Friday, January 6, 2017

Winging it

A gainful holiday found me
balancing a sequence of
readings in the high con-
fidence of our constructed
heritage, and the bracing
correctives of enigma, in
contemporary poetry. This
wouldn't bear mention but
for an impression, which
I expect to cause no of-
fense, that the intellec-
tual plague of our time
is false fluency; so that
even the deepest senti-
mental attachment to un-
doubted brilliance can
cripple the navigations
of a present of no pre-
tension to interest in a
a past, whether it illum-
inates our predicaments
or not. We dismiss shal-
lows of our literacy to
our detriment. I began my
readings in a depiction
of a mentality of whom
the speakers of this lan-
guage have agreed to say,
If you seek his monument,
look about you. 

     Now Wren's interest in architecture
     turned upon two clearly separable
     issues. In the first place he was a
     man of science, anxious and able to
     place the whole of building technique
     on a new plane, opening out the sub-
     ject to correspond with the broad
     scientific theories which were estab-
     lished in his mind. In the second
     place, he was a classical scholar with
     all the glowing enthusiasm for the log-
     ic and fitness of the Latin syntax
     which the 17th Century, more than any
     other, was able to enjoy. If we wish
     to understand Wren's early works (and
     without doing so we cannot properly
     understand any of them) we must keep
     these two aspects constantly in mind.

But the society of e-mail
brought me swiftly to the
door of a learnèd contem-
porary who, steeped as he
may be in classicism for
decades, is a poet of the
severest science, that of
enigma, who volunteered a
genial reminder that choice
is still the act of adopt-
ing any course we follow.

And here, to my embarrass-
ment, I had allowed an ab-
solutist defect to take up
lodging in my frame of ref-
erence -- a recurring reli-
ance upon pleasing patterns
of choice.

I come from a time when 
it was not unusual, in 
Scott Fitzgerald's way 
of putting it, to hold 
two inconsistent values 
in mind at once. This
is not hypocrisy (which
is holding nothing), but
agnosticism. We've entered
another of our recurring
times, when such poise is
quite hotly rejected. Be
that as it may, it is the
narrative, if not the syn-
tax, of classicism, a sys-
tem of representation of
such radiant precision,
we can ill dispense with
it for the choices with
which it's associated.

I greatly treasure the
text I cited on Wren,
and have done for many
years. It cost all of  
$1.85 new, and I have-
n't begun to exhaust its
stimulations. My friend
in poetry is like any of
your own of that discip-
line, an extraordinary
exertion to fathom as
much as to seduce, and
because of this, unap-
roachably beyond price.

I think of that little
book with an affection
which feels almost fa-
cile, and is not, next
to an incomparable re-
source of the strain I
would make my choice.

He allows me to see
where this inclination
comes from, by naming
the domain of present
distress. Of all the
outrages exuberantly
promised us now, by
this tsunami from the
shallows, by all means
the gravest is a kind
of post partem ripping
of us from where we
live. And who is our

                             He speaks
                             to himself,

                             uses a name
                             used only

                             by his father
                             no one else

                             called him
                             this, how else
                             do you replace
                             a part

                             a still moving
                             part of you

                             move what's
                             past into

                             the present,
                             the present

                             into what is
                             both, keep

                             the sound of
                             a voice alive.

Sir John Summerson
Heavenly Mansions
  and other essays on
  The Mind of Wren
W.W. Norton & Co., 1963©

Denis Bold

ii  Philip Johnson
    New Canaan


  1. I especially liked your post today, thanks! That I read it while listening to The King's Singers' The Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) helped, perhaps by leading me to read your words more intently than otherwise. Health and courage for the new year!

  2. Thank you for your comment, and for the supportive context you gave to the posting. I am not content with the posting but I'm delighted to be reminded of hearing them one June evening in San Francisco, many years ago; and I can well imagine their encouraging a good opinion of anything considered, simultaneously.