died aged 89.Surely one of the last of the post-war crooners (autocorrect just helpfully suggested “coroners”) He had the inevitable colourful life and the Personal Life section of his Wikipedia bio is one of the longest elative to other parts I have come across. Nevertheless, as with Sinatra, ultimately the music speaks for itself. Damone was much more typically a crooner in vocal style and repertoire than Sinatra.

Damone indeed has a classic crooner look as in the cover of The Street Where You Live album and images like this :

This 1981 cover image is somewhat more of its time :

Anyway, to the music

Here he is with “The Street Where You Live”

And here he is with ‘War And Peace”, a somewhat lighter piece than the title indicates:

Finally, for St Valentine’s Eve (not on YouTube but on Spotify) here is “I am in Love”:

RIP

“Fearful of My Joy” – Adam deVille on cooking, feasting and the sacramental

I am running the risk of turning this blog into nothing but reposting of Adam deVille, but I could resist this 2013 post on cooking, feasting, joy, and the sacramental by way of Chesterton, Waugh, Jennifer Patterson, Alexander Schememann, and Babette’s Feast

Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm–not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.

But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that “food can and should be about enjoyment. As for ‘nutrition’–that is all balls.” And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect “Two Fat Ladies” died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999–while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently–I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson–a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: “Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!”)

Some days I am tempted to write a book “Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting” but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that

man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life (11).

I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987, Babette’s Feast. If you’ve not seen it, go and watch it. It’s a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms–opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others–the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the “better part” but there’s a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.)

The movie raised some difficult questions for my students–and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age–not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that–even on a much less grand scale–at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper’s splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what–the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called “reality” TV?