Thursday, November 29, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 33 - Reading

In those school years I never for a moment thought that when I read Wolfe and Farrell and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Faulkner that I was reading fiction. And I found out when I began reading literary biographies that I was right. Just as I knew and had it confirmed later that the places I was reading about in boarding school were actual places - Thomas Grey's country graveyard and Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, were actual places – and Keats' Grecian urn an actual vase seen by an actual person, the first-person narrator of the poem. As real as the sometimes harsh, sometime gentle New England hills I could see through the old schoolroom windows.

I knew things that are easily forgotten if you fall for the idea that fiction is superior to actuality.

Joe Abbey, the English teacher who made all the difference for me, read to us from Keats and Wordsworth and Grey. He brought us Robert Browning's awful duke describing how he'd worked over his beautiful young duchess who then died. I knew that whether this was fact or fiction it was at worst a disguised version of what Browning knew from his own life, for the people in the poem were so true to actual life. There was no prettied up ending here. I loved the young duchess in my mind, where I also saw lovers stopped on Keats’ Grecian urn, stopped there before life went on and they could grab each other and anyone could ruin it for them.

Thomas Grey vanishing in the past, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air..." An old (late twenties) Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey thinking of the optimistic young Wordsworth, "...when first/I came among these hills;/ When like a roe/I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,/Wherever nature led: more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved." And Keats telling the young man he sees on the urn “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal - yet do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hadst not thy bliss,/Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

I found it so easy to make connections when reading these versions of reality. I found I loved nature, and longed for girls, and had learned that hope was illusive, and I knew people who were much like the people in the poems. And I made connections when Joe Abbey introduced us to Dickens and talked of how Dickens wrote so convincingly about being spurned in love because he himself had been spurned in love.

He had us read Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga, which depicted men and women who seemed to me completely true to life as I knew it in the summers, though they were upper middle class English, not supposedly upper class American. Through Galsworthy I could see my grandmother Nana in sun hat and white dress coming in from her sunlit gardens at White Pines with her arms full of long-stemmed flowers she had just cut – Nana handing these over to a servant in one of the three pantries at White Pines, this pantry apparently there solely so that a servant could receive, and arrange, flowers.

Our 3rd form – this being an Anglified school that called what we were in “3rd form” rather than 9th grade or freshman year – our 3rd form English class went into the nearby old river town of Plymouth to see the new movie of Hamlet, the Lawrence Olivier version in which these people from Shakespeare seem like real people, speaking their lines as if in actual conversation and conflict. Again, as a few weeks earlier when I read Julius Caesar on my own, it seemed that Shakespeare knew as much about actual challenges in actual life as Dickens or the modern Americans. Hamlet confused as to action, and angry. These Shakespeare characters were so real that I was in love with Jean Simmons’ Ophelia, and felt I knew everything there was to know about loss and longing and craziness when she turned insane, sang a sweet nonsense song, and then drifted down a stream to her death, with flowers floating beside her.

I knew Joe Abbey loved what he read to us. He loved the words and the rhythms and the life and lives and places that were evoked. This was clear. And he was down on what he considered got in the way of this true art that was the literature he presented. He treated with contempt poetry and prose that had nothing concrete in it, as in the popular Joyce Kilmer drivel: "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree...."

It was drivel to Joe if there were no actual tree anywhere to be found in sentimental talk about trees.

He spoke of the then corny poet Edgar Guest, of whom, he said, Dorothy Parker wrote "I'd rather flunk my Wasserman test/Then read the poems of Eddie Guest." It was, he said, a reference to the feared test for the deadly venereal disease of syphilis, Guest was that bad.

But even though Joe shared Dorothy Parker's view of Edgar Guest, he had found once when reading Guest aloud as an example of trite and false poetry that tears began to come to his eyes, the power of fake emotions is that strong.

And I saw a connection here with what I knew by instinct was wrong with most patriotic sentiments, and with calls for school spirit, and with faking love where there is no love.

Kilmer and Guest got reactions, Joe said, because they were good at calling up stock responses. Like the sentimental lines in Hallmark cards. Reponses to writing in which there is no real sentiment because there is nothing real that is being dealt with. Just raw maudlin tears that have no real object. Like weeping over soap operas that have a lot going on in them but no people who are real, and no serious connection with anything in the life of the listener even though the listener is crying.

What this is – emotion based on stock responses rather than anything real – has nothing to do with sentiment, he said. It is sentimentality, which is something completely different.

And with Joe's help I was leaping over the trite and the false and reveling in the real writing I was discovering, the writing that went to the heart and avoided easy outs, the writing that first made me realize I was not alone in the world, and then made me want to be a writer – whatever else the family planned for me. And I could not possibly have had all this if I had been reading writers who, like so many current novelists, followed the dictates of play-it-safe writing teachers and ended all stories with neat resolutions.

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