Joyce’s “allforabit”

If at first glance we can’t figure out what Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is all about we might at least recognize one of its themes as the alphabet. Beckett told us Wake is about normal things in the usual sense: “Literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Explaining Vico, Beckett said, “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical.” Later, “Convenience only begins to assert itself at a far more advanced stage of civilization, in the form of alphabetism.” Beckett argues that Wake is “direct expression,” in a pre-alphabet way. “They (words) are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” 

Turning to Finnegans Wake itself, directly (never-minding the book-keepers), we find the alphabet itself. “(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curious signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thous had it out already) its world?” (p. 18).

Finnegans Wake, like most of Joyce’s work, is, in fact, memorable; its auditory impact sticks long after its photographic memory fades. For example, we continue to hear “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (pp. 18-19) long after we read it.

Wolfram von Eschenbach notwithstanding: “I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet” (last paragraph Book II, Parzival, translated and with an introduction by Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage. Vintage Books Edition, March 1961).

Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress, first published as New Directions Paperbook 331 in 1972.

Cage bop Monk lit

John Cage, as we’ve mentioned, seemed to have little tolerance for jazz, suggesting that if musicians want to have a conversation they should use words, and we’ve always found this attitude surprising coming from an otherwise tolerant and peaceful composer – but who named one of his own books Silence, which contains, among many innovative works, our favorite, his “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry,” Cage said, as he is often quoted, but incompletely, for the third column (measure) in that line is “as I need it.” Two lines up we find three empty measures. The fourth measure of that line starts the sentence “I have nothing to say.” The first measure of the next line is empty. The second measure reads “and I am saying it.” The third measure is empty. The fourth measure says “and that is.” The first measure of the next line contains “poetry,” the next measure is empty, the next contains “as I need it,” and the final measure contains the period to the sentence. You begin to see why we have always liked John Cage, and find ourselves coming back to him again and again, to read and to listen. 

To round out the discussion, it’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Silence also contains Cage’s “Lecture on Something,” suggesting a compare and contrast essay just itching to be written.

For some reason we’ve always paired John Cage with Thelonius Monk, thinking, for one thing, maybe Monk did for jazz what Cage did for classical, which is to say, in short, put some fresh wax on the board, unafraid to paddle out solo. Then again, we’ve always thought much of Cage’s music closer to jazz than to classical, for he admitted random access to sounds, in notation and performance. What bothered him about words was probably the many connotations, too many to contain, to orchestrate, or that words distract from sound with meaning. For Cage, the tree falling in the forest with no one listening certainly makes noise; the question is, what sounds does it make, the sounds no one hears?

Monk’s song titles provide clues to his intentions, “Rhythm-a-ning,” for example. Monk’s titles often convey what he has to say, his audience and purpose, if not his strategy. Monk had something to say, and said it, but, with the exception of the song titles, without words, and that is jazz, as he needed it.

In response to a request for a statement on music, Cage wrote “…nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music…” Or, Cage continued, “…by hearing…playing a piece of music} our ears are now in excellent condition.” What’s more, in the opening of this statement, he writes “instantaneous and unpredictable.” That seems to describe Monk, and isn’t that jazz, as we all need it?

Leisurely reading habits

A sense of something missed appears during the reading lull of the New Yorker double issues, for they don’t take two weeks to read. This far west, practically in the water, it’s not unusual for the posts to run late, and sometimes not at all, which brings on another sense, of not knowing what day it is, let alone what day to reasonably expect the next issue. And the missing of the weekly post brings an additional reminder of the amicable anticipations that used to accompany the now extinct, longer, serialized stories and articles that used to span several weeks. But it must be admitted, forced to read every page or go hungry, certain valuable discoveries appear, opera reviews, for example. Not that opera has supplanted jazz, but there was no way of knowing how enjoyable “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle” was going to be, or that it would lead, improbably, to “Schultze gets the blues.”

