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I have a book I love greatly. In august buckram, of a deep navy blue, with gold embossed letters on the spine, it is the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, compiled in 1951 by Iona and Peter Opie. It is more than an anthology; it is a deeply researched tome of scholarship, as one would expect from the Universitatis Oxoniensis.

Each rhyme is compiled with variorum versions and usually several pages of history, interpretation and arcana. Humpty Dumpty covers four pages, with footnotes. We learn that versions exist in Sweden (“Thille Lille”); in Switzerland (“Annebadadeli”); Germany (“Rüntzelkien-Püntzelken”); France (“Boule Boule”) and elsewhere. That Humpty-Dumpty is the name of a boiled ale-and-brandy drink; that there is a little girls’ game by the same name; that the name was also given to a siege engine in the English Civil War.

And we learn that there is a commonly-held belief that the rhyme (I can’t really call it a poem) is really about the fall of “My kingdom for a horse” Richard III. Not, apparently, true.

If there is a common theme in the book, it is that although so many people believe there is a “secret” meaning to so many of these nonsensical nursery rhymes, and seek out who in history is really being referenced, almost always such belief is unfounded. The poems are either attested to much earlier than the historical figure, or we know by internal evidence, it could not be.

How many people believe “Ring around the rosey” is about the Black Death or the Great Plague of 1665? This folk etymology doesn’t appear until after World War II, but now seems universally accepted, despite all evidence to the contrary. The symptoms in the verse are simply not the symptoms of the disease.

Or take “Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.” The Opies relate several “interpretations” of the rhyme: “Theories upon which too much ink has been expended are (1) that the twenty-four blackbirds are the hours of the day; the king, the sun; the queen, the moon; (2) that the blackbirds are the choirs of the about-to-be dissolved monasteries making a dainty pie for Henry; the queen, Katherine; the maid, Anne Boleyn; (3) that the king, again, is Henry VIII; the rye, tribute in kind; the birds, twenty-four manorial title deeds presented under a crust; (4) that the maid is a sinner; the blackbird, the demon snapping off the maid’s nose to reach her soul; (5) that the printing of the English Bible is celebrated, blackbirds being the letters of the alphabet which were ‘baked in a pie’ when set up by the printers in pica form. … If any particular explanation is required of the rhyme, the straightforward one that it is a description of a familiar entertainment is the most probable.”

Occam’s razor, once again.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, largely destitute of what Bruno Bettelheim called the “enchantment of childhood.” I never read any fairy tales until college. And the child rhymes I had about me were not usually the ancyent classiques, but rather, the newer comic ones.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy

Wuz he?

or:

Oo-ee Goo-ee was a worm

A mighty worm was he

He sat upon the railroad track

The train he did not see

Oo-ee goo-ee!

Then there were the spelling rhymes:

Chicken in the car

The car won’t go

That’s how you spell

Chicago.

or

A knife and a fork

A bottle and a cork

That’s the way to spell

New York.

There were those set to familiar tunes, like the “Great green gobs of gooey grimy gopher guts,” or:

Be kind to your webfooted friends

For a duck may be somebody’s mother.

Be kind to your friends in the swamp,

where the weather is very, very damp.

Now you may think that this is the end —

Well, it is!

That abrupt ending was a theme, as in “Ooey-Gooey” and in

There was an old crow 

Sat upon a clod; 

That’s the end of my song. 

—That’s odd.

When I was a kid, I thought that kind of deconstruction of the scansion was hilarious.

Later, I learned such eternal classics as:

O I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg

So I ran hot water up and down her leg

O the little chickie cried and the little chickie begged

And the little chickie laid me a hard boiled egg.

Which we rounded off with the modern rewrite of “Shave and a haircut, Five cents:”

Match in the gas tank:

Boom-boom.

Also hilarious:

On top of spaghetti,

All covered with cheese,

I lost my poor meatball

When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table

And onto the floor,

And then my poor meatball

Rolled right out the door.

“Rolled right out the door,” had me rolling on the floor.

Almost as much as:

I see London, I see France;

I see someone’s underpants.

Underwear being, of course, in grade school second in delirious comedy only to farts.

Such rhymes may refer to real personages, of course, as:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks

And when she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

(Although court records tell us Lizzie’s stepmother received 18 blows and her father, 11. Still, we don’t go to children’s doggerel for historical research.)

The fact is, this stuff is just nonsense verse, and we loved it, not only because we were immature little brats who found bodily functions risible, but because rhyme and meter delight the mind and ear. The children’s rhymes we recited when we were bairns were one of the ways we acquired language. (It has often been pointed out that we don’t “learn” our native tongue, but rather “acquire” it, picking it up by example, and examples that are memorable are easier to remember, QED.)

I don’t mean to imply these versicles were understood to be, or designed to be pedagogical, but that their effect was to make language magical and something we didn’t simply use, but delighted in.

Of course, sometimes the stupid rhymes were meant to teach, like “In Fourteen-hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Or, in even more egregious form, causing lifelong damage to those required to memorize them in music-appreciation classes, those mnemonics that taught classical music:

This is the symphony

That Schubert wrote

And never finished.

