Tuning Up - Autumn 2011

Excerpts from the Worst of the Year Anthologies

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By Gerald Jonas

August 25, 2011


 

The Worst New Criticism Of 1958

Curiously, the correct use of the word “haply” in the works of John Keats has received all too little attention in recent years. I first became aware of the problem on reading Keats’s early poem “I Stood on Tip-Toe,” in which the young poet, intoxicated with the beauty of a summer’s day, cries out to Apollo, the God of Poetry:

So haply when I rove in some far vale,
His mighty voice may come upon the gale …

Initially, of course, I assumed the word was an archaic variant of the more common adverb “happily,” which the poet was barred from using here by the meter of the line. Such a reading was supported by the familiar couplet from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays … 

—as pretty a picture of domestic bliss among the Immortals as bard ever penned.

However, serious doubts about the correctness of my interpretation arose when I came across these lines (512–514) from Book I of Keats’s enigmatic romance “Endymion”:

… Haply, thou hast seen
Her naked limbs among the alders green; 
And that, alas!, is death … 

The close conjunction of “haply” and “alas” was, in a word, troubling. While it was possible that a Romantic poet might welcome death at the hands of his beloved, unless I was seriously mistaken about the meaning of  “alas,” the thrust of the stanza ran counter to the sense I had assigned (with growing confidence) to “haply.”

Just to be on the safe side, I decided to consult a dictionary my wife had given me recently as a 25th anniversary present, in which I found this entry for “haply”: “By hap, chance, luck, or accident,” and this illustrative quotation from the King James Bible: “Lest haply ye be found to fight against God” (Acts, v. 39).

Well, the laugh was certainly on me, but the method I had serendipitously discovered—i.e., “looking up” things in dictionaries and other reference books—seems generally useful, and I intend to apply it to other words that have given me trouble over the years, such as “whence,” “wherefore,” and “wilt.”

— from Adventures in Semiology, by Dr. René Pommery of the University of Dijon (translated from the French by Howard R. Gulden)


The Worst First Draft of 1920

“…  and no I said no I won’t No.”

—from the final page of the original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses


The Worst Anthropology of 1934

July 7, 1934 And I said that if they could live in a thatched hut then so could I, and the very next day Pulti and Hara thatched one for me and it’s very cozy in here now except when it rains. The food—mostly breadfruit, boiled, roasted, or raw—is pretty monotonous but I haven’t even looked at my emergency cans of tuna and ham. I haven’t quite got the hang of the grass skirt yet, but Hara says that pretty soon I’ll look “real kikilu.” When I asked her what that meant, she only giggled and put her finger to her nose. I must confess that the one thing I can’t stand is when the people on the island pick their noses in public, not just the children but the adults too. I know that Professor Gruber would tell me not to apply 20th-century Western standards to other cultures, but I couldn’t resist mentioning this unsightly habit to Pulti yesterday. I’m not sure he understood, which is probably just as well …

August 6 … I think I may have a touch of bursitis from the damp, complicated by a bout of diarrhea, but who cares about personal discomfort when it looks like I am on the track of a major coup. Hara hinted that next month I may be allowed to witness the Ceremony of the Full Moon, something no Westerner has ever seen and lived. If only she wouldn’t keep picking her nose and then putting her finger in her mouth directly after. Pace Professor Gruber, I can’t help feeling somewhat disgusted by this unsanitary habit. I remember my mother slapping my hand and saying, “That’s how infections start!” Fortunately, everyone on the island seems in good health at present …

September 12 … Pulti told me to sleep lightly tonight and keep my grass skirt on. I had just finished telling him to keep his fingers out of his nose and mouth, or at least out of one or the other; he looked puzzled and said something I didn’t understand, although I believe I caught the word “kikilu” once or twice. I have handed out 12 boxes of handkerchiefs (bought at my own expense) since the last steamer arrived, but it doesn’t seem to help. Sometimes I find myself speculating on what their reaction would be if I tried my mother’s method, a good swift slap across …

September 13 … took my packed bags down to the lagoon to wait for the arrival of the bimonthly steamer. Mixed up with my fondest memories of the last three months are images from last night, which keep crowding to the front of my brain. The moonlit clearing bright as midday, the rude stone altar, the long line of hushed islanders filing past the huge carved likeness of their chief god Tulua, into whose gaping mouth each of the worshippers reverently placed a fresh offering of … I keep wondering if it isn’t too late to apply for the fall semester at dental school …

—from the unpublished notebooks of Hugh D. Colman, D.D.S.


The Worst Physics Equation Of 1903

—from a letter sent to Max Planck, August 8, 1903, by Dr. Hugo Senft of the University of Lower Wassaby

… E = mc3


Gerald Jonas is a poet and writer in New York City. He has just finished his first novel.


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