Voices in the Cave of Being
Lagniappe and Leftovers
“Lagniappe, lagnappe (lan-yap, lan’yap) [Creole] [Dial], a small present given to a customer with a purchase.”
Webster’s New World Dictionary
The proposition that something in a work “symbolizes” something else should be the start of a discussion, not a terminus. As Leavis kept insisting, what matters is your experience of a work as you make your way through it. Experiencing a “symbolizing” may not be a simple matter.
Mysteries and muddles
“’I like mysteries but I rather dislike muddles,’ said Mrs Moore.”
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
“Let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealizing does not consist, as is commonly held, in subtracting or discounting the petty and inconsequential. What is decisive is rather a tremendous drive to bring out the main features so that the others disappear in the process.
Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Someone has remarked that it can be just as much work being a minor writer as a major one.
There’s a whole fat anthology, eight hundred pages, I have it, of virtually nothing but free verse—surrealist, objectivist, futurist, imagist, negritudist, and so forth—and it’s useful as a storage bin. But oh, when read in bulk, with all those lines with no kind of necessary connection with what follows them (like a badly done lecture where you don’t know where the lecturer is going), it is so boring. So many strung-together assertions of “facts,” whether realistic or surrealistic. And this is simply Volume One. God knows what they must have found to put in Volume Two.
The closures in some explorings are like those in the melodramas—science fiction, thrillers, horror stories—that flicker in and out of Kafka’s fiction and crystallize in Borges’, and which accord with André Breton’s dictum, “[T]he marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.”
In the best melodrama, satisfactory solutions are arrived at to certain problems, the hero’s or heroine’s knowledge, real knowledge, has increased along the way, and there are no intimations that anything is undiscoverable for supernatural reasons.
But neither is there a draining away of the marvellous and a replacement of chiaroscuro by the shadowless bleak light of the supermarket. Any more than there is in Shakespeare.
“A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” (Ezra Pound)
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
Truth and truths
In “Stretches and Languages”, I said that the difference between a would-be totalized world and the multifarious one peopled by Plato, the Kabbalists, Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, Emily Bas-Thornton (in Richard Hughes’ marvellous novel about childhood and learning, A High Wind in Jamaica), and the rest of us is
like that between modern scientific investigation and scientific investigation as it was conceived of in the mid-nineteenth century. In the latter, the explorer pushes out into a homogeneous and essentially unmysterious universe in which the dignity possible to individual men is oddly diminished. In the former it is many different kinds of explorations that are made, and the explorations themselves, in so far as they are done intelligently and accurately, help to construct, in a task without foreseeable limits, the human universe that we inhabit.
Henry James was able to keep going so magnificently from novel to novel and story to story, and avoid the painful creative deterioration of writers like Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, or the virtual collapse of Melville after Pierre, because he was an explorer in that fashion.
He was concerned with truths, not with the truth, the kind that could be encapsulated in a single work and that left you thereafter with essentially nothing to say.
And the void that he scrutinizes to such terrifying effect in “The Beast in the Jungle” is the void of perversely foregone opportunities—of a refusal to “live,” to choose, and to continue living and choosing amid the ongoing forkings that each act of choice and commitment opens up.
“I would say that today the rule of ‘Keep It Short’ is confirmed even by long novels, the structure of which is accumulative, modular, and combinatory.”
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium
Meaning, I take it, that good ones consist of a succession of shaped and individuated chapters and aren’t just salamis cut into chunks.
My own favourite novel. The Great Gatsby.
Speech and signification
It strikes me, rather late in the day, that when Winters speaks of appropriate emotion in a poem, he is talking about what I.A. Richards and Leavis (both of them likewise engaged in slowing-down reading and making texts more aural) meant by “tone” and, in Richards’ case, “attitude,” the difference being that Winters went much further into the shadings that are possible through definable metrical effects.
A whole variety of attitudes can be conveyed through the tone in which the two words, “Oh really” are spoken, and those tones come about through definable effects of varying pitch, duration, speed, and so forth—in a word, rhythms—that can, in part, be described in metrical terms.
De Man, so far as I can tell from his writings, simply had a tin ear when it came to rhythms, and consequently made needlessly heavy weather of the supposed indeterminacy of meaning. The particular meaning of a relatively general word or phrase is usually perfectly clear from the speech stressing it receives, the signifier not having become fully a sign before that stressing.
In a famous example, De Man makes play with the supposed impossibility of determining which of two possible meanings to give to a question by Archie Bunker, “What’s the difference?” In fact, depending on which meaning was intended, the words would have been spoken differently.
And it won’t do to say that the written word is the real word.
It isn’t, and not because the spoken word somehow points in an unmediated way to external or interior realities, but because of those extra, or at least more abundant, linguistic resources.
But there are things that are easier to do with the written word.
It is easier to lie in writing, at least for those of us whose tones of voice and facial expressions may convey what we were trying to conceal. In that respect, you could describe a game of poker among experienced players as a reading of “texts.”
Part of the academic Deconstructive enterprise consisted in artificially creating difficulties and then, to the sound of trumpets, pointing triumphantly to the fact that the difficulties existed.