Or:

In the hall of the Mountain King

Mountain King

Mountain king

In the hall of the Mountain King

Was written by Edvard Grieg.

Can’t unhear what you’ve heard. Such things led to parodies, also, sung to the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40:

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Mozart

Shoot him down, shoot him down, shoot him down…

So, as we grew up, we still loved the silliness that we first encountered with our nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. It is why Walt Kelly’s Christmas carols are sung even by people who don’t know where they come from:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo

Nora’s freezing on the trolley

Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

It is why we love Shel Silverstein’s ditties:

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.

He may catch all the others, but he

won’t catch me.

No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,

you may catch all the others, but you wo— 

My brother says he doesn’t even remember writing this one, but I wrote it down many, many years ago:

Watch your scotch

Or it’ll get brittle.

And I was once asked to be a Cyrano for a college roommate I detested and to write a poem that he could pretend he wrote for a girl he fancied. Her name?

If you have a yen,

Don’t ask if, ask Gwen.

I don’t remember how that romance turned out, but, you know, “Match in the gas tank; Boom-boom.”

Tallulah Rose

Tallulah Rose

I have an interesting “contest” going on with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose. She is 16 and immersed in music, taking guitar, piano and banjo lessons; she has some genuine talent. When I chauffeur her around on those occasions when I am called on, and am playing some Bach or Beethoven on the car CD, she is apt to say something like, “Classical music is so boring; it all sounds the same.” And, of course, when I hear her listening to pop music on her iPad, my reaction is the mirror: Pop music is so boring; it all sounds the same. So, I scratch my head and wonder.

How can something sound so monotonous to me and not bore her to tears? How can something so varied and glorious as classical music possible sound to her as if it is all the same gluey mush? It is more than a question of taste; we are clearly hearing different things.

Most people are likely to think of this as merely a matter of taste — “I like indie rock, but she likes country,” —  and it is, to some degree — but while someone who likes Taylor Swift may say they don’t like Justin Bieber, they recognize it as merely a different genre of pop, and they wedge into their corner of sound comfort. Is there anything more insular than heavy metal?

But classical music doesn’t seem to function to Tallulah Rose as just one more Billboard magazine chart category, like soul or country-Western or hip hop. Those are all options out there for popular consumption and one chooses the category one feels most simpatico with.

But classical seems to be a different species altogether. It isn’t, for its serious listeners, just one more entertainment option. Its goals are elsewhere.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Tallulah Rose and I thought we might explore this question. She suggested an exchange. She would choose 10 pieces of pop music for me to listen to and I would choose 10 pieces of classical music for her. Tallulah Rose isn’t one of your ordinary junk-music fans: She has high standards for her music and would consider the bands she has chosen for me to be “art,” or at very least music that no one of any musical sophistication would be embarrassed to be heard listening to. She has excellent taste in her music. She picked for me music by Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, among others. I was to listen to her music and write about it, and she was to do the same for my choices.

What T-Rose chose for me:

1. Jesus, Etc. by Wilco
2. Australia by The Shins
3. Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
4. Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes
5. Wake Up by Arcade Fire
6. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John
7. Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys
8. This Charming Man by The Smiths
9. Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse
10. Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Sound System
Bonus track: Title and Registration by Death Cab for Cutie

In choosing music for her, I felt it only fair that I not bury her under the Bruckner Fifth or the Mahler Third, but try to find pieces of reasonable length, and I chose several movements instead of whole concertos or symphonies. Her music for me tends to run between 3 and 5 minutes. Here is my list for her (She snuck in an extra for me, so I added one extra Mahler track for her):

1. Gabrieli — Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass choirs
2. Bach — Prelude and Fugue in c-minor from WTC Book 1
3. Mozart — First movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in d-minor
4. Beethoven — Third movement from the “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, no. 2
5. Chopin — Mazurka Op. 30, no. 4
6. Brahms — Finale of the Fourth Symphony
7. Mahler — Two songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld from Songs of a Wayfarer
8. Rachmaninoff — Finale from Piano Concerto No. 3
9. Villa Lobos — First movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
10. Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man

I have listened four times through to all of T-Rose’s music and I can say that none of them is musically unsophisticated, but neither can I say, outside the LCD Sound System’s Dance yrslf Clean, which actually does something with the music,  that they engage my deepest sympathies. Again, I am convinced that my music and hers simply are not attempting the same thing.

For a start, her music’s appeal depends greatly on the lyrics. Even when I read rock criticism in, say Rolling Stone, the criticism is less about the music qua music, and more about the quality of the words. The sentiment expressed is expressed verbally, not musically. (More on lyrics later).

Second, the parts of music that seem most treasured by the rock and pop listener is a consistent beat, often aggressively propulsive. Following that, it is a melody — although in contemporary pop music, melody sounds more like chant than tune — prosody is so slipshod that the same melodic note can sustain a single syllable or three or four, if that is what the words demand.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For my classically oriented ear, the unrelenting rhythm is monotonous; I keep hoping it will lead to something, but it doesn’t. For my ear, harmony is paramount. I am always aware of it, shifting from major to minor, or to a Phrygian mode or the endless unresolved but constantly yearning dissonances of atonal or serial music. I am always aware — more than the melody at the top of the orchestral heap — of the bass line. I remember Brahms saying when he got a new piece of music to look at, he’d cover up the top staves and look at the bass line. That way, he said, he could tell if the music was good or not. When I listen to popular music, the bass line is generally undistinguished, often repetitive, and rather more in the way of a continuo — a second reinforcement of the beat slammed out by the drums and cymbals.

