Voices in the Cave of Being
Language and Being
Back in the Fifties, when I was teaching composition at the University of Minnesota, there used to be (perhaps there still is?) a handbook distinction between denotations, connotations, and personal associations.
To illustrate it I would say, OK, here’s a defense lawyer pointing to his client and demanding of the jury, “How can you, I mean how can you convict this man here before you—a soldier, a husband, a FATHER?”
But in fact, said I, the accused spent most of his soldiering days in the stockade, and it was a shotgun marriage from which he fled at the earliest opportunity, and as for fathering the child that elicited the shotgun, well …
“Soldier”? “Husband”? “Father”?
So all the, in those days, noble images evoked by those terms (the connotations) were not in fact intrinsic to the basic, value-neutral, dictionary meanings of the terms (the denotations).
And were different again from private association, the images each juryman had of his or her (but in those days it would mostly have been his) own father.
This paradigm seems to me relevant when terms like “poem,” “poet,” “poetry” come up honorifically, I mean among so-called literate people (another connotation there!), not those back-row jocks for whom, in the days when Brooks and Warren and others were defending poetry, they signaled either fancy-pants verbiage or a hideous obstacle course over which their academic drill-masters were driving them.
(“And nerves that never flinched at slaughter/ Were shot to pieces by the shorter/ Poems of Donne”—W.H. Auden in the very funny “Under Which Lyre,” delivered at a 1946 Harvard commencement.).
Why do we instinctively want to ascribe merit to poetry (as distinct from “mere” verse)—want to feel that when A Poet utters, there’s some kind of truth and authority there? For this still goes on, doesn’t it?
Well, I suppose you yearn to be authoritative yourself—be able to speak articulately and intelligently on any subject that comes along, rather than be the actual fumbling adolescent you are/were, or the grown man still making asinine mistakes that undercut his claims to trustworthiness, as I recently did in a letter of recommendation when I spoke of “the old campy Adam West Superman series” that I was reduced to watching these days at supper time. Superman? It’s Batman, for Heaven’s sake.
You want to be authoritative about your “self,” too—be able to speak accurately about how you act and think, what you believe, what you did and felt on some particular occasion—a family row, a letter written, a movie watched.
You want to be authentic, to feel that your values are sound and that you can speak instinctively in the right way, which is not a matter of decorum but of effectiveness—being effectively diagnostic, predictive, ameliorative in particular situations and not finding later on that you’ve made consequential and avoidable errors.
How nice, too, particularly if you’re an institutional intellectual, to be a sage, a guru, a Wise Man or Woman, and paid and privileged and attended to accordingly. How nice to be Professor Emerson. Or Professor Sartre. Or Professor Derrida. (With only one class a year, naturally.)
What bliss! Saint Logorrhea, pray for us! Licence to spill—and to make bad puns. (But does anyone take Sartre seriously any more as a philosopher?)
I guess there’s a sense of poets, or rather, the generic connotational Poet, as able to do/be that. Despite all the talk about the disappearing “author.”
Wordsworth kept on talking. Like Walt Whitman. Like Alan Ginsberg.
“Author…L.auctor, enlarger, originator, authoraugere, to increase…”
Partly there’s a heritage here, isn’t there?
The bard was story-teller, narrator, remembrancer, historian, the person who could keep telling, keep speaking lucidly, whether in hunting narratives, or sagas, or epics. As happens still with the gifted village or family story-teller (“And what happened then, Gran, what happened when the moose came back, what did Grampa do?” “Well, dears…”)
And if you include the visions of the shaman/priest high on some interesting substance…Pow!
Smooth-flowing, seemingly effortless speech presenting experiences in a way that carries conviction is so enviable, at least for me. (How many of us are great or even good joke-tellers?).
And of course a lot of poems and prose can feel like that, particularly if you’re someone to whom language does not come easily—for whom simply writing a letter to some bureaucrat may be agony, draft after draft (before the computer) crumpled up and missing the waste-basket.
So you forget, even if aware of them intellectually, the testified-to agonies, the multiple drafts, the pencillings out of which this or that novel, story, poem came.
Achieving naturalness can be a pretty unnatural activity.
Scott Fitzgerald speaks somewhere of the labour that went into the effortless-seeming Gatsby. For T.S. Eliot in his fifties,
…here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure…
It can take so long, Yeats said, to learn how you really feel about anything.
That is, if you haven’t had the benefit of a cosmic self-esteem job done on you, assuring you, from infancy on, that whatever you create is g-o-o-o-o-d because issuing organically from your own beautiful body and soul (in contrast to the long, patient, and complex shaping of an individual self that Rousseau, imagining himself a tutor with total authority, details in his educational classic Emile).
If writing weren’t so hard— I mean, when you know the difference between getting something right and having it slip away out of reach—, there wouldn’t have been so much wreckage in the life of authorship.