Apparently some North American high-school teachers of English still tell their students not to use “I” when they write.—a nice, clear, moralistic rule which wrecks their students’ prose. Imagine going through Orwell’s essays and striking out all the “I’s”!
If I myself were stronger willed, I would never use “very,” with its propensity to make a vagueness seem fuller by intensifying it. “I am very pleased,” rather than, “I am thrilled/ delighted/ overjoyed,” as the case may be. I suspect that “very” is rare in good poetry.
More to the point would be not using “the” and its cognates, as in “the poet” or “the scientist.” Liking the thrust of the following passage, I was going to quote it and simply add, “So is the poet.”
A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.…The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence (Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel)
Then I started wondering what on earth it meant to talk about “the” poet, as if being “a poet” (a.k.a. writing poems?) were a single thing.
I suppose what’s intended in the quotation is “a good novelist,” meaning someone who writes good novels. Or is it just all writers of novels? And if so, are Harlequin Romances novels, and if not, why not?
Or maybe there’s an implicit reverse definition here—“A writer of fiction who examine not reality but existence are what I mean by “a novelist.”
No, too many questions seem begged here, so let’s not have “THE poet.”
Greek and the Book of Nature
Did the metaphor of Nature (a.k.a. the universe) as a “language” to be “read” and decoded derive in part from the German Romantics’ experience of Greek in high school.
Ancient Greek (you, the student, were aware) was a finite system, no longer evolving (unlike Latin), and not different from place to place or individual to individual. It was mysterious and intimidating, like those texts (passages from works) that you were being required to translate upon pain of punishment if you got something wrong. It was also exciting at times when you suddenly got, or thought you got, something right.
For you knew (or were given to understand) that each word, each line, each syntactical connecting, each of those half-glimpsed meanings and surreal juxtaposings in your own mistranslatings as you laboured at your desk) had a right meaning that you could discover if only you had the right kind of mind, and which your teachers (swishing their figurative or actual birch rods) already knew, or which someone whom they knew about, some text-glossing super-scholar, knew or was labouring at discovering.
Fascinated as he was, in his own rational and utterly un-Beckettian way, by the non-rational aspects of rational order-seeking, Borges could have written a nice story about all this.
It takes a wrench of the mind, when talk about the alleged differences between poetry and prose occurs, to remember that a poem, as a sequence of speakable words, no more exists in space than a piece of music exists as rows of staves.
The fourth definition of “stave” in my dictionary, I have just noticed, is, “a set of verses, or lines, of a poem or song; stanza.”
Line-endings, stanza divisions, acting partly as stronger aural punctuation. But also enabling you to glimpse ahead the general patterning.
Which is much harder, perhaps impossible, to do with the German originals in Flores’ An Anthology of German Poetry where, in the necessary interests of space-saving, they are printed below the verse translations as continuums, with vertical strokes marking the line-endings.
Could passages of prose be printed in that fashion and then, for ease of reading, be transposed into verse, where we could see where the principal pauses came? In principle, that is. If not, why not?
Years ago, after listening to a brutally dismissive review on the national radio of a magnificent ten-year retrospective of Carol Hoorn Fraser’s art, I said in a letter to the programme director:
The show was a remarkably varied one.
It contained lyrical Turneresque seascapes in colored inks, loose preliminary sketches for paintings, realistic figure studies, detailed surrealistic drawings, and oils of various sizes.
It included playful works, protest works (against war, wastage, dehumanization), lyrical celebrations of the mysteries of the body, complex studies in psychological relationships.
Its images ranged from stylized figures in basically realistic situations (e.g., stretcher-bearers among Vietnam trees), through realistic objects incongruously juxtaposed (e.g. plants growing in an automobile), to complexly abstracted figures interconnected with each other and with their environment.
Some of the works were treated two-dimensionally, others involved complicated spatial recessions and interweavings. The degree of finish ran the gamut from a Turneresque looseness and airiness to an almost metallic hardness.
None of these features came across in Ms. [X]’s account.
When she rattled off her lists of things and themes in the works ("entrails, veins, vines, . . . phallic symbols, . . . garbage, . . . death, decay, old age . . ."), it was like someone rattling off a list of "things" in a poet's work ("horses, houses, lakes, isles, Irishmen, sex, politics") in so general a fashion that, for all the hearers could tell, the poems might be all sonnets or all long pieces of blank verse.
Ms. [X] referred specifically to only a single work out of the over seventy in the show, and then in an extremely general way. And she named not a single other artist for purposes of comparison and contrast, not even when using a term as broad as "surrealism."
It’s possible to do what passes as literary criticism like that, particularly when a teacher with strong political convictions has a captive audience.
In Le Paradis Artificiel, Baudelaire talks about man’s “predilection for any substances, however dangerous, that might personally exalt him and thus for a moment evoke for him that adventitious paradise upon which all his desires are fixed.” And about how those substances weaken our wills by fixating us on the dream of being free from pain among enchanting vistas.
But you have to be careful what you throw out.
Willing, good willing, is partly an affair of practical desiring.
