Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”


Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?

Beer Is All There Is

This blog is all about drinking and reading in moderation. The reading is done for entertainment and edification. The beer is consumed for flavor and to expand the palate. (Figuratively speaking, of course. When I was young my orthodontist fitted me with a palate expander, and that was sufficiently painful to dissuade me from ever seeking to literally expand my palate any further.) But of course, drinking and reading can be done in excess.

On occasion, both I and the narrator of the poem Beer have over indulged to the point where others were prompted to ask, “what the hell have you done to yourself?” In my case, however, overindulgence has never been to cope with loss or out of despair. When I drink too much, it is because I am enjoying myself so much that I don’t want to stop. In the poem, on the other hand, “rivers and seas of beer” are consumed because of lost love: because the phone doesn’t ring and the sound of that woman’s footsteps never come.

I count among my many blessings the fact that I am not a depressed drinker. Beer is good, fun, and wholesome. Why should anybody waste good beer on feeling bad? Hell, why waste any beer on feeling bad. A drink after a rough day or after some bad news can do a lot of good, but getting hammered drunk out of sadness just appeals to me not.


Beer of the week: Coors Banquet Beer – I don’t know what beer Bukowski preferred, but I found a photo of him with an empty Coors six-pack holder. Also, this Coors Original came in commemorative throwback packaging that replicates the sort of bottle that Bukowski might have ashed his cigarettes into. The beer pours clear and golden, with a white, fluffy head. There is not much aroma to speak of. The flavor is fairly bland, lead primarily by cheap grain. There is actually a bit of nostalgia about this beer. This is what beer used to taste like in the USA. My, how far we’ve come.

Reading of the week: Beer by Charles Bukowski – Woman, writes Bukowski, “lives seven and one half years longer than the male, and she drinks very little beer because she knows its bad for the figure.” But that is not the only advantage woman has over man; she also goes out and dances rather than staying home and trying to drink away her feelings.

Question of the week: Heavy drinking certainly causes a number of problems, but can it ever significantly help with others?

Seriously, he looks like a cartoon vulture.

Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.

When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)

But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.

Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!


Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.

Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.

Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?

A Star is Burns

Last week, I complained that the law library does not circulate its volumes of the Harvard Classics. As it turns out, a brief email was all that was needed to get the situation remedied. I sent a message politely stating the reasons that these books should circulate, and I received a reply after a couple days informing me that the set had been re-cataloged. Now I can finally get liberally educated in only fifteen minutes a day!

The first book that I decided to check out was Volume 6, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. So far, it has made for good train reading. I particularly enjoy some of his more humorous works. For example:

Epitaph on a Henpecked Country Squire

As father Adam first was fool’d,
(A case that’s still too common)
Here lies a man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.

And its sequel:

Epigram on the Said Occasion

Oh Death, had’st thou but spar’d his life,
Whom we this day lament,
We freely wad exchanged his wife,
And a’ been weel content.
Ev’n as he is, cauld in his graff,
The swap we yet will do’t;
Tak thou the carlin’s carcase aff,
Thou’se get the saul o’ boot.


Beer of the Week: Crabbie’s Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer – According to his works, Burns drank both ale and Scotch whiskey. I have not seen anything in his poems about ginger beer though. Most people are familiar with ginger beer and ginger ale as soft drinks. However, traditional ginger beers are a sort of sparkling wine: fermented from ginger and sugar-water with yeast and fungus. Crabbie’s modern version is a bit of a cheat, I think, with alcohol added instead of fermented directly from the ginger and sugar. So this is closer to a wine cooler than a beer, but it is still quite tasty. Served over ice, it is crisp and refreshing. It does not have as strong a ginger bite as most non-alcoholic versions I’ve had, but perhaps that is because most soft ginger beers are really meant to be used as mixers, so the taste has to be stronger. Crabbie’s is certainly worth a try if you like ginger and you like your soda pop to be alcoholic. It is not, however, a beer.

Reading of the week: Scotch Drink by Robert Burns – In this ode to whiskey, Burns refers to the drink as “poor man’s wine.” He also points out that food supports life, but life is not worth living without booze to ease all of life’s pain and grief.

Question of the week: The poem addresses “John Barleycorn… king o’ grain.” Given his description of rich brown foam spilling over the lip of the cup, is it possible that the poem is not only about whiskey, but also about barley’s other alcoholic progeny: beer?