When I say her music and mine are not doing the same thing, I mean, in part, that the music part of her music is meant to be a place to drop her head into for a few minutes, to grok on a pulse, while the verbal part is there to express, often elliptically, the concerns of a young mind. At worst, in the kind of pop music T-Rose wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, those concerns are numbingly conventional, but even the more sophisticated lyrics speak to the exaggerated optimism or cynicism of adolescence, the need to be appreciated as wise and knowing, even when those of us who have been through it already, now recognize those attitudes as pose.

angry young men

Slight digression: The question of pose is most obvious in the many band photos used for PR or for CD covers. The musicians look so serious and world-wise: You can’t put anything over on them. But you can run through hundreds of photos and they all seem to be the same people: surly faces, collars drawn up, hands in their pockets standing in a warehouse district street to prove their working-class origins. One can’t help recognize the same memes from the Angry Young Men of England in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s as if every band has seen photos of John Osborne and wants to be Richard Burton from Look Back in Anger or Tom Courtney from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The straight-jacket of the meme is limiting.

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Back to the main issue: The music of rock and pop seems meant to create a pervasive mood throughout the length of a song — and except for a few experiments, all this music falls into the 3 to 5 minute song form.

Classical music, on the other hand, revels in contrast: The tempos keep changing, vigorous first themes alternate with quiet second themes. An established key center is disrupted by a series of wrenching modulations only to be reaffirmed. Instead of a single simple emotion, there is a constant development of emotions. When I find T-Rose’s music boring, what I mean is it doesn’t grow — but then, it’s not meant to. And one of the things she finds boring in my music is that it never settles down into something she can depend on, to give her that one single, clear emotion she wants from her tune.

Another thing: For her music, as I said, the words are paramount. The music behind the words seems to function more like the music in a film: to underline the sentiment, but not to express it directly. Something interesting to hear while the “real” action is happening in the words. For my music — at least for the big 19th century pieces that make up the bulk of the repertoire — the music attempts to make an argument from start to finish, like the slow shift from c-minor to C major in Beethoven’s Fifth, or the chapters of Mahler’s Third, “What the fields tell me,” “What the birds tell me,” “What love tells me.” It works like an opera, telling a story — musically — from start to finish. To hear its meaning, you have to be aurally sensitive to changes in harmony, in orchestration, in dynamics, in the ways the themes change and grow. The way you hear the E-flat arpeggiated tune at the beginning of the Eroica changes from a closed-off, harmony-denying drop to its D-flat in the third bar to that bright, victorious arpeggio in the recap and coda, where the same tune ends on the upper B-flat dominant that seems to rise above all the violence and disaster of the previously heard music. Classical music is about development; pop music seems to be about stasis.

Arcade Fire: yet again -- hands in pockets

Arcade Fire: yet again — hands in pockets

I write as if I think classical music is superior to pop music — and I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to that prejudice — but that is not what I’m writing about here. Rather than argue that one music is superior, I’m saying their goals are so different, so at odds, that it is almost silly to compare them at all. One might as well compare apples to double-entry bookkeeping.

But I wanted to note something interesting about the words in the music T-Rose gave me.

The conventions of prosody have shifted dramatically. In the “old days” — as recently as the Beatles — words were written as poetry and scanned with regular meter, and carefully crafted to fit the tunes. In this, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were no different from Oscar Hammerstein II. Think of such lyrics as, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Every accented word drops on every accented note, with the weaker beats hitting off-beats in the tune. A comfortable fit. The same with “Some enchanted evening,” or “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” or “You should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good lookin’ she looks like a man.”

Even the Rolling Stones followed the conventions: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until the darkness goes.”

This is what Robert Frost would call playing tennis with a net.

Playing with the net can bring delightful surprise and pleasure. Think of, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”

Words and music: Hand in glove.

But listen to the songs T-Rose gave me, and something different is happening: First, the words don’t scan; they are more like snippets of prose. Some words have a strong beat, others fit in the space between, no matter how many or how few syllables. They just cram into whatever space is left for them.

Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

The song is designed around a short, repeated pattern of notes that are memorable, or are meant to be memorable. The words fill in the interstices and the music is a mortar between the word-bricks. (This method would seem to derive from the blues, with its statement and licks, but they no longer follow the 12-bar harmonic pattern of the blues).

“You’ll be damned to pining through the windowpanes,/ You know you’d trade your life for any ordinary Joe’s,/ Well do it now or grow old,/ Your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold.”

There’s no regular rhythm to the words. But over and over in these songs, I do hear a pattern, and it is a surprising “revenant” from the past: It is the pattern of Medieval English verse — the four-beat line split in half with a caesura, or pause. Like The Seafarer or Piers Ploughman, the lines come with heavy stresses counted, but unstressed syllables come willy-nilly, and always that pause in the middle.