In one of the Modesty Blaise thrillers, Willy or Modesty explains that imagination (the everyday kind) trumps will. If you fall overboard five miles from land, but have in your mind’s eye an image of yourself eventually crawling out of the water onto the sand, you will have some chance of reaching shore, whereas if you simply try to drive yourself forward, you will soon tire and go under.
So there’s also the need for non-delusory imaginings of plenitude, imaginings of ongoing patterns of action by centered selves, or modes of thought from which actions can issue, whether embodied in art, or architecture, or ritual, or festivities, or conventional religious belief, or all of them together.
You do indeed need Beyonds, but they must be, some of them at least, the beyonds of desirable futures that you have some chance of reaching by your own focussed actions.
I suspect that you would have trouble finding among the fictive heroes of British high Romanticism any what might be called effective real-world consciousnesses.
A useful paradigm about knowledge is provided by Geoffrey Household’s Conradian children’s novel The Spanish Cave (1935), Conradian in the manner of “Typhoon” and “The Secret Sharer,” not Heart of Darkness.
After the ominous initial glimpses of mysterious details—a submarine-like shape moving out to sea at night, an uncanny shrill whistling noise, a sinister look to the water, the unexplained disappearance of a fishing vessel—things are narrowed down by the exercise of reason (including that of the parish priest and an old Basque ship-builder) and a bit of informal historical research, to the likelihood that a prehistoric sea monster lives in the cave of the title.
But tracking it down does not thereby become a simple matter. It is a hunt in the dark, underground, in a system of caves that exists fragmentarily in the light of the small boat’s spotlight, against an adversary who likewise shows himself only fragmentarily.
And the efforts that have been taken to narrow the zone of ignorance and danger help to make possible, in conjunction with the skill of two grown-ups and the assumed but not yet fully tested valour of the boy hero, the final overcoming of the monster (an intelligible monster, with both pathos and, in its reptilian way, dignity, and one which in our own enlightened times, would of course have been handled very differently, the whole area swarming with sympathetic biologists and TV camera crews.
At the end, when the boy is adopted by the ship-builder, we are given convincing reminders of the reality—a natural, not a supernatural reality—of the “underground” European tradition of witches and natural magic.
Which is to say, of modes of knowing and doing.
Music, Words, and the Construction of Meaning
A good deal of would-be intimidating nonsense has been talked about the indeterminacy of words.
Let me offer an analogy from music scores. A dot will let you know that a note has a certain duration, which is about as vague as you can get. So, is it high pitched or low pitched? Well, for that we see where it goes on the stave, the rows of parallel lines. So, does it increase or diminish in volume? Another marking. And what is its timbre, is it smooth? vibrating? Yet another marking. And what is making the sound—a cello, a cornet, a bass drum, a piano accordion? More information required. And then we need to consider its relationship to the notes preceding and following it on the stave. And after that there’s the quality of the sound as made in performance by an individual musician, which can’t be captured or defined on the score. And probably other things that I’ve overlooked.
When you’re reading a score, you are not looking at notes that intrinsically possessed certain qualities to begin with and were then strung together and given a context, like pearls on a necklace. You are looking at a whole system of notation in which the final meaning—the directives to musicians in performance—is provided by a combination of the elements that I have described.
And you’re not coping with something intrinsically defective because it can’t convey the exact in-performance expressive sounds that the composer or scorer may (but who is to say?) have had when creating that piece of music. You’re looking at something that operates within a set of game rules known to both composers and performers, wherein an at times astonishing complexity and precision above the normal level of non-musical sound can be achieved, but in which there isn’t, and can’t be, a total determinacy.
The analogy with verbal language isn’t exact, of course. But it works well enough.
Elsewhere I offer the example of the notice “Watch batteries installed” glimpsed in the distance at a trade fair, the ambiguity of which vanishes when you see that it’s at a booth displaying timepieces. The other elements of that booth (not all, of course; we don’t need a multiple replication of signs) are part of the meaning of the phrase, and more particularly of the word “Watch,” just as the various musical markings are part of the meaning of that circle.
In other contexts, the phrase “Watch batteries installed” could mean that you’re invited to observe (for educational or promotional purposes) batteries being installed in some piece of equipment, or that batteries with the brand name “Watch” are installed here, or that (as announced triumphantly in a newspaper headline), such batteries have successfully been installed somewhere in a difficult situation, or that, in a military connection, batteries of guns have been put in place in surveillance outposts.
This is not mysterious. It is how language operates. A mystery is only made if you assume that the signifier “watch” (which for all I know means “potato pancake” in some other language) has an intrinsic meaning, and that the newspaper page, or the display items and names in the booth are “merely” contexts, in the sense that dough would be the context of a pearl that you dropped in it. It is true that we are speaking of something far less clear here than the replicable stave lines in which that dot was located. But we are still in a system where a signifier is one of a cluster of contributors to meaning. Which is different from saying that once one knows what the signified is, one has a fixed sign, in the sense that the pearl is a known quantity regardless of the dough—a spherical, natural, saltwater pearl worth $1200, or whatever the case may be.
All this is without even considering the shifts in meaning that come with the different voicings of words, such as the phrase “Oh really,” with its multiple possible meanings that can’t, except by absurd feats of terminological ingenuity, be “scored” on the page beyond the minimal exclamation or question marks.
