Friday, May 27, 2011

Fragments of Woolf

Yesterday at my tutorial on Virginia Woolf, I stopped and thought how funny it was – (embarrassing, sentimental to note how cyclical) – that a year and a half ago I sat in a bookstore office at 6.30 in the morning with the phone pressed against my ear, listening as some person in an imaginary ivoried city read the first page of Mrs Dalloway to me and asked me to respond. And J was in the room listening to my answer on speakerphone, sitting against the same backdrop of books, the prints of the Brontës, Lawrence. And now I sit opposite him, reading my essay, quoting those same lines back to him.



(copyright Frederic Lefebvre)

It was a day for Woolf: not only did the rain thunder down, vanish, and play havoc with the light (very Between the Acts), but I saw James Wood speak on Woolf and mysticism at St. Anne’s. I’m a long-time Wood fan and found his discussion of To the Lighthouse in the light of Woolf's religious and secular mysticism engaging (if not shattering). I hadn’t thought of the connection to the Psalms, to ‘Dover Beach’, Moby Dick, or Krapp's Last Tape. And very thankful to Wood for quoting Walter Benjamin on attentiveness as the ‘natural prayer of the soul’: an elegant idea, and one that will come in handy in discussing David Foster Wallace’s Pale King.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The - it seems - infinite delay: essays and mealtimes and sleep. Skating backwards, losing at croquet.

And sometimes a little something else: I saw Tom Stoppard speak at the Sheldonian ten days ago and wrote a sliver for the Cherwell here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Audenary Afternoon


I so clearly remember being moved by Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ in grade 10 English with Miss Scott and that uncomfortable corrugated iron prefabricated building next to the cricket pitch, the cheaply wrinkled photocopied handouts, it being one of the four poems we read a year (our ambitious syllabus) – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Day?’, ‘God’s Grandeur’, and something else (we didn’t care, poetry was an inscrutable equation every now lit up by a phrase or a word that was likeable for its own sake, but there was no meaning transferred).

The immediacy of the poem, the grief (‘Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/ scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead’). I spent years trying to remember whether it was W.B. Yeats who wrote it, or W.H. Auden (same number of letters, etc). Now, I suppose this gives evidence of the development of personal taste, because I find it cloying (‘I thought love would last forever: ‘I was wrong'), coloured perhaps by the poem’s popularity, in the way that Pachelbel’s Canon in D was diminished by learning that it was played at nearly every American wedding.

Now reading Auden in preparation for the essay on Thursday, I find myself poking at the knots in his other poems. His 1928 charade ‘Paid on Both Sides’ for example, a blood feud which combines the inheritance of Norse sagas and schoolboy mythology (those wonderful lines ‘Though heart fears all heart cries for, rebuffs with mortal beat/ Skyfall, the legs sucked under, adder’s bite…’), and also his ‘Lullaby’, which Edward Mendelsohn (Auden’s literary executor) said was the ‘first English poem in which a lover proclaims, in moral terms and during a shared night of love, his own faithlessness.’

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful...

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost...’

A day of poetry. Geoffrey Hill at the exam schools tonight on ‘Poetry and Disproportion’.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Sudden Mania for Mallets


Though last night brought the first proper rain in the last six weeks, the Trinity term has begun and that means croquet. The college rule that forbids sports on the quad lawns – except for croquet, in Trinity – was the reason I moved here.

So, suitably wooed with the promise of Pimm’s on the green, but without any functioning knowledge of the sport (and, let’s get this straight, it is a sport), I joined a college team. Our first practice was on Thursday afternoon in the University Parks, with our first match against Somerville on Friday afternoon, leaving the team, all relatively inexperienced, with little promise of success.

O Croquet: the idiosyncrasies of your handbook, the polite but anguished repression of your players (and instructors) upon the fertile grounds of flirtation, the pun-ability of nearly all your terminology. One is required to know when to roquet, when to croquet, and how to do a rush, a stop-shot, and a stab. This is no easy clipping of the ball through the hoop (which is only marginally, the size of a pound coin on its side, larger than the balls) with flamingos, but a ‘tactical struggle’ for mastery of the course. When the instructor told us to make sure to ‘stalk’ over to the ball so as to properly align, I heard ‘stork’ and subsequently spent the rest of the session swinging my mallet between my legs in the manner of a wading water fowl.

So it was with great trepidation and no knowledge of the rules or how the game operated that we arrived at Somerville yesterday to play two hour-long games two-by-two. And the intensity; the insidiousness debate over whether lifting the hoop was cheating or not; the contributed opinions of nearly every passer-by; A’s grave face pale with anxiety when it appeared we might lose. Our last-minute breaking success ensured that we remain in the Cuppers tournament, that Somerville has been annihilated, and demanded an instant and ostentatious celebration.

Croquet may look like a blasé hobby of horse-faced aristocrats, but it’s a cold-blooded exercise in precision. I may have a new obsession. A game tonight on the quad to perfect the roquet, croquet, continuation! It’s like pool, but better. (There’s infinitely more room for sabotage.)