“I looked on my left side (pause) as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman (pause) worthily clothed.”

Think of the line by Pope: To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Then try these lines from Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes:

“Come down from the mountain (pause) you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us (pause) follow my ornate song.”

If Norwegian Wood had been written by Wilco, no doubt its words would be something like: “I got a girl (pause) She had me.”

(I doubt this is in any way a conscious or even unconscious DNA reappearing in pop music from the distant past, but rather that there is something meaningful in such a line that means it can reappear like convergent evolution that makes a marsupial Dingo look like a canine. Anyway, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing that habit.)

The pattern occurs in song after song that T-Rose gave me. With this one variation. In some songs, the two-beat (pause) two-beat is followed by a closing three-beat line. The Black Keys’ Little Black Submarine:

“I should’ve seen it glow (pause) But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind” (three beats).

(In conventional prosody, “I should’ve seen it glow” would scan at three beats — “I SHOULD have SEEN it GLOW” — but with the music under it, it has only two beats: “I SHOULD’ve seen it GLOW.”)

It’s a whole different prosody; a whole nother esthetic.

I have listened yet again to the songs on T-Rose’s list, and I can hear many interesting bits in them. I even came to think very highly of the music in Dance yrself Clean — it actually goes somewhere. But overall, I’m stuck where I began: Popular and rock music — even indie music — is too simple musically, too repetitive, too harnessed in its beat, and written with lyrics created under an esthetic that I am simply too old to be simpatico with. I can respect it, but I cannot enjoy it.

I think the same for Tallulah Rose: I believe, on her part, she has already given up on Bach and Copland. I have not heard anything from her about it.

TS Eliot
This year is the centennial of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And the long view is that Eliot was the greatest, most influential poet of the 20th century, at least, in the English language.poetry june 1915 2

But oddly, he seems to have written only seven poems.

Along with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” there are the “Four Quartets” and “The Hollow Men” — the last surely one of his weakest poems, whose popularity appeals to the shallow cynicism of pimpled adolescence. Beyond that — and not counting the ubiquity of the “Old Pussum” poems, for which the posthumous Eliot must be sorely embarrassed — the rest of his oeuvre is something read by graduate students. How many, after all, have actually read “Ash Wednesday” or the Choruses from “The Rock?”

It isn’t that these poems aren’t good, or aren’t worth studying or reading, but they haven’t stuck with us, while everyone can quote or misquote, “not with a bang but a whimper” and “April is the cruelest month.”

This isn’t to denigrate Eliot or his importance. I love reading through “Burnt Norton” over and over, or “The Dry Salvages.” But rather to illustrate a common point of art and culture.

After all, we hold William Wordsworth up to be one of English literature’s most exulted poets, maybe the greatest since Milton, yet, beyond the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey,” and a few sonnets and Lucy poems, and maybe some notable passages from the interminable “Prelude,” how much of the vast output of that poet ever gets read outside of class?

I have a special place in my heart for Coleridge. I read and reread with intense pleasure a handful of his poems. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” “Kubla Khan,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” — but beyond that, how much of his work comes off as fustian.

Even Shakespeare, who wrote some 40 plays, is known to most of us through the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” we studied in high school, and the “Hamlet,” “Lear,” or “Henry IV, Part I” we read in college. And perhaps there was that “Twelfth Night” put on by the college drama department. The bulk of his output languisheth in obscurity.

It’s not just in poetry. How many of us have read Melville’s “White Jacket” or “Israel Potter?” Or Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimac?” Vitruvian Man

And not just in literature. Leonardo drew and painted many things, but the “Mona Lisa” and the Vitruvian Man outweigh all the ladies in Ermine or Madonnas of the rock.

Beethoven has his Fifth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy.” Warhol has his soup cans and his Marilyns. Even Springsteen has his “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA.”

The life and work of almost everyone gets boiled down to a few most characteristic and often the few best works. The rest, like the Latin poems of John Milton, are left to specialists.

In the preface to his “Collected Poems,” Wystan Auden makes this point with some clarity and poignancy.

The work of every author falls into four classes, he wrote. In the first is “pure rubbish,” which he regrets ever having conceived. (Although, I would say from experience, he doesn’t always recognize this at the time). auden

Second, Auden says, are the good ideas that come to naught through incompetence or impatience.

Third, are “those pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance: these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection.”

This is the journeyman work, competent, even pleasing, and certainly better than lesser talents could accomplish, but still, it is the “filler” portion of a life’s work.

Finally, there are “those poems for which he is honestly grateful,” which, if he were to limit his publication to these alone, “his volume would be too depressingly slim.”

And, I would add, an impoverishment to doctoral students everywhere.

There are higher and lower batting averages among artists and writers, but, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. It is humbling.

More to the point, it isn’t just the author who feels gratitude for the home runs of his or her production, but we readers, listeners, seers and participants. We are those who feel our inner lives buoyed by the “Intimations Ode” or Chaucer’s prologue, or Van Gogh’s wheatfields.van gogh wheatfield

Victrola

From the “Preamble” to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. 