Bereft, then, of fresh cartoons and talks, having wandered and watered the salsa garden, following a spell in the morning shade with a bowl of fresh blueberries and raspberries with a bit of shredded wheat, washed down with a cup of French pressed Roast, we find the musty shelves now press, and out comes, of all things, The Rise of Silas Lapham, which originally appeared, we are reminded by George Arms in his introduction to the Rinehart Edition (intro. copyrighted 1949; the paperback edition n.d.), “serially in the Century Magazine, where, in keeping with the leisurely reading habits of the time, it came out in ten monthly installments (November, 1884, to August, 1885).” Arms said William Dean Howells’s novel was popular on the installment plan, but it apparently lost favor with the critics once published in book form – then, as now, apparently, critics having little affinity for realism. One wonders, though, what it was like to read in that “leisurely reading” time, when, Arms said, “The Bostonians and parts of Huckleberry Finn were serialized in the Century at the same time as The Rise of Silas Lapham.”

Some clues are given, and some similarities between the times grow apparent: “Well,” said Corey, “you architects and the musicians are the true and only artistic creators” (p. 206). And then there’s the matter of the library. “If we have a library, we have got to have books in it. Pen says it’s perfectly ridiculous having one. But papa thinks whatever the architect says is right” (p. 121). 

Our list for today does include a trip to the local library. We’ll probably stop by the new edition of Nick’s after the library. Hopefully, the new New Yorker will come before we head out.

Writer’s block

Writer’s block is an affliction that may occasionally affect any writer, and perhaps does strike all writers, from time to time, excepting, perhaps, writers like Vollmann, but who knows, even the graphomaniac may come down with a cold pen now and then, and how much worse must it feel for a Beckett, who can’t imagine without words, than a Salinger, who, apparently, can. Other writers, or would be writers, develop graphophobia, reduced to wanting in effect to know where it comes from – presumably the same place any other phobia comes from, but that knowledge alone won’t remove the writer’s block.

Writer’s block is like a hitless streak, the batter walking to the plate three or four times night after night and going hitless, walking head down back to the bench, bat in hand, each hitless at-bat adding to the streak. He resorts to superstition (wears the same pair of socks he was wearing when he got his last hit – inside out); changes bat size, alters batting stance; takes twice the number of pitches in batting practice before the game. But he grows silent, moves to the end of the bench, sulks. He runs out of distracting witticisms with which to amuse the sportswriter, rushes to the shower to avoid the radio interview. He’s given a night off, a night on the bench, and the batter who takes his place goes three for four and scores a run. The hit-blocked batter is living in a drought, and his muse likes water.

The cure for writer’s block is the same as the cure for a hitting slump. Return to basics: shut out the crowd; keep your eye on the ball; swing purposefully; and don’t try to pulverize the ball – just meet the ball, swing through the ball, and, above all, relax, take it easy, stay loose. It’s just a game.

Max Shulman’s “Love is a Fallacy”

Fallacies are fun. Errors in logic, deceptive, deliberate or accidental, fallacies accompany studies in critical reading and thinking, and provide us humble feelings of fallibility, for as A. N. Whitehead asserted in his “Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary,” human consciousness cannot contain, or express through language, all the knowledge of its own experience.

If that’s a bit heady, consider Max Shulman’s “Love is a Fallacy.” Shulman was a novelist, screenwriter, and TV script writer, most famous probably for his character Dobie Gillis. “Love is a Fallacy” is a short story set in old school days, involving raccoon coats and the traps and vicissitudes of courtship. Of course it’s dated; no one wears raccoon coats anymore, and fallacies have found their way, for the most part, from Latin into English versions. But it’s a short enjoyable read and makes for a fun introduction to fallacies.




Cold frame for improvisation

Jazz musicians have long made handy use of so-called fake books. The best fake books condense a musical piece to one page. Full of popular songs and jazz standards, the fake books (and their now legitimate progeny, The Real Book series and other versions) allow the musician to gather the key, chords, melody, and lyrics at a glance to cover the piece close enough for recognition and loose enough to improvise and produce something new – new each time, for the cover sheets are cold frames for improvisation. Don’t be fooled by the word fake in the title; musical knowledge and familiarity with an instrument are prerequisites to successful fake book playing. But regular fake book playing improves a musician’s comprehension and capabilities.

