Tau is for Truth

onight I want to talk to you about the Tau in Sigma Tau Delta, the letter that stands for Truth in this English honors society. I think the topic worth our consideration, especially since, from the earliest days, poets have been accused of being liars. Many of you are English or Writing majors, and your decision to study literature has probably been challenged at one time or another by concerned parents and other well-meaning detractors: “What do you want to do with English? Why study a bunch of made-up stories?”

Poets are Liars. Stories are Dumb.

Well, I’m sure you all can give your own responses to these allegations, and probably have already done so. I’m sure you’re capable of giving your own version of this speech, but with your permission I’d like to say a few words about my own understanding of poetry and truth, of stories that speak.  Continue reading

A Great and Paradoxical Wonder

Rembrandt, The Angel Appears to the Shepherds, Pen and brush, 1640-42

Rembrandt, The Angel Appears to the Shepherds, Pen and brush, 1640-42

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” It’s sung to the tune “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming”) although the words to the latter hymn originated much later than those of “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” The earlier hymn is derived from a Greek text attributed to St. Germanus I of Constantinople (ca. 634-740) or to St. Anatolius of Constantinople (5th c.): “Μέγα καί παράδοξον θαῦμα,” or, transliterated, “Mega kai paradoxon thauma.” The full text is below, but it’s that third word, paradoxon, which interests me most, and which unfortunately has been replaced by the rather dull word “mighty” in John M. Neale’s 1862 English translation.

I’m not a theologian or a Greek scholar, but I know a little about paradox. As a rhetorical term, it indicates a turn to the unexpected. It’s not a logical contradiction, but an apparent contradiction. Not an inconsistency, but a seeming incongruity. If there’s something truly contrarian in a paradox, it’s a truth contrary to received opinion, not to possibility or reason.

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More Light Than Heat

books burning

This week is Banned Books Awareness week, so I dutifully read some Nabokov. Ok, ok, it wasn’t Lolita, to be honest, but Pale Fire. Dutifully, did I say? With pleasure. It’s a jewel of an example of Menippean satire—self-reflective, digressive, allusive, macaronic (gently so), nonlinear, logophilic, indulgent, rambunctious, layered, reckless, precise, exasperating, lush. But this post is not about Pale Fire, oh no. It’s about an unexpected gift.

Whether this gift came from Bede or Brigid, patron saints of scholarship, or St. Philip Neri, patron of clowns, whether from Hermes or Theuth or Loki, whether from my guardian angel or my dear Wormwood, graphology has not yet been able to determine. Perhaps it came from some Nabokovian agent, perhaps from Pale Fire itself, for “Books are not absolutely dead things,” etc., etc. All I can say for sure is that when I opened my copy of Pale Fire, first UK edition, 1962, acquired in a used bookstore in Oxford for 4 quid, a gaunt and jaundiced letter slipped from the austere black hardcover of its dam like some reprobate fledgling Puritan runt, and fluttered to my feet with Cervantick gravity.

It was one of those windfalls of fate, as sometimes happens when a junior scholar is handed the Iliad in Homer’s own hand, or when a copy of Beowulf turns up signed by the author and unsinged by fire, or when the office of Dombey and Son accidentally mails you, and not the late departed Mr. Krook, a newly discovered authorized conclusion to a famously unfinished Victorian novel, dusty from the recesses of an old curiosity shop in The City. Fate sometimes throws scholarly melons at the feet of the unworthy. Apples of gold in settings of silver. Things yet unpublished in prose or rhyme. There it lay on the floor beside my bookcase, argent with the cold spirituality of moonbeams.

The letter, written in a bold hand, contained a complete copy of that singular poem we can now only ascribe to the “Palaverous Pedant,” a masterful devotee of the school of Ogden Nash and Julia A. Moore (poets so similar in technique, tone, and purpose that scholars have often pondered if one is a nom de plume of the other). This in itself was a priceless find, but in a much more timid script, behold! There were explanatory notes, written by one Aaron Theeph, notes which solved many of the hot debates surrounding Palaverous Pedant scholarship of the last century. I have reason to believe that this Aaron Theeph (a name I suspect to be pseudonymous, and belonging to one whose personality I cannot entirely reconstruct, due to the variety of ways he crossed his T’s) was granted access to the inmost recesses of the mind of the Palaverous Pedant. The notes are so coherent, and the luminous flux of his ideas so revelatory, that I could not bear to keep this treasure to myself. Rather than subject the world to a trial of patience, to the obstacle of having to pre-order a copy of this work while awaiting publication— verily, rather than subject myself to the onerous task of having to choose one publisher among a slough of equally reputable and solicitous academic houses (a task more epic and more inevitable than the judgment of Paris, had I chosen to go the traditional route of scholarly publication)— indeed I have decided a gift this rare and precious must be made freely available to all (or at least, all who read Reflection & Choice). When the British Library’s Treasures Gallery contacts me for permission to showcase the original manuscript, I will update my readers of this, as well. Dutifully and with pleasure.

With the patience of Griselda, I have scrutinized each mote, each heavenly serif launched from each stroke of each letter in the manuscript, and have compared the newfound manuscript with related holdings in the Bodleian and the Beinecke. Having attended to the slightest of textual variants, I am confident in affirming the authenticity of my good fortune. As for Aaron Theeph, he must have been a much younger but intimate friend of the P.P., who had begun adding his commentary shortly after the poem was written, but whose labors must have ended only recently, since the pages are yellow but some notes contain references to recently published works, since the notes are unevenly spaced, and since there are differences in the level of iron gall ink corrosion from note to note. What is most relevant, however (as the careful reader will undoubtedly discover), is the fact that the notes’ engagement with the poem obviously betrays a spiritual kinship between vatic poet and precocious commentator.

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On Flying with Children

6410-001401

During the pre-boarding period for a flight from Heathrow to Houston, I couldn’t help but notice that there were more “pre-boarders” than “boarders.” The pre-boarding group was mostly composed of families with small children. “Families of small children” might be a more accurate term.

I kid you not—for every solitary traveler on my flight, there seemed to be family of forty-five, forty-three of them children. Even the captain made a point of announcing the obvious fact that there was an extraordinary number of children on board. All being transported to Houston.

A general boarder myself, I soon came to regard my delayed entry as a mark of specialness, peculiarity, eccentricity—dare I say privilege? One is an odd number.  Continue reading