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

frim suit

T. Baxter Frim rode to work on the subway each day, wearing a blue suit so dark it might as well have been black.

It was a heavy, wool suit, with stripes barely visible, and a vest with a watch pocket. He did not own a pocket watch; he would have thought it an affectation. The suit smelled in the rain, but he kept it neatly pressed, with  cuffs.

You might think he was reflexively conservative, but along with the suit, he never wore a hat. And this was five years before Kennedy’s hatless inauguration. Frim was ahead of the world on this one issue.

But this is not a story about the suit, but about a man who would choose to wear such a suit.

Born in Quidney, Vermont, he was trained as an accountant, but found his life’s work as an actuary for the New Haven and Manhattan Indemnity Corporation. When he was 45, he started writing poetry.

It was an unusual avocation for an actuary, perhaps, but none of his coworkers knew about it. The only one who did was his wife, Marie, and she didn’t think about it much.

He had a few pieces published, in “Garden Monthly,” the “National P.T.A. Journal,” the “Melville, Alabama, Weekly Star,” “American Steel Smelting News” and his hometown newspaper, the “Quidney, Vermont, Record.”

Other than that, he had a shoebox full of rejection notices. He kept it in the bottom of his bedroom clothes closet, and popped a new slip in every second or third month.

His life, such as it was, was happy enough. He laughed reasonably often, had a ready pun on occasion, and genuinely loved his wife. His coworkers liked him and he rose steadily, but not spectacularly, at the firm. At the age of 52, he had his own office and a secretary, who we’ll call Hazel.

Everyone who knew him called him Ted. His first name was actually Theophrastus, but Ted seemed to work better.

It was a Monday morning and Ted was crumpling paper and throwing it over his shoulder. One after the other, the rubbish collected on the floor behind his chair.

He started writing again, and wadded up the paper once more.

“It reads like it was written by a committee,” he said to himself.

He was writing his resume.

Since he had turned 50, he had felt the intestinal rumblings of hormonal change in his body. He told himself it was nothing, the way one might say, “It’s only the house settling.” Harry wanted to get out of his job, although he wasn’t sure what he wanted.

He also knew that if he ever wrote the resume the way he wanted it, he probably wouldn’t mail it anywhere.

Ted had felt something like this once before, and quashed the feeling by joining the Army. It was just before Pearl Harbor. He thought a tour in the military might show him a wider corner of the world. The recruiting officer had promised that the Army had need of accountants.

But, instead, they made him a quartermaster and sent him to Kansas.

Just before he left Vermont, he married Marie. They had met at a party at school, and he saw her at the edge of the room, with eyes like a cow’s, looking ready to drip tears. He thought she looked ineffably beautiful.

She was, in fact, in the middle of a trauma that tested everything she had been brought up to believe. She had followed her high-school sweetheart to college when he received a football scholarship. He was the star quarterback and he squired Marie around until their second year, when he came out of the closet.

“I’m queer,” he told her.

“Take some Bromo Seltzer,” she replied.

When he made her understand what he meant, she refused to believe it. She followed him around, trying to figure out how to cure him, and at the very moment Ted had spotted her at the edge of the party, she had spotted her man in a dark corner with his arms around the neck of a young sociology instructor. She could taste the metal of electricity in her tongue, and there was a ringing in her ears.

By the end of the year, she had married Ted and one of her first letters to him in Kansas said, “Great news — I’m in the family way.”

In Kansas, Ted discovered something: a 33 percent markup over wholesale made the wholesale a 25 percent discount. There was never any actual difference in the cost, but it could be like looking into opposite ends of a pair of binoculars. And it meant that when he wrote up his reports, he could use whichever figure, higher or lower, made his case sound better.

Ted had few illusions about the Army.

The Army confirmed Ted’s realism by awarding him a medal for his cost-cutting bookkeeping methods. But it didn’t hurt, he knew, that he was able to supply a certain colonel with his favorite scotch.

(Ted really got the medal, though he never knew it, for running one of the less corrupt units in the war. Officially, though, his medal was for bookkeeping.)

When the war was over, Ted was honorably discharged and returned to see his daughter and wife and take a job at NHMI Corp.

By way of footnote, his daughter will have an interesting life, herself. When she is 16, she will move in with an unpublished novelist who will never be published. At 18, she will get religion and become Presbyterian. That will last a year until she decides to go to vocational school and learn library science. By the time she is 24, she will be running the San Diego city library and all its branches. At 40, she will suffer a one-year marriage to an undertaker. At 52, she will move in with an unsellable painter, also 52. They will live happily for several years. There will be no grandchildren for Ted and Marie.

Meanwhile, T. Baxter Frim rode the subway every day down to 59th Street and walk crosstown to the office. During his lunch hour, he would eat a roast beef sandwich on a kaiser roll, drink a pint of milk and scribble verses on the back of bits of waste paper.

There are stories of businessmen making good in the poetry world, men who rose to vice president in charge of new accounts while transforming the course of English-language poetry at the same time. Ted was not one of them. His knowledge of literature, and his abilities were modest. He liked the verse of Eugene Field and Ella Wheeler Willcox. His own work tended to be sentimental and sincere, and nothing made him happier than to come across a clever rhyme.