Kenneth Koch might have had fake books in mind when he came up with the idea that eventually became his books Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, where did you get that red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. In the introduction to Rose, Koch said he “taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of ‘poetry ideas,’ which were suggestions I would give to the children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying” (pp. 3-4). So we get the question for the rose from close readings of William Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Sick Rose.”


There are no fake books for writers. Still, writing is learned while writing, and a good writer is a good reader. Reading and writing brought together as one subject form frames for improvisation.

Writer’s list

We write lists. For example: need coffee; water salsa garden; work out Monk’s “Blue Monk” on the Tele; write post. We use our Joe Mitchell reporter’s sheet. But sometimes we write in a hurry, and, later, find our list barely discernible – what did we mean by “eh”? But a list just might be a prelude to a masterpiece. One never knows. Often we find old ones in the pockets of a fresh pair of jeans, the folded pieces stuck together, the writing lost to the wash.

We wonder what the lists of some of our favorite writers might have looked like:

            Jack London: pick up six-pack; finish John Barleycorn.

            Samuel Becket: take trash can to curb; finish Endgame.

            Ernest Hemingway: tie new flies; finish “Hills Like White Elephants.”

            J. D. Salinger: finish Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; buy shredder.

            Georges Simenon: finish book; start new book; finish it; start another one.

            Li Po: note to Tu Fu – good night for wine and barbecue.

A writer has to start somewhere. Make a list.

El Porto Waltz

We found ourselves last night dancing at the ballroom again. We lost interest in the lesson quickly though, and chose to sit down, though our partner danced on, promenading around the dance floor, celebrating the dance community’s values. We thought of E. B. White’s dictum “Omit needless words.” Adapted for dance, it reads “Omit needless steps.” The lesson last night featured the waltz. We liked the country-western waltzes best: “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Waltz across Texas,” “Zydeco Waltz.”

We had used too many steps to express our personal El Porto Waltz, and sat at a corner table, nursing a cup of coffee, thinking of a post, writing notes on our handy pocket card with ball point pen, our favorite, the BIC Ultra, blue, glides like Danny Kaye (in our hand) across the worn tongue and groove, waxed maple floor of our imagination. But alas, without a reader for a partner, we are a single on that dance floor, a sometimes-discouraging feeling.

How is dancing like writing? Consider the forms, or styles. Dancing and writing both employ basic steps necessary for the partner-reader to recognize the form. The writer must learn to lead the reader, and not step on the reader’s toes, and, ultimately, discover the right combination of moves that allows grace to descend. One can improvise, but one improvises on the theme; drift too far, and the improvisation loosens anarchy upon the dance floor. The reader-partner must at least have some encouragement to follow the writer’s lead. Without that encouragement, one dances across paper solo.

Reading at a masquerade ball

Reading, one sometimes feels like a wallflower at a masquerade ball. Who are all these characters wearing masks and costumes hiding their true identities? They introduce themselves with some action or voice and the reader wonders if their claims are credible and reliable. And perhaps the author, the inventor of these identities, has also assumed a figmental identity. The author may slip into this new identity unintentionally, or as some sunken impulse surfaces, or intentionally, drawing the new personality with care, proofreading, editing, and revising. Perhaps these authors are unsure of themselves, so they adopt a mask; or maybe they want to forget themselves, and seek a renewal, a makeover; or maybe, for some unknown, paranoid, or disingenuous reason, they simply don’t want to reveal their true identity to their reader, whose identity, after all, they may be equally unsure of. Maybe they’re afraid of critics, and use the pen name as a shield; but critics also house mixed identities. Yeats experimented with masks. Literature is one gargantuan masquerade ball.

