Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ants, Antipathy, Antagonism, and The Vinegar Man

After sharing a brief story about feeling sorry for having to kill a fusillade of attacking ants, and then quoting a verse from “Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry, Craig Bickhardt (Ninety-Mile Wind blog—see “My Blog List” below right) said:

“Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.

While I hold McMurtry's standard in the highest esteem and wouldn't change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.

Softer art for harder times? Probably won't fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.

In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.”

©2009 by Craig Bickhardt

What follows is my comment:

Sentiment in the defense (or pursuit) of art is no vice! Okay, it can be...but I would make the distinction between pathos and bathos—between sentiment and sentimentality—between moving and manipulative. My guess is that for the clever, story-song teller, a certain kind of self-imposed restraint is necessary to prevent a powerful and moving story from becoming a maudlin mess.

Last time I shared my Gogi Grant story, this time I offer one of the earliest poems that I remember being moved by. I found it in a hard cover book of poems "for children" that my parents had bought for me when I was about seven. It had the typical Stevenson poems and those by Edward Lear and Eugene Field, but it also had poems by Thomas Augustine Daly in Italian dialect ("Two 'Mericana Men—about immigrants and stereotyping, and "Leetla' Giorgio Washington" with a clever twist on the cherry tree story) and one of my all-time favorite pieces, "The Vinegar Man" by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. I still use these pieces with my students and have done so for going on forty years.

The Vinegar Man

The crazy old Vinegar Man is dead! He never had missed a day before! 

Somebody went to his tumble-down shed by the Haunted House and forced the door.
There in the litter of his pungent pans, the murky mess of his mixing place,
Deep, sticky spiders and empty cans with the same old frown on his sour old face.

"Vinegar—Vinegar—Vinegar Man!

Pepper for a tongue! Pickle for a nose! 

Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows! 

Ketchup—and—chow-chow—and—Vinegar Man!"

Nothing but recipes and worthless junk; greasy old records of paid and due;
But down in the depths of a battered trunk, a queer, quaint valentine torn in two.
Red hearts and arrows and silver lace, and a prim, dim, ladylike script that said,
(Oh, Vinegar Man, with the sour old face!) 
"With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned!"

He pickles his heart in” a valentine! 

“Vinegar for blood! Pepper for his tongue!
Stick a pin in him and” once he was young! 

"With dearest love" to the Vinegar Man!

Dingy little books of profit and loss (died about Saturday, so they say),
And a queer, quaint valentine torn across…torn, but it never was thrown away! 

"With dearest love from Ellen to Ned" "Old Pepper Tongue! Pickles his heart in brine!" 

The Vinegar Man is a long time dead: he died when he tore his valentine. 

Ruth Comfort Mitchell

Yes, it verges on sentimentality, that little catch in the throat, but the wonderful juxtaposition of the older narrator recalling his own childhood voice and then merging the two into an adult recognition of a tragic life suddenly revealed (a little like Kane's "Rosebud"), stays well on the right side of the line. The complex interplay of internal and end rhyme is also masterful as are the alliteration and the parenthetical caesura (the matter of fact, "died about Saturday”) that pulls it back to the harsh reality.

When I heard Danny O'Keefe's "Valentine Pieces," from his second album, O'Keefe, It evoked a very similar feeling, except that it was written in the first person, and the hurt was more immediate:

"The valentine pieces litter the floor of my room...
I should go get the broom..."

I’d say, keep your art ever to the fore, and the sentiment will take care of itself!

PS: I got so carried away (as usual), I forgot about the ants. I think you have inspired me to make my first posting of one of my short stories on my blog. It is a cautionary tale about a man with feelings about killing ants that are very similar to yours (and whose feelings, of course, mirror my own). I'll let you know when it's posted; you might get a kick out of the "similar minds" experience.

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