My eye has just returned to a list on the board over my desk, found I don’t remember where, of twenty-seven well-known twentieth-century American writers who were alcoholics. It must be far from complete.
Poor Hemingway knew what the real thing felt like, and knew when he was no longer able to achieve it, and alcohol couldn’t kill the pain, though it helped to kill him.
You need, don’t you? to keep resisting the image of a knowing self out there, the Poet, that is superior to and more comprehensive than the utterances in individual poems. Or is coterminous with the mode of utterance in the best of them. (With the risk, of course, that someone will take the worst of them, such as in private letters to friends—alas, poor Larkin!—as evidence of what the “mind” of that writer really was.)
But it’s comforting to learn of the variegated nature, the different modes of discoursing and being with different people, of D.H.Lawrence and Samuel Johnson.
Particularly if you’d like to be all of a piece yourself, like those one or two genuinely good individuals whom you know (if you do) or like the person-to-person Yvor Winters of his Selected Letters, the importance of which, as of Winters himself, the “traditionalist” editors of the New Criterion still don’t seem to have grasped.
“Hammer your thoughts into unity,” Yeats said, though “Fumble your way towards a bit more coherence” might be an apter description for some of us. Or even, try not to let things get worse. The career of Ezra Pound is hardly an ideal model.
But whether in or out of literature, we live and have our being in an ongoing succession of transactions and encounters, each with its own demands. And if you postulate too rigid an ideal self, you can be endlessly disappointed and self-punishing when you fail to live up to it.
Worse still, you can perceive others in that way, and make demands accordingly, and turn against them when they don’t live up to your expectations.
Part of the appeal of Zen, as presented in Eugen Herrigel’s classic Zen in the Art of Archery, is that it’s about focusing totally, at this moment, and this, and this, on whatever the immediate task. You’re aiming this time, each time a new aiming—in forgetfulness of the previous aimings and of the “self,” the irrelevant baggage of concerns, the watcher.
It is what you see in sports like baseball and snooker, and in photography. Cartier-Bresson praises Herrigel somewhere.
The artist Carol Hoorn Fraser could be Zen-like.
As I’ve said elsewhere, quality cannot flow by osmosis from one work to another, or even from one part of a work to another, let alone do so across the years. In East Coker, Eliot, himself by then one of the peaks in the Himalayas of literary distinction, noted with characteristic gloom how
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the narticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
But things don’t have to be quite so bad.
Not when you think of how fresh Yeats remained, poetically, up until the end, able to speak in a variety of voices, including the playfulness of “The Statesman’s Holiday,” the deft defining of the inner mysteriousness of public figures in “Long-Legged Fly,” the meditative revisiting of embodied values in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” and the yearning for lost creative powers in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which is nevertheless itself a moving act of creation.
And what made that possible was Yeats’ use of, and sense of freedom with, a broad variety of what I have elsewhere called “languages.”
I have talked quite a bit, here and elsewhere, about such languages.
Thirty-some years ago, I wrote,
Let me name some of the works, in various media, in which different languages are used to some degree: in literature, Ulysses, The Faerie Queene, [Pound’s] Cantos, Gulliver’s Travels, The Horse’s Mouth, Four Quartets, [Lorca’s] Blood Wedding, The Canterbury Tales, Les Fleurs du Mal, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, [Traven’s] The Death Ship, The Winter’s Tale, the Bible; in music, Sergeant Pepper and innumerable operas; in cinema, [Warhol’s] The Chelsea Girls, … almost any … movie by Godard, … and all of the numerous movies with dream sequences in them.
In such works we have spectrums, not dichotomies.
I was writing in perfect ignorance of Bakhtin, that great critic who was born in the same year as Céline and Leavis, and who had things in common with Leavis.
What did I myself mean by languages?
Well, in the brilliant closing pages of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus bares in his diary what at the time might have been called his poetic soul:
April 5. Wild spring. Scudding clouds. O life! Dark stream of swirling bogwater on which apple-trees have cast down their delicate flowers. Eyes of girls among the leaves. Girls demure and romping. All fair or auburn: no dark ones. They blush better. Houp-la!
But is that the “real” Stephen? What about this one?
[March 20.] Told me once, in a moment of thoughtlessness, his father was sixty-one when he was born. Can see him. Strong farmer type. Pepper and salt suit. Square feet. Unkempt, grizzled beard. Probably attends coursing matches.
April 15. Met her today point blank in Grafton Street…. Asked me was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri. Talked rapidly of myself and my plans. In the midst of it unluckily I made a sudden gesture of a revolutionary nature. I must have looked like a fellow throwing a handful of peas into the air.
Or what about this?
[April 6] The past is consumed in the present and the present is living only because it brings forth the future.
