Transcript: James Wright on the Poetic Prose of H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, E. M. Forster, and Leo Tolstoy
When I was thinking about how to begin this evening, I wanted to talk about some of the authors I care most about. And I came to realize that most of them are writers of prose. Many of them are very sardonic about themselves, and some of them have a rather sour attitude toward poetry. I don't know why that should be so appealing to me.
There's something about the sudden rejection of poetry itself, or maybe it's the rejection of a certain kind of rhetoric that in itself, suddenly, can reach over into some kind of rhythm, some closeness to life that is a real poetry. A paradox.
In one of the Henry IV plays of Shakespeare, Harry Hotspur is describing to somebody what has happened to him on a battlefield. He says he's standing there after a battle up there in the north, one of those rebellious battles—Northumberland is there and Bolingbrook and the others. He says he was standing there, and the battle was over. And there were dead bodies all around him, and they stunk. And there were people who were wounded.
Shakespeare gets going on this stuff, and he sounds like Whitman trying to describe what really happened after the First Bull Run. Whitman says that the true story of the war will never get into the books. Somebody's been shot in the abdomen and he lies there screaming. How are you supposed to make a poem out of that?
Hotspur's standing there and he sees that somebody from the royal court—I guess it's Richard's court—has appeared, and the wind blows toward him. This fellow is standing there in his silk pantaloons. He gets away from the smell of the dead bodies and the screams of the wounded. He quotes a poem, some elegant poem, and Hotspur suddenly explodes about how much he hates poetry. And he begins—Hotspur's always about ready to explode anyway—he's shaking all over, this big hulking guy, and says:
I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers.
He can't stop. He goes on and on. The weird thing is that his speech is maybe the greatest poetry in that whole play. Strange.
In some of the writers who matter to me, I was trying to figure out just what it is I care about so much in them. There are certain authors who somehow are able to present not only a distinctive tone of voice, they present one that is unmistakable.
Like my old favorite: we had, back in the '20s and the '30s, the journalist H. L. Mencken. And the beauty of Mencken lies in his obtruding a certain tone of voice, a spectacular tone of voice, on occasions where we least expect it.
For example, he'll indulge in lavish rhetoric in the midst of a sports article. He wrote an article about the heavyweight title fight in 1921 between Jack Dempsey and the great French light-heavyweight George Carpentier. If you've ever read the sports page of a typical daily newspaper, you realize that this is perhaps the grayest and most trite prose that we have. The reporter doesn't even have to be present at the event as long as he knows his clichés. He can put them together. But what Mencken did is break through all that.
Now what happened with Dempsey and Carpentier is that (and Mencken adored this, because Mencken was the Escher of Americana; he loved to be subversive in his attitudes towards all American things) during WWI, when most people were very jingoistic, Jack Dempsey didn't go to the army. He got a job at some kind of defense plant for a little while, but everybody knew he was just trying to stay out of the service. Mencken loved this. Why should he go get killed? But it made Dempsey very unpopular.
Another thing that was unpopular about Dempsey—and this peculiarity hangs on in American life—was that he had a heavy beard, though he shaved all the time. He was like Nixon—you could see his beard growing. Believe me, I don't like Nixon very much, but I love Dempsey. There was that authentic thing about Dempsey.
George Carpentier, on the other hand, had been the light heavyweight champion of Europe. He was very dapper, he was handsome, and he had been a hero in the war against the Kraut. So, naturally, the great American public was very much in favor of Carpentier when he came to the United States and was to fight Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Well, Dempsey knocked Carpentier out. Carpentier was introduced, and he bowed. He was very graceful and so on. Here's Dempsey, very sullenly in his corner. He comes in. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Mencken wrote the sports article reporting this event, and he says:
By the third round, the gallant frog was a mass of bruises from McBurney's point to the bulge of the pental escarpment. And yet today the opposing theory is held by members of the fourth estate throughout these states, from the right reverend Warren Gamaliel Harding, seated on his alabaster throne, to the lonely socialist in Lebenworth and Marxists fleeing from the Pollack's eye, to the meanest Slovak sweating in the bowels of the Earth.