It isn’t everyone, after all, who needs to be Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. Not every artist needs to be Picasso, not every musician needs to be Horowitz. There is pleasure enough in small things, performing the rituals of art and poetry, and partaking, in a tiny way, of the giant river of art. The writing was the most satisfying part of Ted’s life, aside from his love for wife and daughter.

And who is to judge Ted’s talent? Perhaps there is more honor in trying than in succeeding. Certainly, there is more satisfaction in the writing than in the having written. If it was a private pleasure, not shared with the larger reading audience, so be it.

At night, after dinner, while the rest of the family watched Red Skelton or Dinah Shore on the Emerson, Ted would transcribe his lunchtime verse and rewrite it, editing it and honing it to the best of his modest abilities.

Marie knew he wrote, but she never bothered him about it, and had never read any of it. He never offered it.

So, when he died, she was surprised by his will.

He had left a condition.

Ted had followed the normal procedures for a will. He left his estate, such as it was, to his wife, with a nice, honorable portion for his daughter.

But he had left the condition.

To quote the document verbatim, it read, “Before the aforementioned party of the first part may have possession of any of the worldly goods left by the party of the deceased part, she will have to arrange for and complete the process of the publication of all the extant rejection notices received by T. Baxter Frim during his long and industrious reign as the laureate of Quidney.”

Her lawyer told her that it wouldn’t take much to fulfill this codicil. That a small run by a vanity press would easily fulfill the requirements, and then she could take possession of the bequest.

But Marie wanted to do right by her late husband, and took the shoebox around from publisher to publisher. No one would take her seriously. Just when she thought she would have to rely on a vanity press, she got a phone call from Viking. An editor there had thought about the problem and believed he had an idea.

The editor organized the contents of the shoebox and later that year, Viking published a volume titled, “The Poet’s Alienation.” It was subtitled, “The Exploring Years, 1946-1965.”

There wasn’t much hope for the book, but Marie was clear for the money.

Then Tom Wolfe reviewed the slender volume in the “New York Review of Books.” He called it “a reflection of our age,” and sales skyrocketed.

All the college professors were discussing a newly found creative genius. The public demanded T.’s earlier writings.

Then came, “The Rainbow’s Eye,” the complete poetry of T. Baxter Frim. With it, “The Collected Letters of Baxter Frim.” Several biographies, ranging from the cheap paperback, “The Passion and the Poet,” to Dr. Everett Bonamy’s expensive hardcover, “T. Baxter Frim and the Contemporary Poetic Situation.”

Marie had many invitations to interviews for famous magazines. Even Ed Murrow called. But she refused all such requests and accidentally created a legend.

She was headlined in all the articles written about her as “the mysterious devoted martyr to the poet’s art.”

Just before she died, three years ago, Marie Frim stipulated in her will that the manuscript of the biography she had written of her late husband should be  burned. She figured that would ensure its publication. It became an instant success and sat on the “New York Times” bestseller list for 28 weeks.

And T. Baxter Frim’s daughter donated his blue wool suit to the Library of Congress.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

guilford 2

College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness


wordsworth

In the early 1800s, the population of England was roughly 8 million, and they produced Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley — not to mention Robert Southey, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor, Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, John Clare and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

It is an astonishing flowering of poetry in a single era. Six major poets and a handful of others still read with pleasure by millions of people.

One might average them out very inaccurately as one great poet per 1 million in population.

Even in the 17th century, when the population of England was half that of the early 19th century, we have Thomas Carew, George Chapman, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, John Dryden, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester).

Of these, we can easily confer “major poet” status on Milton, Donne, Marvell and Dryden, making our ratio again 1-in-a-million.

By these numbers, we should easily expect, living in the United States at this moment, roughly 300 major poets. One scratches one’s head, because these numbers obviously are not true.

Just one state, North Carolina, is roughly equivalent in land area and in population to England in 1800. There should be at least six poets writing between Asheville and the Outer Banks of equivalent worth to Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

(Obviously, there are eras in which poetry features more importantly in a nation’s culture, and other times when the palm, the oak or bay goes to the novel or the stage, and times — and places — where emphasis is given to painting, sculpture, music or even philosophy. This equation is only meant in general terms — in any art, there should be more well-known and influential practitioners than one might generally count among the population at present).

I reckon that the problem should be understood much as a bicameral legislature. If we count a poetic house of representatives, there should, indeed, be 300 major poets writing at this moment. But instead, we have a senate, and we have a limited number of spots per nation reserved for “major” status. Perhaps we should never expect more than four at any given moment in any given nation.

That means we must look to the reading public (or art-going audience) as a conferring body that says there is only so much room in our culture model for the role of major poet, like only so many slots for general in an army.

It may be part of our cultural umwelt. We have a fixed and number-limited idea of what it means to rise to the top. Perhaps there really are 300 people writing poetry in American now that, if they had been published 200 years ago, would have been considered important, but now are merely the residue of a niche publishing market.

But I mean to present my case in much wider terms: the many arts as they manifest in the culture.

