Saturday, March 21, 2009

Vote early and often on selections for our next reading list! :-)

Greetings, Colleagues--

A couple of you have already asked whether I was perhaps taking my subject line too literally in sending multiple copies of the nominations I recently sent out. The answer, of course, is no (my work computer server hiccupped), and please accept my apologies for any inconvenience.

My thanks to Tim for his thoughtful posting commenting on the list. I encourage others to follow his example. :-)

Finally, my thanks to those who have already voted. I look forward to hearing from the rest of you over the next week or two.

Cheers, Steve

Thoughts on our next novels

You read novels. Some you enjoy. Some you are impressed by. Some you recognize as deserving their high reputation. But some simply stick with you, irrespective of your enjoyment, their quality, their reputation. Something about them is so original and well ... novel that they draw you back to them, repeatedly, without your effort. One of not even a handful of books like that I've read in the last dozen years is Barry McCrea's The First Verse. We read a selection from it in the anthology Fresh Men two years ago. That selection gives a good taste of his writing and a nearly complete version of the homosexuality of his gay male narrator. What only the novel can give, however, is the obsessiveness of the cult he falls into, a cult of reading, of reading not inbetween the lines but beyond them, beyond the words even, and how obsessive our own reading of these readings becomes, an obsession akin to infatuation or any of the arts of cruising. There's no book I'd rather re-read with our group.

As for the rest, though I expect I would enjoy reading any combination of the Leavitt, Hollinghurst, or Cunningham, we've already read works by these fine writers (Specimen Days would be our fourth Cunningham). We've also already read Gore Vidal and Armistead Maupin. I loved Tales of the City in its time but wonder how long in the tooth I want to see Michael Mouse. I read Myra Breckenridge twenty-five years ago and wasn't swept away but it's an iconic work and I'd be willing to give it another shot. (I'm considerably less attracted to one of Vidal's historical novels, whoever the titular subject is.)

I read The Object of My Affection when it came out, grew tired of the wise-cracking self-deprecating narrator well before book's end and have no confidence I'd get past the first chapter on a re-read. Blurbs by Mr Kite Runner and PW warnings of the "overly sentimental" make me leery of the Greer. And though I have some interest in being exposed to the E. Lynn Harris phenomenon, I have no interest in shelling out big bucks in hard times for a deluxe hardbound edition.

That leaves me with Mack Friedman's Setting the Lawn on Fire, with blurbs I can believe in and a favorable memory of the selection from it we read in Between Men a year ago. Plus The Pilgrim Hawk, Queen Lucia, and Wicked (all by writers we haven't read). Oh yes, and of course, Barry McCrea's The First Verse. Please give that your most serious consideration.


We didn't discuss Thom Gunn's "A Sketch of the Great Dejection," a pity since it's cardinal to the collection. And I wondered how others understood its beginning "Having read the promise of the hedgerow / the body set out anew on its adventures." What on earth is the promise of the hedgerow? At first I thought he might as well have been speaking of hedgehogs! The persona persists through his slough of despond having been promised love and imagination … from the hedgerow, or at least, at the hedgerow, as a starting point. I wonder if we're to recall those lines from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"

                                                Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:

"sportive" and "running wild" certainly seem appropriate for our adorer of "the risk that made robust."

Playing the Sing-Song Card

It's no trump. Sometimes verse that is too metrically regular is a blemish, sometimes it's just what you want. Witness nursery rhymes, Donald Hall's Goatfoot par excellence (cf Milktongue and Twinbird). Or, if that's too childish—Jack not wishing to be christened "along with other babies," as we'll read next month—consider the third part of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which begins

Earth receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

continuing similarly for eight more stanzas. In other words, metrical regularity is also desirable in a chant. (It's a droll peculiarity of contemporary poets that even when they deprecate meter they'll boringly chant their "plainsong" to the crack of doom!)

And now a little story illustrating the virtues of practical intelligence. Years ago I was a stage manager for a production of Yeats' "On Baile's Strand." The casting is nearly all male, warriors and chieftains like Cuchulain and Conchubar. But in the middle of the play some women are brought in to sing a rhyme that will drive out deceit and keep men's oaths. The spell is some forty lines and ends

Therefore in this ancient cup
May the sword-blades drink their fill
Of the home-brew there, until
They will have for masters none
But the threshold and hearthstone.

We were having the women read together sometimes, sometimes apart. On one run-through, one of the women read the last five lines. She … actually all of them were education majors, in English, and were quite insistent on their "knowing" that one shouldn't stop at the end of a line if the sense carried forward (what Touchstone might call the Enjambment Expeditious). I objected that this would break the spell. We were disputing over such matters when the director simply re-assigned the women's parts so that they all read the last five lines together. Voilà! Speaking together, like good horses in train, they read metrically and comfortably paused at each line's end.