You could go crazy staring at those two words in isolation and trying to intuit the meaning that you know must be there.
Or also start scaring people with talk about the indeterminacy and arbitrariness of language. Meaning, who’s to say what’s right or wrong?
At one point in “Vision and Analogy” I postulate a primal hunter, after the beast is slain, who makes a jackal-like yipping noise and points to one of his fellows, implying that the latter was holding back while the others took the risks, and now expects some of the spoils. Is that yipping a “word”— “a cowardly opportunist like a jackal “(etc)—or a “sentence”—“you are/ he is a cowardly opportunist who” (etc)?
The noise is transferable. Others could make it and mean the same thing. And not just about that particular individual. In each instance, though, a pointing of some kind (finger, eye-rolling) would have to be part of the sign, otherwise someone would just be imitating the noise a jackal makes.
“…major or minor according to the outmoded viewpoint of study guides.” (André Breton, Conversations)
Describing a visit by himself and a friend to a flying-rally in Italy, Kafka (yes, Franz K.) reports how at one point, when the great Blériot was in the air,
Devotedly everybody looks up to him, there is no room in anybody’s heart for anyone else. And everybody looks with outstretched neck at the monoplane, as it falls, is seized by Blériot, and even climbs. What is happening? Here, above us, there is a man twenty metres above the earth, imprisoned in a wooden box, and pitting his strength against an invisible danger which he has taken on of his own free will.
In contrast, when another of the aviators makes a prize-winning flight,
It is a perfect achievement; but perfect achievements cannot be appreciated; everyone, when you come to think of it, thinks he is capable of a perfect achievement, no courage seems to be needed for perfect achievements.
It isn’t just thrillers or daring feats of flying that draw us forward by our curiosity—and anxiety— about what happens next… and next… and next. With a consciousness that what is happening could easily not be happening.
In his lovely The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye says of certain kinds of making that “the essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making, and so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The workmanship of risk’…”
“You can prove almost anything by italicizing certain words in a poem and ignoring their context; or by picking out scattered images in a long narrative poem and putting them side by side, and then suggesting that they colour the whole of it; or by deciding that the poet about whom you are writing was obsessed by a particular shape, and then making almost any mountain, group of trees, cloud, light-effect, building, balloon ort head that the poet mentions fit that shape.”
Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968).
Wordsworth and Coleridge, Joyce and Lawrence, Hemingway and Faulkner, Leavis and Winters—natural pairings.
It isn’t that Leavis and Winters had all the answers, or all the questions, or were always right, far from it. They were simply right more often about important matters than any other critics in the language.
I feel less embarrassment about saying this when I recall that currently Harold Bloom is being touted as the greatest living critic. Harold Bloom!
Bloom and Fish?
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis?
Sometimes plain statements can make your eyes tingle, as in the quasi-sestet here, developing out of and going on from the more figurative and also tingling quasi-octave. It must be one of Rilke’s best-loved poems.
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinem Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süsse in den schweren Wein.
Wie jetzt kein Haus hat, haut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Here it is in Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation.
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Ahead of All Parting; the Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (Modern Library, 1995)
You can feel the desolation of those boulevards with the sidewalk tables and chairs back indoors, or out there empty and forlorn, fin de saison. Perhaps some of the letters would be written at them. “Through the evening” is only there to fill out the line.
There are almost no adjective-noun constructions here, and what there are (“heavy wine,” etc) aren’t colourful. Jazzing up your writing with “interesting” adjectives is lazy writing. But you can’t just go through what you’ve written and strike adjectives out.
What matters, as it does here, is seeing things, activities, relationships in your mind’s eye so clearly that linked adjectives, when they come, come as clarifiers, not would-be creators.
In Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter describes (pp. 265-6) the shift from a more or less literal to a more or less symbolist mode of landscape description, neither of them intrinsically superior to the other—though if the latter doesn’t intensify elements in the former, as in Caspar David Friedrich or Arnold Böcklin, you are liable to end up with the melodramatic and shadowy impressionism of Poe.
There’s a natural continuum from the actual feared dungeons and torture-chambers of pre-Enlightenment castles, via ruined castles as mysterious spaces haunted by the clanking of men-at-arms and the cries and groans of the victims of total power, to the surreality of Piranesi’s Prisons (themselves a condensation of aspects of the literal ruins in his other etchings), which, according to Hayter, became metaphors for indecipherable enclosed heights and depths in individual psychodramas.
The figures and activities in Prisons, like the spaces and objects, do not make sense and defy interpretation.
Piranesi’s etchings thrilled me over fifty years ago when I was able to go through two or three volumes in the Bodlean Library while working on the Gothic Revival, the assigned topic of my paper for that week.
But actually the most exciting images were the “documentary” ones in the original outsize volumes with their gorgeous thick paper. The ruined buildings mostly felt too big, in the manner of dreams, and their rotting and sometimes weed-grown stonework had an oddly organic texture.
You could feel Time at its task, devouring.
Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins is a lovely read about ruins and the romantic imagination.
