Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sketches and Poems of E. B. White

Source of book: I own this.

Most know Elwyn Brooks White from his three classic children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Those of us who care deeply about grammar will, of course know (and likely own) The Elements of Style. (Referred by those who know as simply “Strunk & White.”) Whatever the case, he must certainly count as one of the most influential American authors for both of these genres.

But he also wrote for ordinary adults too. My wife found this book used for me, and I decided to read it this year. E. B. White’s books are often gentle and loving. He has sympathy for animals, for the introverted, and for the powerless. These tendencies flow into his poetry and essays too, although he also displays the acerbic wit that was so popular (and really delightful too) in the early-to-mid 20th Century. (I would recommend James Thurber and Don Marquis for examples in short non-fiction and poetry respectively.) 

White’s love life was a bit of a drama. At age 30, he ran off with the (barely divorced) Katherine Angell, seven years his senior. She had previously been married to Ernest Angell, who would later be the long-time president of the ACLU. Katherine herself was well-connected to literary circles, being personal friends with Willa Cather, Thurber, and Robert Frost, and joining Harold Ross at The New Yorker soon after its inception. The two of them were responsible, more than any others, for establishing the voice and popularity of the magazine. She also promoted (and helped establish) a number of writers, including Nabokov, Ogden Nash, and John Updike. Quite the woman. They would remain together until her death, and she features in a number of the sketches and poems. E. B. was clearly smitten with his wife throughout their marriage.

Many of the sketches in this collection were previously published in The New Yorker or elsewhere, but many of the poems appear to be unpublished.

The introduction itself establishes that White wasn’t exactly within the mainstream of poetry:

This is a fraudulent book. Here I am presented as a poet, when it is common knowledge that I have never received my accreditation papers admitting me to the ranks of American poets. Having lived happily all my life as a non-poet who occassionally breaks into song, I have no wish at this late hour to change either my status or my habits even if I were capable of doing so, and I clearly am not. The life of a non-poet is an agreeable one: he feels no obligation to mingle with other writers of verse to exchange sensitivities, no compulsion to visit the “Y” to read from his own works, no need to travel the wine and cheese circuit, where the word “poet” carries the aroma of magic and ladies creep up from behind carrying ballpoint pens and sprigs of asphodel.

The delightful preface goes on to explain that he is an anachronism, more at home in the Middle Ages - and it is probably true. The poems are interspersed in the collection (which is organized broadly by topic) - White claims this is so the poems can hide in the undergrowth.

I actually found the poems to be pretty good. He has a way with words, and decent technical skill. One I particularly liked (which was one of his more modern ones) is this:

Soliloquy at Times Square

The time for little words is past;
We now speak only the broad impertinences.
I take your hand
Merely to help you cross the street
(We are such friends),
Choosing the long and formal phrase
At dinner we discuss, rather intelligently,
The things one should discuss at dinner. So.
How well we are in tune -- how easy
Every phrase! The long words come, fondling the ear,
Flattering the mind they come. Long words
Enjoy the patronage of noble minds,
The circumspection of this sanity.

How much is gone! How much went
When the little words went: peace,
Sandwiched in the space between madness and madness;
The quick exchange of every bright moment;
The animal alertness to the other’s heart;
The reality of nearness. Those things went
With the words.

Suppose I should forget, grow thoughtless --
What if the little words came back,
Running in upon me, running back
Like little children home from school?
Suppose I spoke -- oh, I don’t know --
Some vagrant phrase out of the summer!
What if I said: “I love you”? Something as simple
And as easy to the tongue as that--
Something as true? I’m only talking.
Give me your hand.
We must by all means cross this street.

White’s love for animals appears frequently throughout this book. One particularly outstanding essay is entitled “Twins,” and tells in a mere three paragraphs of his discovery of newborn fawns at the zoo. It is an example in miniature of White’s supremely skilled writing on seemingly insignificant topics. Another delightful essay is about, of all things, the lifestyles of pigeons in New York City. Did you ever ask where they nest? Well, E. B. White knows and is more than happy to tell you. Birds of various sorts find their way into this book, as do his beloved dogs.

Many of the works on this book (my edition dates to 1981) are dated, some in a good way, and others not so much. An example of a poem that makes little sense now unless you know the backstory is “Harper to Mifflin to Chance,” which is about the various authors who changed publishers in a short period. (White quotes the NYT news blurb to that effect.) What makes the poem fun, however, is that it is a parody of the Franklin Pierce Evans poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” better know from it’s line about a legendary double play trio: “Tinker to Evans to Chance.” While the specifics are so dated as to be unintelligible to modern readers, the well executed parody makes it fun.

On the other hand are a couple of essays and poems which were written at the outset of the Atomic Age, and express anxieties which seem to be reappearing lately with nuclear weapons again in the hands of actors who are not exactly the most stable.

Not everything is specifically of its time, however. “Ghostwriting” is as funny as when he wrote it. The ghostwriter hasn’t gone away, and White does capture the way many ghostwritten works - including speeches - seem to lack any memorability.

I’ll also mention “The Retort Transcendental,” a short sketch wherein the author finds himself (after too much reading of Walden), answering every question with a quote found therein - to great comic effect. You can read the original on the New Yorker website if you are a subscriber. If not, you can read a portion here. It’s really quite delightful.

There is an entire section in the book devoted to domestic life, wherein White’s wife and son make appearances. Here is “Natural History,” which was sent to Katherine in a letter.

Natural History

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of her devising:
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning

Also in this section was a humorous work that White wrote after the Bryn Mawr newspaper requested that he write his impressions of being married to a graduate. I was reminded a bit of Brahms, who, when granted an honorary degree from the University of Breslau - and being informed that it was customary to express gratitude for such an honor with a composition - wrote a work consisting of drinking songs. White isn’t quite as irreverent, but he is fully tongue in cheek, both praising his wife and the college - while doing so in a way that is clearly poking fun at Bryn Mawr. I know next to nothing of this presumably fine institution, but still found this one hilarious. (And see below for the Brahms.)

Not everything in this collection is snarky, though. White had a definite romantic and lyrical side.

Wedding Day in the Rockies

The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found the diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.

It’s fourteen years today today since we began it--
This sonnet crowds a year in every line--
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I.

I am partial to the sonnet form, as readers will well know. (Heck, I selected sonnets for my own 14th anniversary - I haven’t the lyrical sense to write a good sonnet, even if I can hack my way into a technically correct one…)

I’ll just mention, but not quote, “Ever Popular Am I, Mammoth, Wilt Resistant,” a poem inspired by the seed catalogue - which I get all too well.

One final mention is the short sketch, “Daylight and Darkness,” in which the author considers donating his brain to his alma mater. It contains a few lines of doggerel to accompany said brain, which I find amusing.

Observe, dear friend, this quiet noodle,
This kit removed from its caboodle.
Here sits a brain at last unhinged,
On which too many thoughts impinged.

Yeah, it might be worth donating my brain just to use those lines…

This book was a fun diversion, with a lot of wit, a focus on everyday life, and a general good well toward creation, human, animal, and vegetable. E. B. White is always worth reading - and everyone needs a copy of Strunk and White on their shelf, says I.


The Academic Festival Overture, because.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. In reading 'The Letters of E.B. White' I had just found out that he dashed off a sonnet in 1922, in the evening after having lost money betting whimsically on a losing horse in the Kentucky Derby. He sold his poem a few hours later to the editor of the Louisville Herald, making back the $5 he'd lost at the racetrack. The book mentions that sonnet's first few words ("Bold son of Runnymede..." but nothing more. Looking for it online brought me nothing more about the poem, but it did lead me to this fine blog post from 2017.