No style here is the style, no “doing” (defining, exulting, etc) the doing, no reality the reality.
And just as the reality of that grizzle-bearded farmer is not negated by those eyes of girls among the apple-trees—or vice versa—, so the ironical self-awareness and the multifarious perceptions don’t preclude the commitment to forward-reaching action in the magnificent penultimate entry:
April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
The list of works employing multiple languages could be much extended, too. As I also wrote,
There are, for example, individual authors, such as Emerson, Nietzsche, and Lawrence, whose work when viewed as a whole is marked by contradictions that can almost certainly only be resolved, or at least made sense of, by looking more carefully at the various languages that they use.
This multifariousness frees you from having to choose between the primitive model of everyone looking at the “real” world as if through a window pane —a single solid observed, with observers all observing it in essentially the same way—and the scarcely less primitive model of their all gazing at it in absolutely different ways, with no possibility of communication.
And strains on the writer are eased with respect to what used to be called, a bit quaintly, the writer’s task.
As I also said,
Once again, any language can be used well or ill, and the amount of truth that can be attained to init will depend on the distinction of the mind using it, as well as on the potentialities of the language itself.
But given distinction of mind, and given distinguished languages, the difference between the relationship of literature and art to reality as I have tried to describe it and as one finds it in the work of someone like [Northrop] Frye 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 in 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.
Deconstructionism arose as a response to the over-structuring in Structuralism.
Resist the homogenizers and systematizers, particularly the constructors of false dichotomies.
Spectrums and Wittgensteinian “family likenesses” are much better conceptual tools.
You also need to resist feeling that real poetic selves can become known in a collective knowing that is superior to that of mere individuals—a knowing coterminous, perhaps, with the minds of the brightest persons in that collective. Back in the days of anonymity, the question would be, What did the TLS —the journal—have to say about the book? What did it think?
(How can anything stupid ever conceivably be said about anything in the New York Review of Books?)
Puzzled about some points of literal meaning in those poems by Rimbaud and Villon that I translated for “Personals,” I caught myself assuming that the answers would by now all be known to “the French,” the collectivity of French critics/scholars/lexicographers. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of feeling in the same way about Anglo-American glossings of “The Windhover.”
Saying things in French doesn’t automatically make you smarter
But what is this knowledge that you assume, or sense, is known about a writer or a poem? This professionalized, this academic, this special knowledge?
Well, it seems to be, for the most part, knowledge of The Poet, the writer, the person existing chronologically and having certain experiences at certain times, and various thoughts, and writing in certain ways “about” them.
So I dipped into a few discussions of Rimbaud in order to learn what “promenade” means in the poem “Roman” (“Romance”), since we obviously aren’t at the seaside—discussions in real books, books in French, in the French section of the stacks.
And here was someone telling me confidently what a youth called Arthur was doing and feeling in that particular year, and how he was coping in the poem with problematic feelings about his parents and so forth, the ongoing real problems and concerns of his life, just as they are for you and me, of course, the permanent subtexts, the underground rivers of our fascinating lives, at least in a certain view of the world.
With the lovely particularities of the poem becoming devastated in the process, as if some oaf were stomping around in a gorgeous flower-bed pontificating about “roots.”
In my late teens, a North London suburbanite, with very imperfect French, I could feel myself there in that poem by that in fact vastly different young man, just as I could feel myself there in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist.
I knew very little about Rimbaud except that he was a boy genius who had an affair with Verlaine, gave up poetry, went off to Africa, sold guns, and died of gangrene, and I’d read only one or two other poems by him.
So I was able to be out in that space that warm June night and see that young girl trotting along beside her father in her little button boots and the rest of it (even without knowing the exact meanings of all the words), rather than having to enter the vaguer and more general and far less experiential “Rimbaud” constructed by this or that biographer and condensed into the semi-official accounts of standard reference work.
The youthfulness of seventeen is there in the poem, as it is too in Rimbaud’s “Au Cabaret Vert.” A simple reminder that the “I” of “Au Cabaret Vert” is young is really all you need, if in fact you do need it. None of the poems that I’ve picked for “Personals” requires us to know more about the authors than what’s there.
Likewise, all you need to know for really reading Villon’s great ballade of the hanged, in addition to the literal meanings of individual words and phrases, is that six skeletons (well, bodies in some readings) are dangling from a gallows or gibbet.
You don’t need to know where the gibbet/gallows is, or who the hanged are. You don’t need the verbal equivalent of contemporary woodcuts.
This is part of what is meant, isn’t it, by talk about the “universality” of poems?
It’s a loose metaphor, of course. But entering into how a particular voicing goes, word by word, line by line (a poem isn’t a photo) is much easier without that other stuff floating around like the junk which Homer Simpson releases in the space capsule whose crew he is temporarily a member of.