“April is the cruelest month” is an unforgettable statement, drawing you into the process of perception. The phrase “cruelest April” would be weaker,
In the first stanza of Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” we’re not told about a “complacent peignoir.” Instead we’re given
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon as rug…
Simple adjectives—“late,” “sunny,” “green”—but each doing real work, with a progression away from literalness. The coffee’s being drunk later than the usual breakfast time, the sun is falling on the person, not the chair, it’s the freely-moving cockatoo (on the rug? on a perch on a rug?) that’s green.
And this isn’t just a list, sitting there inertly. These things “mingle” (Germanic) and (Latinate) “dissipate” something, and what they dissipate is “The holy hush of ancient sacrifice,” in a strong conjunction of two vastly different modes of being.
Buñuel recalls how sometimes he and his cameraman would have fun working out really arty set-ups—and then go ahead and shoot the scene as plainly as possible.
I doubt that Buñuel has been accused much of being banal.
Thirty-some years ago I voiced in “Northrop Frye and Evaluation” and “Evaluation and English Studies” my exasperation with the conventional notion of canonicity.
One of the troubles with an unthought-through or badly thought through notion of tradition is that it’s a push-over when radical political challengers come along.
Having refused to think its way seriously through the principles and practices of Leavis and Winters, the conservative academic American establishment had no defences when Derrida and De Man came barrelling in, cheered on by their collabos, like the Wehrmacht making an end-run round the Maginot Line through Belgium in 1940.
There is no “I,” no “Ich” in Rilke’s “Herbsttag”—the actual words, I mean. You don’t have to find out who’s speaking, or fit the poem together with other poems by the author. You don’t even need the author’s name.
But there’s an intensely present self, at once individual and sharable, in the yearning and hoping and defining of the first seven lines, at this particular cusp of the year.
And the sad knowledge of the last five lines had to have been earned personally in some way.
It is a fate that could be awaiting the self now. Or that was experienced in the past and could still, with an insufficient commitment to organic being, return.
“There but for the grace…”
Part of the charm of free verse—a very broad term— is that, like certain modes of dancing, while some of it can indeed be done very well, only a Grinch would suggest that a lot of it is probably being done badly.
Whereas everyone knows how to laugh at jog-trot rhythms and moon/June rhyming.
The social world changed permanently around 1960 with the Twist. Previously, dancing, like etiquette, was something that you got wrong. An interviewer asked Philip Larkin whether he had danced as a boy. “Dance, you mean dance?” A whole world of male-adolescent yearning and dread was evoked there in his raised-eyebrows incredulity.
Dancing was an affair of forms—Foxtrot, Quickstep, Waltz—that you could either do or you couldn’t, so that you tried to get by with an embarrassed shuffle. And smoothies whirled around like show-off skaters in the middle of a roller-skating rink.
With the Twist, you could simply stand there with your hands in the air and wiggle. You didn’t even have to touch your partner.
Free-verse is quicker to write, too—a great advantage when you want to get another book out.
Here is a poem from nearer our own time, highly formal (but not formalistic), and full of a voiced “presence”— Martha Collins’ lovely villanelle “The Story We Know.”
The way to begin is always the same: Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad. Just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That’s every story we know,
and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,
and then it’s Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know
so well we don’t turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.
But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good-bye is the end of every story we know
that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.
The following, from Lautréamont’s Poésies (1870), published in the year of his death at the age of twenty-four, is just so damn funny— but serious-funny—, encapsulating with the shrewdness of good cartooning the enormous energies of high Romanticism:
Since Racine, poetry has not progressed one millimeter. It has fallen backwards. Thanks to whom? To the Great Softheads of our epoch. Thanks to the Sissies—Chateaubriand, the Melancholy-Mohican; Sénancourt, the Man-in-the-Petticoat; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Sulky-Socialist; Edgar Poe, the Mackamuck-of-Alcoholic-Dreams; Mathurin, the Godfather-of-Shadows; Georges Sand, the Circumcised-Hermaphrodite; Théophile Gautier, the Incomparable-Grocer; Lecomte, the Devil’s-Captive; Goethe, the Weeping-Suicide; Sainte-Beuve, the Laughing-Suicide; Lamartine, the Tearful-Stork; Lermontoff, the Bellowing-Tiger; Victor Hugo, the Funereal-Greenstick; Mickiewicz, Satan’s-Imitator; Musset, the Intellectual-Shirtless-Dandy; and Byron, the Hippopotamus-of-the-Infernal-Jungles.
I’m reassured to think that I’ve read substantial works or groups of works by Chateaubriand, Sénancourt, Rousseau, Poe, Gautier, Goethe, Hugo, Musset, and Byron. So I’m not wholly ignorant about Romanticism.
My dictionary doesn’t have “greenstick” in it.
“To be too conscious and conscious of too much, that is the plight.”
“You don’t know what is too much until you know what is much too much.”
William Blake (adapted)
Everyone who wants to be admitted to the poet’s guild should be required to write a passable villanelle. Like having to draw the nude human figure convincingly, regardless of what you do subsequently as an artist. With a good sestina for a life membership, maybe?
Here’s a lovely recent poem in free verse...
