HUGH KENNER is a hard-working, high-minded professor of English at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore -- the man of many parts who is hell on wheels to anybody that puts out an encyclopedia.
He can spot errors almost anywhere, but is especially gifted at demolishing encyclopedias. The Britannica incorrectly identified Jules Verne as a yellow-headed titmouse (in a picture caption) and the Columbia misspelled Kenner's own name.
The Random House Encyclopedia got almost everything wrong, you gathered from a Kenner review of that volume in Harper's last year, from the date of Eliot's Prufrock poem through the title of a couple of William Buckley books to the series of sin which was "several ways wrong."
"It doesn't surprise me," I said when I met Kenner in the ivied halls, "if it's the same Random House that put out the dictionary and managed to confuse camel and dromedary and misspell the name of Clare Booth Luce in their entry under Luce."
Kenner thinks the seas of error swell because people who put stuff together just snip and paste and know absolutely nothing about absolutely everything.
Who would argue? Though there is also the printing press to share the blame -- that grim engine that not only cannot spell cow but which also garbles two thirds of the messages entrusted to it. And of course there is also that unnoticed plague that has carried off all the proofreaders. But on the high matters:
I got to sit through a class on some verses of Robert Frost in which Kenner solicited the views of his 26 pilgrims (yonder was the Friar, yonder the Wife of Bath to be) and one was amazed anew at the solemnity and tentative exploration of the young.
Sometimes a fellow would pronounce a high thought that did not seem to mean doodly beans and Kenner would gently lasso him. The student would then have to think what he meant, if anything, and say it in plain words. Usually fine abstractions collapse if forced into a paraphrase, and they did that day.
Kenner did not want to hear from them about genres and crap; he wanted to know what they gathered from an opening line -- if they never read past the first line, what would they know about the poem?
More than one might think.
And what could the poem's reader guess about the relationship between the wife and the husband in the verses?
For an hour the discussion went on, Kenner never squelching anybody, never overwhelming anybody with superior experience and insight, but prodding and guiding all the same.
"Of course they are exceptional," Kenner said later. To teach you must think well of the one who is trying to learn.
We strode towards lunch. Kenner said that at this club they always served orange sherbet with the main entree, and a legend had grown up that an endowment was contingent on the sherbet.
Kenner said everyone enjoyed the drama of thinking what would happen if some day there were no sherbet. Maybe the endowment would evaporate?
"Well, one day somebody decided to find out," he said. "The original food manager of the club was still alive, in manager of the club was still alive, in a nursing home up north. When asked about this legend, the endowment being contingent on the sherbet, the manager said, 'Not at all. I just liked orange sherbet.'"
Thus are traditions born. Thus do large legends grow. All because nobody changes the menu for a few years.
"How do you teach?" I asked. "What happens between the day a student cannot make any sense even of Frost, and the day he really likes the poem?"
It is a mystery, needless to say, as almost everthing about the brain is. Who really understands memory? Who really knows the wires that connect hey, diddle, diddle with the cat and the fiddle?
Who knows why there is something rather wonderful about such plain words:
All day the same our postures were, And we said nothing all the day ...
Kenner answered indirectly.
"Auden once made his class look up every single word of 'Lycidas' in the dictionary," he said.
"The thing is," said Kenner, "anyone who speaks English at all -- anyone who can talk a language -- has already accomplished an amazing feat. By the time anybody is a teen-ager, he knows an unbelievable amount."
Of course if a word like "incarnadine" is new to you, you won't make sense of a line in which it is the main verb.
But there are dictionaries. Just don't look up dromedary in the wrong edition of Random House.
One of Kenner's jobs is to show students they know more than they think they do, and must make the effort to put their present knowledge to work and not just say they can't make heads or tails of it.
And this is done, or was the day I listened in, by talking back and forth, referring again and again to the text.
To Kenner, a good poem is worth real attention. You have to assume the poet meant something by his words, and didn't choose them at random, or pick up the first word that vaguely approximated his meaning.
If Shakespeare says "coral is far more red than her lips red" he did not say "ruby" or "roses" or "grenadine" or "carnelian," He said coral. Well, what is there about coral that is not true of the other red things?
Kenner is a major scholar, and though he never mentioned it in several hours of talk, he certainly believes that learning, understanding, depth, resonance are not lightly incorporated into the human head without mulling and questioning and maybe sweating and taking on a little anxiety and a little daring. It is only later the short cuts, the felicitous short circuits come without danger.
"Conrad," he said, "once used the phrase 'densely distressed.' It's not a normal English usage. We would say 'deeply distressed' maybe, not 'densely distressed.' But this was a lucky accident -- it works wonderfully well, doesn't it -- partly because English was the third, not the first, language that Conrad learned.Sometimes there are lucky things like that."
Great poetry involves a tremendous number of lucky accidents. Whether one says the unconscious is allowed to send things up, or whether one says the brain wires words together a new way, the point remains that it is the conscious reasoning brain that says "now it's right."
Why one line sounds right ("I shall not want") or stupid ("Tom he hit") can be learned and understood as well as merely sensed, though at the last great verse is great simply because it is great.
Kenner's recent volume, "Joyce's Voices" is a well-received study of the different voices in which that writer speaks in his novel, "Ulysses."
"I know you are an authority on Joyce," I said, "and consider that novel a work of the highest order."
"The most significant work since 'Paradise Lost,'" said Kenner, to make sure of his point.
In that book, all of a sudden we see enormous interest, drama, significance, in a guy getting up, scratching a little, and going out to buy a fish. That novel establishes categories in which other novels can begin to be conceived. Something like that.
Among his 15 other books are some studies on Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Beckett and Buck minster Fuller.
He once typed some of a Marshall McLuhan book manuscript, all about advertising, and it was going to be called "The Guide to Chaos." It never got published because McLuhan had not thought about such small matters as gaining permission to reproduce the ads that he intended to attack in the accompanying text.
He has a favorite story about Buckminster Fuller. An editor once objected to Fuller's word, "intertrans-formability," as a graceless dumb word.
"Bucky," said the editor, "this intertransformability, that's just horses--t."
"Horses--t is a beautiful example of intertransformability," Fuller said.
Grand sweeps of meaning are Kenner's delight, not niggling points of pedantry. And yet like many who know most about towers, he cares most for bricks.
Any individual word may hold him up, and send him pawing deliciously through the Oxford English Dictionary. As if not known before.
"Ah, here it is. Brock. Badger," he said, on the trail of its origin. He sniffed out "honeysuckle" too (both entered the language more than 1,000 years ago).
The only thing I had to promise him was that I'd send him the great verse of Morris Bishop that ends with seven prepositions in a solid row.
Does such a novelty illuminate the heart?
No. But watch out for anybody that doesn't perk up at the very thought of seven of 'em, all at once.