Friday, June 20, 2008
Johh Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture
Our book today is John Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture by Judah Stampfer, and we found it - and loved it - solely due to the serendipitous magic that is the bargain lot of the Brattle Bookshop in Boston, Massachusetts.
We were in Boston checking on several pending real estate deals we've got going on scenic Beacon Hill (some guy named Tom Brady? Apparently some sort of disgraced local sports figure?), and whenever we're in Boston, we make a point of going to the Brattle, Boston's best used bookstore, with a good-sized selection of used books on all subjects and, more to the point, an entire adjacent lot full of bargain-carts - books of all descriptions for $1, $3, and $5 - a great majority of them titles you'd be asked to pay $8 (and up) for at any other used bookstore. Even confining yourself to just the $1 tables (as, to amuse ourselves, we almost always do), it's easy to accumulate an armload of great books - only to go inside and pay a pittance for the whole bunch.
The Brattle is always buying books and book collections, with the result that the bargain carts are always changing - and you can never tell what you'll find (i.e. it won't always be old textbooks, outdated electrical code books, and fourth-generation tattered paperbacks, like you'll almost exclusively find on the bargain-carts of other used bookstores). It was, for instance, on one of the $1 carts recently that we found our present book, which was written by Judah Stampfer in 1970, has scarcely ever been reprinted, and is currently out of print.
And which is fantastic! Stampfer writes so fluidly, so passionately about Donne and metaphysical poetry that the reader is completely hooked from the very first paragraph:
Metaphysical poetry eludes definition; yet many a group has oddly assorted characteristics. Quick speech, a bent for politics, and large blue eyes may characterize one family, starchy desserts and a need to be self-employed another. Not every designation requires a genus and a species. So we associate the truculent learnedness of the metaphysical poets, their sinewy music, strong lines, impassioned confrontations with large issues, distant conceits, colloquial speech, and a bent for religious experience.
John Donne wrote some of the most terrifyingly complex poetry in the English language, and he has baffled many a reader over the centuries. Stampfer reads him like he's never heard of the man before, eyes totally fresh for the wonder and the challenge of the verse, and he's such a good writer that he conveys that wonder straight to his readers. This is exactly what all literary criticism should do and what so little of it actually does. Stampfer's curiosity is as infectious as his reading is wide. Just listen to how good this stuff is:
An interest in words is necessarily paradoxical. Signs, not substantial things, they signal to the mind, the memory, the will. Who arranges nonsense syllables in iambic pentameter, or serves a menu as the main course for dinner? We do not trust them. Indeed, a man dwelling on words makes us uneasy. He is playing a game; a hurt is oozing out. Yet a child's language is its playground. We like the smack of talk, its knolls and fissures. Not every prattle calls for a diagnosis.
A poet is even more of a puzzle. Do his dense verbal textures, freighted with feeling, indicate more than a maladjustment? When does his fret of dissatisfaction become a hunger for the truth? Blake and Wordsworth regarded themselves as inspired craftsmen; but Tennyson and Browning hung between social engagement and withdrawal into words. Indeed, Browning dramatized a series of verbal eccentrics. And Arnold established so firm an equilibrium, we suspect he was doing penance. But for what? For writing poetry? Wasn't that activity innocent?
Stampfer knows perfectly well the perilous task he's undertaking in trying to plumb the depths of Donne's gorgeous, twisted poetry. He's likewise both aware and doubtful of the strictly biographical approach, as he beautifully states:
The personal drama of a reticent craftsman is not easily ferreted out. A lawyer develops his cases, a doctor his world of medicine; we catch an aura of subject matter, the pace of a career. But of a creative writer, whose words crackle in our intestines, we demand more. Grasping his endless smash-ups, abandoned children, a tearing of city air - all so cool, easy, and casual - we want some control of the mysterious stranger, before we allow a laying on of hands.
John Donne and the Metaphysical Gesture goes on and on like that, page after glorious page, and serves to underscore two things dramatically: first, the pitiless caprice of chance, that an intoxicating masterpiece like this should be long out of print when things like The Last Lecture ride the bestseller list for months on end, and second, the upliftingly egalitarian wonder of the Brattle bargain carts, which serve up such gemstones daily, for a dollar apiece, to the patient bookworm.
So then: when next in Boston, by all means make time for the Brattle Bookshop. And in the meantime, and thrill to that particular crackle in your intestines!