The Season of Forgiveness
I’m going to lie down next to you
As if nothing has happened:
from Chorus For One Voice
by Charles Simic
In this weather, wood has warped and doors
won’t shut the way they should. The mist holds daylight
close, hoarding. When it escapes, the light doesn’t
spill, doesn’t slide cross the floor, but creeps
and hobbles using furniture to hold itself up. It just wants
to sit. In this weather, light has age, growing rings like a stump
and can no longer hear. It’s the ancient relative in the corner
with a change purse and a group of grandchildren at its feet.
Extension wires, 100 watt bulbs, nothing helps. It’s faint
and weak and only drinks water. In this weather, not even
the high tide of starlings rolling onto the lawn gets its attention.
“Leave me alone,” it says, having forgotten the way it ranted
and raved. How it demanded more time and more flowers.
The garden couldn’t keep up, it touched everything:
the silver sugar bowl, the glass fish, every mirror, every drop of water.
And so begins the season of forgiveness, when the birch trees
bordering the yard turn back to bark and branch and you’re alone
and I’m alone, the pantry is stocked
and winter is coming up the driveway.
Susan Goyette (Pottersfield Portfolio, vol.18, Spring 1998)
It’s kinetic verse, with a varying series of slowings, speed-ups, checks, halts, renewed speed-ups, etc., the words all telling you just how the poem should be read aloud. The quasi-couplets are meaningful organizers, with functional pauses at the end of each first line and stronger ones after the second line.
The enjambments are all expressive. You assume that “The mist holds daylight” is going to lead into a flow like the one that’s preceded it. Instead, the containment is mimed with “close, hoarding.” And then there’s another miming with the flow that’s broken with “creeps/ and hobbles,” and another nice check with “It just wants/ to sit.”
Subsequently, the smoothness of “It’s the ancient relatives in the corner/ with a change purse and a group of grandchildren at its feet” gives way to the stop/start of “Extension wires, 100 watt bulbs, nothing helps. It’s faint”
You can feel the weight of being—things hard to budge, energies held in check, the body’s ageing, the expansiveness that builds up momentarily after the central extension-wires stanza (reversing the more natural sequence of energies dwindling, as in Rilke’s “Autumn Day”) and then falters—and we feel winter’s inexorable advance.
This is verse, not the too-familiar attempt to make poetry by means of arbitrary rhythms that aren’t those of what we customarily think of as prose.
The poem wasn’t in Goyette’s first book, The True Names of Birds, which came out that year (Brick Books, 1998), but might as well have been.
“I Know Women,” “You Know This,” “The Moon on Friday Night,” and “A Collection of Feathers” in that volume are particularly fine, especially the first-named.
Reading them, you’re experiencing things phenomenologically in spaces of the author’s defining, not being proffered bits and pieces to fit together yourself, however intriguingly, into the author’s “story” (where does she live/? who does she share her life with? etc).
There’s only a single “I” in “The Season of Forgiveness,” yet the poem is intensely personal, and the last three lines quiver.
Oh, and light, the sun’s light, has been rendered as the all-too-transient visitor and energizer that it is in these northern parts.
The poem appeared in Pottersfield Portfolio, vol.18, Spring 1998, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
It now opens the author’s very impressive second book of poems, Undone (Brick Books, 2004.)
“Intense desire to communicate, to talk to idealized, perfect, intelligent listeners…Sense of extreme significance in the nature of the experience… The room seemed to become warmer and to lose, miraculously, all distance or orientation. I could not feel where the door led to, or that there was a door.”
My own introduction to the Demon Weed fifty years ago, which I made notes about on the same night, left me quite certain that my mind was not in fact working better, and that my sense of an improved communication with my hosts was a delusion, and that I was perceiving them more superficially than I normally did.
Our slowed-down speech and occasional giggles were essentially (I now judge) a matter of our all feeling in much the same way at the same time in the same non-judgmental space, so that you could signal presentness simply with smiles and tones of voice and minimal gestures.
But, “Go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass Go.…”
That’s the real madness, of course.
(Not that I’d particularly want to be in a plane piloted by Cheech and Chong.)
If you drew a cross, the vertical arm of which stood for degrees of “feeling” and the horizontal for degrees of “form,” you could place most poems somewhere or other in the four quadrants. Not that everyone would do so in the same way, of course.
A couple of lists are on the wall over my desk. One is of reportedly alcoholic American writers, the other of writers reportedly not alcoholics. I forget where I found them.
The “A” List:
Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Robinson, Millay, Hammett, Steinbeck, Agee, Kerouac, Capote, McCullers, Parker, Lewis, O’Neill, Lowell (Robert), Williams (Tennessee), O’Hara, Berryman, London, Crane (Hart), Aiken, Wolfe (Thomas), Lardner, Cozzens, Jones (James), Cheever, Stafford,
The Non-“A” List:
Pound, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Hurston, Welty, Wharton, Cather, Wilder, Miller (Arthur), Glasgow, Williams (William Carlos), Porter, Bellow, Ellison, O’Connor (Flannery).
I wonder what a list of authorial “drug” users would look like.