There is a top tier, and we treat these artists — currently the Damien Hirsts, the Jeff Koonses, the Richard Serras — as if they are the “major” artists, whose work is our answer to the Raphaels, Rembrandts and Monets of the past. Their work is deemed somehow more important than the work of thousands of other artists working away, often outside the beehives of New York and LA.

Of course, any critic with an ounce of humility will grant that these are only our “guesses.” That history has a way of choosing different names for the art history textbooks of the future. But as the art world is currently constituted, there is a great divide between art that is considered important and influential — art at the cutting edge of a presumed history — and all the lesser lights, the wannabes. And this doesn’t even make marginal room for all the weekend painters and watercolor society members and their pretty irises and tablecloths.

But who is art for? This is the crucial question. Is art made for the critic, curator, collector and gallery owner? Is the measure of its worth that it fulfill the expectations of narrow and self-specified interest group? If that were so, the rest of us might as well give up and turn on the TV.

This is not to disparage those critics (of which I am one), curators, collectors and gallery owners, many of whom I know and admire, and whose gifts are considerable. But it is like saying that a book is best judged by a librarian: There may be some insight there, but we choose our books by our own lights, our own interests and tastes. To the librarian, we entrust the Dewey Decimal System.

So, who is the art for? The poetry? The dance, the theater, the opera, the string quartet? They are all for all of us who love them.

The search for the “historically significant” artist is a question of history, not of art. We should all be free to enjoy whatever art speaks to us. And as artists, free to make the art that speaks for us.

The “big-boys” (and girls) of art are not disincluded: They really are making wonderful things. But so are the lesser lights, the regional artists, the undiscovered, the shy. The names you see over and over in the art magazines are there on their merit, for sure, but they are also there because of their naked ambition to climb the art-world hierarchy and because of luck. Some were just lucky enough to be spotted by some curator making the rounds for another museum biennial, or to work in a university program noted for graduating elite artists.

I worked in the fields for 25 years in Arizona, which is not usually thought of as a fertile ground for the world’s great art. And it does have its unfortunate share of blue coyote paintings and noble Indian chief portraits.

But I knew a dozen, maybe a score of artists whose work, given the proper exposure to the right people with open minds and open eyes, might stand equally before the impasto of Lucien Freud or the imposture of Jeff Koons.

kratzThe work was forceful, imaginative, idiosyncratic and intellectually rigorous. There should be no shame in being thought an “Arizona artist” if the state could produce a Marie Navarre, a Jim Waid, a Mayme Kratz, a Bailey Doogan, an Anne Coe, a Matthew Moore, an Annie Lopez. I could name a dozen more that you’ve likely never heard of, but that you could well have, if things had gone differently.

Each of these artists had given me great pleasure and spurred my intellectual growth and widened my world for me.

And every state in the union — indeed, every nation on the globe — can put forth its own slate of names of the artists, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, architects, authors, musicians and composers whose value is underrated or ignored, whose work has made a local difference, even if not a national ripple. Who’s to say they are not important? Who’s to say their work is not the equal of the headline artists at the Whitney Biennial?

If we include these excellent but unheralded artists and poets, we probably begin to match the ratio of poets to population of 17th- or 19th-century England.

But I don’t want to stop there, either. It isn’t merely regional art I am defending. I would make a case even for such maligned art as the academic art of university teachers, the irises and tablecloths of the watercolorists — even the paint-by-numbers amateurs and the selfie-posters of Instagram.

Every person who makes an image — and especially those rare and brave people who take up a pencil and attempt to draw something on paper — makes a contribution. They learn something about the world, and about art, even if they don’t have that name for it.

Art is not merely what hangs on gallery walls. Its primary purpose is an interaction with the world, and when anyone makes that connection, with pen, brush, camera, clay or word processor, filtering through their sensibility their ideas, feelings and reactions to the world around them, they have made art.

And ultimately, it is the making of art, not its consumption that has value. Everyone should try it, everyone would benefit from it.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

Orangerie Paris

What is culture, and why should we care?

These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.

To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.

Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.

We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.

But what would happen if all these so-called ”high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?

To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is broader than just the arts.

It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs. It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.

Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — by which society runs.

It is the software for our social lives.

In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without. It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.

Culture is who we are.

And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.

Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.

Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.

You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.

And how many children today play with ”choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives?

The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.

But culture does change. The three-minute song remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon. So we change. Slowly.

And where does cultural change come from? More often than not, from the arts.

The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.

That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.

Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.

Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in. Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.

Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead. So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.

There is another computer saying: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.

bruckner stamp austria

Are you old enough for Bruckner?

Poet Ezra Pound said there is no reason you should like the same book (or music or art) at 40 that you liked at 16. At 16, I liked Ezra Pound; now I’m 65.

The author graduates high school in 1966

The author graduates high school in 1966

Our tastes change as we age, or they should. My introduction to classical music was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and concertos pumped new-generated hormones through my arteries like adrenalin — when I was in high school.

It wasn’t long before I left him behind for Stravinsky, then Beethoven.

By the time that I was middle-aged, I had gone through Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, and most recently had added Bruckner and Haydn to the list. I get things from each of them I was deaf to earlier. Now that I am retired, I have finally come to appreciate Verdi. But, boy, it was hard to get past all the oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah.