It's first-rate prose. A pruding and lavishing, a peculiar, elaborate tone of voice on an occasion that is usually very gray and anonymous. And it occurred to me that this is truly one of the things that has meant the most in books that I love. Mencken is only one example.
If anybody amongst American writers had in his prose a peculiar tone of voice, surely it was Mark Twain. In his most beautiful book, (I think everyone would more or less agree with this) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he doesn't even allow his own voice.
You've read things like "The War Prayer" and "The Private History of the Campaign that Failed" and so on; Mark Twain has a prose so simple and so fit and so consecutive. Its great beauty depends on its classical beauty. It's very transparent.
What he does after mastering that prose is let it vanish. It's a great risk to take. What the art of something like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn consists of is not so much a technical matter as Mark Twain's own willingness to keep his mouth shut and listen. That's awfully hard to do. It's hard to do it in writing—it's hard to do under any circumstances.
And listen to what he hears:
His narrator is Huck Finn—Huck Finn is about twelve-years-old—and we catch the tone of his voice immediately. At the very beginning, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly." Mozart.
Well, Huck has gone on, and he and Jim are part way down the river, and Jim has got the raft pulled up against the side of the river. And Huck has been looking around, and he's got this canoe. And he's doing a little reconnoitering. He takes the canoe and goes up a little bit.
Being from Southern Ohio, I love this. Mark Twain is sort of Southern-Midwestern, and he has the true tone. Huck doesn't call it a creek (a creek, for God's sake!). It's not a creek; it's a crick: c-r-i-c-k.
And Huck goes up the crick. Suddenly into this book bursts a whole set of voices. And they're just a couple of people. But we have to remember here that it is Huck speaking in his semi-literate, ungrammatical way, telling us what he remembers that these two characters—of course it's the king and the duke—say, and then, in his memory, their voices change when they try to get one up on each other. And Huck ends this passage by telling us what their voices meant.
I can always see Huck Finn standing there as if he had written a poem. He's playing all of this. It all comes out of Huck's mind. And Mark Twain has vanished, and everything comes up through Huck.
And Huck says:
One morning about daybreak I found a canoe and crossed over a chute to the main shore—it was only two hundred yards—and paddled about a mile up a crick amongst the cypress woods, to see if I couldn't get some berries. Just as I was passing a place where a kind of a cowpath crossed the crick, here comes a couple of men tearing up the path as tight as they could foot it. I thought I was a goner, for whenever anybody was after anybody I judged it was me.
And then the beautiful thing, pure Huck Finn: "Or maybe Jim."
I was about to dig out from there in a hurry, but they was pretty close to me then, and sung out and begged me to save their lives—said they hadn't been doing nothing.
What a stroke. I had a friend in high school. His brother got married, and they had a little boy, little Kelly Lannon. And one day, Kelly's mother (Kelly had been playing upstairs) called him for lunch—
"Kelly," she called. Nothing, no answer.
"Kelly?" No answer.
She yelled, "Kelly!"
Kelly came out of the bedroom (this is about twenty-five years ago). He came out of the bedroom and pressed his little face into the slats of the banister and said: "I won't do it no more."
She never did find out what he'd done.
Well, these men...
"—Come, give us your hand, duke, and le's all be friends."
The duke done it, and Jim and me was pretty glad to see it. It took away all the uncomfortableness and we felt mighty good over it, because it would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.
The vision of the true life, Huck has. Nothing can ruin it, even horrible people.
It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, 'long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.
This is an example of the kind of thing I like. I mentioned some of the authors to whom I feel especially devoted. You know the ones I mean, they're like secret friends. Sometimes you carry them around with you. Another is E. M. Forster.
The haunting thing about Forster is that he has something to say. One of my favorite books of his is Two Cheers for Democracy. It's one of the very few books I've ever read that really in some way helped me to live my life such as it is. The interesting thing about Forster is that he often writes about poetry. He's always pointing out that he doesn't know anything about it, and yet he'll turn over and write the most illuminating things about skeltons, about George Crabbe, and he can write about Virginia Woolf with an alertness to the music, to the sound of her voice.
