Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘E. B. White’

22 APRIL, 2014

Three Delightful Poems About Dogs from E.B. White

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A charming celebration from literary history’s premiere champion of the canine.

Perhaps due to the occupation’s necessary solitude and the dearth of distracting human company it inherently requires, writers and their pets have always had a special bond. Chief among them was E. B. White — extraordinary essayist and satirist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style. Over the course of his life, he owned — parented, rather — a dozen dogs, which inspired the infinitely wonderful writing collected in E. B. White on Dogs (public library) — a compendium compiled by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, which was among 2013’s best books about animals and gave us White’s moving obituary for his dog Daisy and his endearing love letter to his wife “written” by Daisy. But while White was best-known as a prose writer, from his remarkable essays to his prolific letters, he did pen a handful of poems for his beloved canine companions over the years, also included in the volume. Here are three of them, beginning with one that celebrates the general delightfulness of Dog:

E.B. White with his dog Minnie at the New Yorker offices

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Love of life, and fronts of dwellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintance, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Another paints a charming taxonomy of breeds and temperaments, with a special love-note to his Daisy:

FASHIONS IN DOGS

An Airedale, erect beside the chauffeur of a Rolls-Royce,
Often gives you the impression he’s there from choice.

In town, the Great Dane
Is kept by the insane.

Today the Boxer
Is fashionable and snappy;
But I never saw a Boxer
Who looked thoroughly happy.

The Scotty’s a stoic,
He’s gay and he’s mad;
His pace is a snail trot,
His harness is plaid.
I once had a bitch,
Semi-invalid, crazy:
There ne’er was a Scotch girl
Quite like Daisy.

Pekes
Are biological freaks.
They have no snout
And their eyes come out.
Ladies choose ’m
To clutch to their bosom.
A Pekinese would gladly fight a wolf or a cougar
But is usually owned by a Mrs. Applegate Krueger.
Cockers are perfect for Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Or to carry home a package from the A&P without clowning.

The wire-haired fox
Is hard on socks
With or without clocks.
The smooth-haired variety
Has practically vanished from nice society,
And it certainly does irk us
That you never see one except when you go to the circus.

The dachshund’s affectionate,
He wants to wed with you:
Lie down to sleep,
And he’s in bed with you.
Sit in a chair,
He’s there.
Depart,
You break his heart.

My Christmas will be a whole lot wetter and merrier
If somebody sends me a six-weeks-old Boston terrier.

Sealyhams have square sterns and cute faces
Like toy dogs you see at Macy’s.
But the Sealyham, while droll in appearance,
Has no clearance.

Chows come in black, and chows come in red;
They could come in bright green, I wouldn’t turn my head.
The roof of their mouth is supposed to be blue,
Which is one of those things that might easily be true.

To us it has never seemed exactly pleasant
To see a beautiful setter on East Fifty-seventh Street looking for a woodcock or a pheasant.

German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,
And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.

Lots of people have a rug.
Very few have a pug.

But White, it appears, felt like he didn’t give the spaniel her due, so he dedicates a whole separate poem to the queen of ears:

CARD OF THANKS

A spaniel’s ears hang low, hang low;
They mop the sidewalk as they go.
Instead of burrs and beggar’s-lice,
They pick up things not half so nice.

Spaniels deserve our special thanks
For mopping floors in shops and banks,
Resourceful, energetic, keen,
They keep the city nice and clean.

Spaniels should be exempt from tax
And be supplied with Johnson’s wax.

Spaniel-mix specimen exhibiting high degree of specialness

E. B. White on Dogs is an absolute treat in its entirety — sometimes soulful, sometimes funny, always unmistakably Whitean in its warm irreverence and sensitive satire. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s magnificent Dogs Songs and John Updike’s harrowing poem on the loss of his dog, then lift your spirits with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs and Jane Goodall’s charming children’s book about the healing power of pet love.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Geography of Great Literature, in Hand-Lettered Typography

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Twain, Didion, Thoreau, White, McCarthy, Eugenides.

HAPPY UPDATE: All the artwork is now available as gorgeous prints on Society6, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

In a recent collaboration with Debbie Millman for Print magazine’s Regional Design Annual, I selected a beloved literary quotation representing each of the six regions represented and Debbie illustrated the passages in the signature style of her magnificent visual essays and poems. These typographic gems — a sort of modern-day booklovers’ map of literary geography — are presented here for the first time digitally, and include a Brain Pickings exclusive: A special quotation for New York from one of my 10 all-time favorite books on NYC.

For the East, Henry David Thoreausage of true success and children’s book hero — in Walden:

For the Far West, Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (which also gave us her timeless wisdom on self-respect and keeping a notebook):

For the Midwest, Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex:

For the Southwest, Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian:

For the South, Mark Twainadviser of little girls, “the Lincoln of literature,” feisty critic of the press — in Life on the Mississippi:

For New York, the one and only E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — in the indispensable Here Is New York:

For more enchantment by this Millmanian magic, devour Self-Portrait as Your Traitor: Visual Essays by Debbie Millman, then grab prints of this artwork on Society6.

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24 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on the Future of Reading: Timeless Wisdom from 1951

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“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan memorably marveled in the 11th episode of Cosmos. But in our day and age where we can no longer be sure what a book even is and the future of the book swells with uncertainty, what has become of that singular magic? Count on E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — to sweep us into his time machine of timeless insight and take us straight to the heart of the issue. The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library) — which also gave us White’s rare illustrated manuscripts of his children’s classic — includes a short essay titled “The Future of Reading,” which White penned in 1951 and which touches on so much of what we grapple with today, half a century and a digital revolution later. It was originally published in the New Yorker and was eventually included in the 1954 collection of White’s essays, The Second Tree from the Corner.

White writes:

In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading — whether the printed word is on its last legs. One college president has remarked that in fifty years “only five per cent of the people will be reading.” For this, of course, one must be prepared. But how prepare? To us it would seem that even if only one person out of a hundred and fifty million should continue as a reader, he would be the one worth saving, the nucleus around which to found a university. We think this not impossible person, this Last Reader, might very well stand in the same relation to the community as the queen bee to the colony of bees, and that the others would quite properly dedicate themselves wholly to his welfare, serving special food and building special accommodations. From his nuptial, or intellectual, flight would come the new race of men, linked perfectly with the long past by the unbroken chain of the intellect, to carry on the community. But it is more likely that our modern hive of bees, substituting a coaxial cable for spinal fluid, will try to perpetuate the rave through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlor.

How reminiscent this is of Virginia Woolf’s 1926 meditation on the moving image, in which she pondered the audiovisual mesmerism of cinema: “The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.” White sees reading as the antidote to this mental resignation, likening the mutuality of its ecstasy to that of sex — something he knows a thing or two about:

Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading — the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.

He concludes by urging for the conservation of reading, both in education and in culture at large:

It would be just as well, we think, if educators clung to this great phenomenon and did not get sidetracked, for although books and reading may at times have played too large a part in the educational process, that is not what is happening today. Indeed, there is very little true reading, and not nearly as much writing as one would suppose from the towering piles of pulpwood in the dooryards of our paper mills. Readers and writers are scarce, as are publishers and reporters. The reports we get nowadays are those of men who have not gone to the scene of the accident, which is always farther inside one’s own head than it is convenient to penetrate without galoshes.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web contains several more of White’s unpublished short essays on reading and writing, which alone render it a treasure. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer, then revisit this living history of books.

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