The path won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some general patterns that seem to hold.

In painting, we all loved van Gogh at about the same time we loved Tchaikovsky. There is a bigger-than-life striving in van Gogh that appeals to the adolescent, striving himself for some sense of the heroic.

The author 1975

The author 1975

That same aspiration drove us to read Catcher in the Rye.

With a few more years under an increasingly large belt, we drop Tchaikovsky as hopelessly sentimental, Salinger as naive and simply move past van Gogh as we become aware of the Impressionists, who tickle our eyes all over again. Hormones calm, reality sets.

When we are in college or as grad students, we tend to gravitate to those things that are trendy, new, and exclusive, that set us off from the proles: We read Umberto Eco or — in my generation, Alberto Moravia and Robbe-Grillet. We jumped on Marina Abramowic  and Bruce Nauman and listened to Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Harry Partch. Yes to Pina Bausch, meh to Swan Lake.

The author 1977

The author 1977

Yes, we were showing off. In many cases we admired more than enjoyed.

We then gave up the need to be au courant or exclusive as we came to distinguish between the gee-whiz and the substantial.

As adults, we craved the substantial. Adult tastes are acquired tastes: Poussin, Schoenberg, Milton, rutabagas, pickled herring.

Old age now brings something else: simplicity and inclusiveness. I am no longer quick to drop the critical meat-cleaver and sever away something I consider unworthy. They are all worthy. Tchaikovsky as much as Webern, Salinger as well as Joyce. We are enriched by each of them.

The author in his "Van Gogh" pose 1980

The author in his “Van Gogh” pose 1980

(No, I haven’t gone senile — I’m not ready to accept Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade, although I see some value in Norman Rockwell that would have shocked me to hear anyone admit when I was 20. No, Rockwell is no Raphael, but there is room for an entire spectrum of abilities and accomplishments. What I ask isn’t so much undying masterpieces, as sincerity of attempt, and a willingness to put in the work.)

So, growth isn’t just a case of moving on from one thing to another, but adding more and more to our trove. By the time you are my age, you will have a heady backlog of esthetic experiences to draw on.

What is most interesting to me is that, if we continue to grow, we can return to art we left behind and find something new in it. From age 17 to about 40, I couldn’t bear Tchaikovsky — it seemed like treacle. But then I began noticing his bizarre harmonic sense and what I might call ”orchestration from Mars.” You only have to read the scores to see how peculiar is his voice leading. When I could get past the heart on the sleeve, I discovered an intelligence there that was hiding, or rather, that I was unwilling to discover, having made up my mind and moved on.

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

An now that I am bald, bearded and grey, I find that there is something even in the emotional immediacy that once embarrassed me.

As we grow, we not only grow into new experiences, we grow out of our old prejudices.

This all came back to me this week as I watched Lust for Life on cable. The 1956 biopic starred Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The film is an odd combination of excellence and awfulness, mixing insight with bromides, sanitizing the painter’s life while emphasizing the insanity.

More than anything, this is the van Gogh who appeals to adolescents, the van Gogh of idealism, identity crisis and suicide.

Alienated, misunderstood.

But there is one more aspect of him that is included: his commitment and perseverance. These quieter virtues, more than his insanity, give van Gogh his stature as an artist.

the author lecturing 2005

the author lecturing 2005

There was a time, in my 20s, that I dismissed van Gogh. The peculiar paint-busy canvasses, I was convinced, were just the evidence of a deranged mind. If you were schizophrenic, you could be a great artist, too.

But more careful study in recent years, especially of the many notebooks filled with drawings, told me something else again. Van Gogh paints the way he does because of his unwavering honesty to his eyes. He kept looking till he got it right.

And ”right” for him was to notice everything that his eyes saw, not merely what he had been trained to see.

If you stare long enough and with enough concentration, you can see something of the granular reality van Gogh saw. We no more pay attention to it in daily life than we pay attention to the grain in a movie’s film stock. It is not the information, but the medium of the information. We filter out so much. Van Gogh didn’t.

the author at Giverny 2008

the author at Giverny 2008

The other wonderful thing about van Gogh is that he had so little talent.

We tend to think of great artists being as fluent as Mozart or Raphael. Yet talent is a poor indicator of quality in art. For every Raphael, there are scores of Geromes and Bouguereaus: accomplished and pretty, but ultimately empty.

Van Gogh shared a lack of talent with several other great artists: Cezanne, for instance; or Jackson Pollock. One searches the drawings and oil sketches of Cezanne for even the slightest encouragement of talent. His drawing is hopelessly awkward.

Pollock searched for years for an adequate means of expressing what was inside him. To do it, he had to give up everything he had learned. If he had no talent for drawing, he would not draw. He found a talent for splashing instead.van gogh landscape

Van Gogh’s notebooks are full of erasures. He looked, drew, erased, looked again, drew again, erased again. Many drawings are never finished, but those that are, are right in a way the more facile Ingres never is.

Van Gogh was stubborn. I admire that in him more than I admire the talent of William Merritt Chase.

But give me another 10 years and we’ll see.