Reading, in translation Lautréamont’s extraordinary Chants de Maldoror and the cryptic Poesies I can sense André Breton reading them at the outset of his career and feeling that this was indeed a voice, virtually anonymous, of genius speaking, so unprecedented and unpredictable—and shaped—is everything on those pages, and trying to sense what is intended by, what lies “behind,” the more gnomic utterances.
Perhaps we all crave a single window of authority (one to which we have accorded authority) through which we can best discern order in the heterogeneity of the world—“Aquinas says” (Stephen Dedalus), “Pound says” (Hugh Kenner), “Winters says” (Ben Kilpela), “Frye says” (who cares?).
And “Winters-and-Leavis say” (Fraser)? But they were far from always saying the same things.
And they wouldn’t have approved of a lot that’s in the present site. And to tell you the truth, I’m glad I myself never studied under them, being very weak-willed. As it was, I was able to absorb what I wanted from their writings at my own pace, and without a whole lot of unresolved tensions left over from occasions remembered and things said by them personally.
You wouldn’t, would you, want to have to go through life knowing that you had been weighed by either of them and found wanting?
“We speak of prose and the history of prose and make anthologies of English prose, but really there is no such things as prose. The term is a convenient dustbin for that which is neither poetry nor fiction.”
James Fenton, NYRB, Feb 13, 2003, 47
“[Wordsworth] was a person who early in life had an intense experience or series of experiences about inanimate nature, which he spent the rest of his poetical life trying to describe. He was not really interested in farm-labourers or any one else for themselves, but only in so far as they helped to explain this vision, and his own relation to it.” (W.H. Auden, introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse,1938)
W.H. Auden, introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse
One of the limitations of Leavis’s criticism was his inability or unwillingness to provide a significant place in his ecology for “small” poems. It was a limitation emphatically not shared by Winters, which is another reason, in addition to his deep understanding of the dynamics of Symbolism, why Winters is the greater critic of poetry.
However, a reviewer once quoted in Leavis’s quarterly journal Scrutiny some lines from a song about undertakers and their assistants—
Look at their top hats—
Polished with Guiness!
Ain’t it grand
To be bloomin’ well dead?
The “serious” poet under discussion hadn’t, he said, “produced anything to come within miles of that ‘Polished with Guiness’.”
And Scrutiny’s great music critic Wilfred Mellers would later hail Sergeant Pepper when it appeared. When I read his review I immediately went out and bought my first Beatles album.
When I was an undergraduate, I sat with others in a college lounge and heard the British movie director Michael Powell, best known now for Peeping Tom, say that once you’d been to a place, you could reproduce it in the studio without faking.
So, too, it occurs to me, with the life of the mind. When you know what certain kinds of peaks and plateaus of seriousness are like, you can come down from them, if you wish. But if you don’t know, you can’t go up.
If there were pleasures that Leavis ignored, he was speaking always on behalf of works and values and states of being that themselves would otherwise get left out. And, like Breton, he attacked phony seriousness. He obviously wasn’t insisting that everyone else live at the same pitch of moral strenuousness all the time.
It was in wartime Scrutiny, before Orwell’s essay, that R.C. Churchill argued that too much of an indignation was being made about P.G. Wodehouse’s essentially naive broadcasts from Occupied Europe, by the same kinds of “traditionalists” who’d awarded him an honorary doctorate at Oxford.
In the course of it he remarked that “Mr. Leavis would be surprised to know that at least two of Scrutiny’s occasional contributors read Wodehouse and find him amusing on his own level.”
Surrealism ignored artificial boundaries (like those drawn on the post-war Middle Eastern map to designate nations) and made vitalizing connections between “high” and “low” possible.
Dada simply refused to acknowledge that there was a high.
Non-adversarial playings and pleasings are every bit as much part of the reality of art, including modern art, as a programmatic and adversarial bleakness and disruptiveness
Some writers are at their best in their “light” verse—W.H. Auden, for example.
T.S. Eliot’s Russian-born Jewish coeval, Irving Berlin, loved rhyming:
Heaven, I’m in heaven,
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
So Fred Astaire was given something to sing about, and a character with social knowledge.
“These Foolish Things” (words originally by Holt Marvell/ Maschwitz) has been parodied, cut, rephrased, and lives on.
In Greta Keller’s lovely version fifty years ago, we have:
The park at evening (light pause) when the bell has sounded,
The Ile de France (longer pause) with all the gulls around it.
Oh how the ghost of you clings.
These foolish things (pause)
Remind me of you.
Here too the rhyming isn’t merely clever.
We feel the reaching, in memory, after experiences that bracket their times together—the companionable quiet stroll at dusk; the luxury crossing on the crack French liner with its Art Deco interior, launched in 1926 and no doubt sailing now from New York, with Le Havre and the City of Lights awaiting.
And the reaching speeds up in Cole Porter’s exhilarating “You’re the Top,” as if the mind keeps going further for comparisons that will make clear how he really feels about the Other, each comparison adding to what’s gone before, starting with Mr.Simplicity himself.
You’re the top.
You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
You’re the top.
You’re Napoleon brandy.
You’re the purple light
Of a summer night
You’re the National Gallery,
You’re Garbo’s salary,
You’re [pause] cellophane.