Readers aware of the nature of the ball may ask if an author’s opinions resonate with tuning fork frequency, if the tone of a character’s voice reveals real experience, if the happiness or suffering of the protagonist is real or contrived, if the author is a real person or an invention, planned or improvised. An author’s pen name might be employed as self-promotion, a marketing device used to attract a new readership, or to avoid having to talk again to an old reader with fixed expectations. Herman Melville wrote a book about fidelity called The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Melville didn’t use a pen name for his book. He didn’t need to. The once popular writer was already forgotten. The prolific and still popular Joyce Carol Oates has written with a pen name, and, under her real name, wrote an essay titled “Pseudonymous Selves.”

Browsing an old copy of The Believer last night, and re-reading the Greil Marcus and Don DeLillo discussion on Bob Dylan, we found an instructive paragraph on the subject of identity. Attempting an explanation of the various makeovers in Dylan’s career, Marcus says: “…there is a challenge for any artist – particularly a popular artist…to test himself or herself against an audience that he or she doesn’t know, that isn’t familiar. The question comes up whether or not you can speak in your language and be understood, and listen to the language of people who are responding to you and understand them” (p. 72).

Or perhaps what triggers a makeover is as simple as T. S. Eliot’s mannered, parlor room reasoning: “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” Or is there another clue, one that comes just before those lines: “And indeed there will be time / For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, / Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;” Do you see the cat in the image? It’s the cat that was introduced in the previous stanza. But Eliot never calls it a cat; the image of a cat emerges from the description of the fog. The cat is dressed in a costume of fog.

Global warming in The Great Gatsby

We’ve changed, in the space of a few days, from fleece to cotton, now dragging the hose, straw-hatted, out to the salsa garden, where it suddenly looks like the tomatoes and hot peppers will get a fair chance. And while this weather event of the season was transpiring, we were reading F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The credible and reliable narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story in the space of a summer spent in a “commuting town” on Long Island. Moving to and fro by rail and parallel road from the outlying “eggs” to “town,” by which they mean Manhattan, the characters, rich as they are, lack air conditioning, and the weather heavily influences the events of the summer. Nick shows us the foibles and vicissitudes of simple and complex minds rooted in the land from which is built the simple and complex landscapes of personal economy, family, and, ultimately, personal history, for what any of it is worth.

Simple minds, Carraway explains, are easily confused. It remains somewhat ambiguous who he has in mind when he thinks this, so we’re not sure if he’s thinking of Tom Buchanan when Tom says, drinking a gin rickey one particularly hot, late summer afternoon: “I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year,” said Tom genially. “It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite – the sun’s getting colder every year.” Fitzgerald’s writing is clearly influenced, as the events of the story unfold, by the heat, and it’s equally clear, by the end, that, as Nick says, while the story has taken place in the “East,” it has been “…a story of “the West, after all…”

We grew up on the Pacific coast, close to the beach, and our mental landscape is informed by that simple fact. We still live near the coast, but farther north, and have for some years now experienced both the expansive heat of summer and the shrinking cold of winter. We hold then, with Robert Frost, who said in his little poem “Fire and Ice”: “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire. / But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.”

But The Great Gatsby could not have taken place over the course of three winter months. It had to be summer. Thinking back though to Nick’s opening lines, when he quotes his father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” one wonders what advantages today’s heat is likely to bring home.

small wave riders

Our brother John has started a blog. Called small wave riders, it will chart, in the spirit of Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a surf trip moving south from Sonoma County, California, stopping to catch waves at favorite spots – Santa Cruz, Refugio, Leo Carillo, El Porto – making the turn in San Diego, then returning north.

A small wave is a lyric poem compared to the epic novels made famous by surfers like Greg Noll and Laird Hamilton. Hearing about the new blog and the surf trip coming up, we asked ourselves how surfing is like writing. The answer came immediately; surfing is not at all like writing. Writing is sedentary, and if physically exhausting, only because sitting in one position for extended periods is unnatural. Surfing is constant motion; even while sitting on the board waiting for a wave the surfer is watching the swells, paddling about, jockeying for position. We then asked ourselves why we are planning to spend the summer writing when we could be surfing. The answer came immediately; to misquote Robert Frost, we “have promises to keep, and miles to go before we surf.”

El Porto, Sep, 1969