Over my desk at home I have all sorts of things copied out, typed out. I put them on cards and paste them up there. One of them is the opening of Forster's lovely piece called "An Outsider on Poetry." It's a very beautiful essay. It's a review of several books which, there in the 30s, he found to be unhappy books, and he wanted to say something to the poets. It mattered to him. And yet he's not a poet himself.
He begins with this passage:"I have written very little poetry in my life and only two lines of modern poetry. Here they are:
I will pull down hastings, you shall see Companion to India, as a boat gnawed.
"I wrote them last year in a dream and managed to transcribe them before the censors stopped me. That censor, who from Purlock [that is, the guy who came to see Coleridge] or elsewhere, always attends on our sleep and prevents us from communicating what we have learned in it. On their merits, I need not pronounce. They seem to me poetry because they scan and modern because they are obscure and minotaurish."
If I could mention some other author I'd best mention how Tolstoy keeps coming back to me over the years. I haven't read War and Peace in some time, and of course it's a very long book. What is weird about it is that it's such a long book you can leave it aside for years and, when you least expect it, some voice will rise up out of it, way over somewhere in that huge thing.
There's a passage where Pierre Bezhukov—I don't know, would you call him the hero? Anyway, he is the central figure in that book if there is one. And he's gone through all sorts of experiences. He was a bastard, but the old Prince Bezhukov left his money to him. Of course that horrified other members of the family.
But there he is. He's constantly wandering through society feeling very puzzled. He doesn't know why other people are living, and he doesn't understand really why he's going on living. He's sort of in a daze all the time. Well so many other things happen.
And there's Pierre Bezhukov. He first gets the idea that he should kill Napoleon. And he has a pistol. And he has an opportunity. But he can't bring himself to do it and finally gets captured by the French.
There is this long retreat going on. What Pierre Bezhukov discovers is a sort of old guy. He's a peasant. His name is Platon Krataev. Well they're captured by the French. And the French are in full retreat.
One of the really hair-raising things is that they're trying to get through the snow and maintain themselves in some orderly way, but of course they'll come around the bend and there will be a hillside, and these Russians will attack them out of the snow—and then vanish.
Tolstoy, of course, doesn't describe the French just as the enemy. They're a bunch of kids, eighteen-years-old. How are you going to deal with this? It's the winter; people are hitting you in unorthodox ways. They're about to have nervous break-downs.
What they finally do is to tell their prisoners that they have to keep up with them. Because if they fall, they say, "We'll have to shoot you."
When they tell this to Platon Krataev, he nods and listens. When they rest in the evening, one of the French soldiers comes up to him and says, "I've torn a hole in my jacket". And Platon, who is this Russian old guy, illiterate, says to the Frenchman, "That's alright, honey." And he mends his jacket for him. They sit and talk to him in the evening.
Now their shoes are worn out and their feet are bleeding and they have to keep walking in the snow. Platon looks up and says, "You know, I'm kind of tired. What I'm going to do for a minute is sit here under this tree. You go on and I'll catch up with you."
Pierre knows what that means. And he walks on and gets over a little hill. And he hears a gunshot.
He stops for a second. He walks on a little bit. He hears a dog howl. And another gun shot.
He closes his eyes and Tolstoy has him think: the one really essential thing, (this is after about 1200 pages) the one really essential thing and yet the most difficult, is to love life. Because life is God and to love life is to love God.
In the midst of so much human feeling opened out in every direction, and right in the face of the most dreadful thing, the almost unspeakable things we do to one another, Tolstoy's suggesting that what we do to one another, we do, not because we're horrible, but because we're frightened. You can't escape from the heat; he goes too far in. And that's the only thing there is. Which is something.
These are the things that come back to me. They are the books I care most about. They come back to me in tones of voice. And again, it isn't just the author's tone of voice and his own style. It seems to me that if he's any good, he'll try to reach beyond that and cultivate the art of listening and record what he hears.
Audio remastered by Jonathan Blunk. Copyright © 1977 James Wright. Used with permission from the author's estate.