Oh for those days of innocence when cellophane (invented in 1908 but not coming into its own until the later Twenties, says Google) was excitingly futuristic in its smooth cool difference from any previous covering.
And there’s an ascent in the last six lines from timeless Romance, via traditional Culture, to the fictive glamour of stardom and money beyond the dreams of avarice, and then—cellophane!
And the Other (like Donne’s in “A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning”) is assumed to be an intelligent companion who appreciates wit.
Copy-editing these computer pages, I realized that in places I had been writing fast and carelessly, with a tacit assumption that this would be acceptable as a sincere rendering of my thought processes. In fact it was bad prose and made for lousy reading. So once again, classicism had to come in and tidy romanticism’s room. But if I hadn’t written fast and carelessly, I wouldn’t have found what I was trying to say.
Maybe it’s only in the great pop ballads, where the slowing down of the words gives them more expressive weight, that you get the truest 20th-century love poetry, as distinct from relationship poetry.
Sinatra, so stiff and charmless and self-conscious when trying to act charming and relaxed in TV banter or his earlier movies—so wincingly dreadful when up against Crosby—comes wholly alive and sympathique as soon as he can enter into the expressive spaces of love ballads (including “These Foolish Things”) that he’s made wholly his own down to the last quiver of felt and meant phrasing, so that it is only of that that he is conscious, not of his “self” and how this activity is affecting his place in the pecking order.
A whole socio-sexual landscape of Love as it used to be, not that long ago, for a lot of women, with its despairs, and yearnings, and exhilarations, and wry acceptances, is contained in Joyce Breach’s marvellous Confessions, with the Loonis McGlohon Quartet.
How exactly right those kids’ names are, “Vera, Chuck, and Dave,” in Lennon-McCartney;’s “When I’m Sixty Four.”
I myself taught a section of “Introduction to Literature” every year, as we all did from choice in my department, where there was no freshman English as such. By the end (“This lyf so short, this craft so long to lerne”) I had some idea of how to go about it.
When I watched a graduate assistant like the writer David McGimpsey working the audience on behalf of Hedda Gabler (you could practically see the cordless mike), and eliciting responses from chronically silent students that showed that they’d in fact been reading and thinking, I knew for sure that what defects there were weren’t in the students but in myself.
During my last two years I “taught” George Elliott Clarke’s then-recent verse novel Whylah Falls (1990), about a fictional rural Nova Scotian community in the 1930s.
Which is to say, I put together hand-outs containing a lot of practical Coles- Notes-type information (not as easy to do as you might think, when there are no tracks in the snow to follow), divided the class up into teams of five, provided questions for everyone to think about, and let the teams and the other students do the talking about selected questions during our four or five meetings on the book.
In a theme assignment, I included the option of writing a poem to go somewhere in the sequence, plus an explanation of what need it was intended to fill. I thought that one or two students might attempt it, and would probably write doggerel. In fact a sizeable number had a go, and their poems were almost all acceptable, and two or three were excellent, and the explanations were thoughtful. The same thing happened the following year.
Most of the fifty-odd students in the class each year were science majors. None of them, to use Clarke’s term, was Africadian.
I never became a great teacher of freshmen, but at the end of my final year one of them wrote anonymously on a course-evaluation form, “Professor Fraser is a darling, very bright and student oriented,” which remains one of my three most cherished accolades.
Back in the Fifties some French critic, probably in Cahiers du Cinéma, announced that Charlton Heston, so big, so beautiful, was Cinema. In certain moods it’s tempting to feel that “These Foolish Things,” words and music together, the words adapted from decade to decade and singer to singer, “is” Poetry.
The sigh of midnight trains [pause] in empty stations,
Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations,
The first line is virtually a poem in itself, instantly evoking the pleasant strangeness of a foreign station in a sleeping city out there beyond your first-class compartment, with your berths down, in the train bearing you to, maybe, the Riviera, paused now and with the engine giving an occasional hiss of steam.
And then it’s enriched by the contrasting second line—phases, rhythms in a relationship, a life-style. (In Keller’s version, it’s “Two lovers on a street,” instead of those stockings. Which may be better?)
The poem lists things, but it’s not just a list.
The winds of March that made my heart a dancer
A telephone that rings but who's to answer?
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you
These are actions, each evoking in a different way a state of being—the exhilaration of a love-charged season, the poignancy of an absence (seen in the mind’s eye as you grip the phone), the compressed sense of emotional presence as that ghost, that remembered presence, clings.
I guess there are people for whom all this is just upper-class nostalgic/sentimental nonsense. Personally I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where they had power over me or over individuals and things that I cared about.
Faux-“major” works are irredeemable. Echt-“minor” ones, coming together in the mind, can add up to far more than just their individual selves. Personally I’d have no trouble with a Twentieth Century America without—well, the fictions of Mailer and Bellow, say. But without the Gershwins, Porters, Berlins, and others, others, others? Unthinkable!
Some things are so omnipresent as to become taken-for-granted natural phenomena. The real history of 20th-century photography won’t come into being until the classic black-and-white movie stills are factored into it.
Almost all Hemingway’s best works, individually, were small in scale. But collectively.…