Another resistance needed— the feeling that poems when you get right down to it are all members of the same family and can be assimilated or “read” in the same way once you know what poetry really is.
There they all are, on the Norton pages, in their different shapes and sizes, a bit like your fellows humans in a supermarket, some stocky, some tall and willowy, some tiny and cute and hardly there at all.
And you feel you know what they’re like and could, if you wanted, get to know more about them just by looking. These are people, those are poems, we’re all people, aren’t we? Nice enough people, in the nicer end of town, behaving with reasonable civility.
Rimbaud, or D.A.F. de Sade, or Genghis Khan would still have to pass through check-out (“Have a good day”) without too many displays of individuality.
There could be a cartoon to that effect. Probably it’s been done.
But of course those lives, those individual experiencing selves, temporarily diminished to their supermarket roles, aren’t there for us, as Philip Larkin beautifully recalls in “The Whitsun Weddings.”
As the narrator’s train to London stops at station after station, the generic platform noises become, when he starts to look, clusters of wedding parties.
And within the slightly tacky clothing (“the perms/The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes”) lie the deeper feelings of women at such historic rituals.
And within it all are the private mysterious experiencings of the just-married young, on their honeymoon way, and with who knows what futures ahead of them.
A genre these days in ‘zines like Newsweek consists of parents, or spouses, or individuals who are having to cope with sickness describing how the general idea (we all know kids grow up and leave home) has become different and unfamiliar, has became strange, in the particularities of their own experiences.
What a wealth of misery can lurk within casual media references to nine people killed and eighty-seven “injured” in a train wreck.
So too with poems, or at least good ones, or at least some good ones.
If we’re talking critically, we’re much better off uncoupling value from terms like “poem”/“poet”/“poetry”, just as we do, when we stop to think about it, with the connotations of everyday words. A “Texan,” as we know when we want to, can look like Woody Allen and be a Catholic theologian. There are all manner of “fathers” and “mothers,” biological and otherwise, some of them monsters.
Would-be essentializing statements about poetry (“Poetry is…”) are no more likely to be true than similar statements about fathers or Texans. At least when value is being attributed or denied.
Part of the anxiety still generated about “art” comes from the assumption that if it’s art it’s good and people must be taught how to admire it. So that when transgressive products elbow their way their into the museum and claim citizenship in the Good Kingdom, they’re simply not our kind of people, dear.
Myself, I think that when you’ve discovered profundity in the paintings of Barnett Newman or Philip Guston in his Ab Ex years, you’ve already sold the pass and can’t logically complain when an Andres Serrano (in fact a powerful photographer) comes along.
“It’s in verse. So it’s a poem. But it’s not a good poem.”
Why should that be so curiously difficult to say?
A colleague, Rowland Smith, once pointed out to me that part of the problem for Anglophone readers with French literary-critical-theorizing in translation is that French nouns normally have particles preceding them. You don’t just like bread, you like the bread. You don’t seek truth, or truths, you seek THE Truth.
As if there were essential things there.
But if THE Truth, the definite, shareable, undisputable true nature of anything, or, worse, everything is a phantom (not even a mirage, which at least is a reflection of something), you can still have particular truths, or at least would-be truth-telling.
You can still tell someone about a party that they missed, and say, no, they heard wrong, the quarrel didn’t happen that way, and he didn’t snatch the glass away from her, and she wasn’t crying.
Statements can be untrue.
And we know what it’s like to read an account of doings by individuals about whom we know nothing, and we think, yes, that feels right, that’s how it would be, under those circumstances.
But does this mean that every account, with a show of plausibility to it (particularly when provided by A Poet) has to be accepted on, as they say, its own terms?
The French critic Georges Poulet tells us that
When I read as I ought—that is without mental reservation, without any desire to preserve my independence of judgment, and with the total commitment required of any reader—my comprehension becomes intuitive and any feeling proposed to me is immediately assumed by me.
Must we take that “ought” to mean that we must always read in that fashion?
Obviously not. To say so would imprison us inside a magic circle called “art” and require us to read in a way clean contrary to all our other dealings with discourse.
Reading matters. It can have real-world consequences.
Reading a work like Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, that patchwork assembled after his death, with its addresses to the self and others, its shifting modes, its returns to the attack from different directions is a bit like reading a play like King Lear or Anthony and Cleopatra on your own for the first time when you’re young and don’t know the plot.
You’re shooting the rapids, you’re hanging on, you don’t know where you’ll be ending up. You cannot read it as Poulet demands. Particularly if you’re aware of the political uses that were made of Nietzsche.
Nor should you.
And there are widely varying degrees of quality inside and among Nietzsche's other works—between, say, the incisiveness of Beyond Good and Evil, the pseudo-poetic fustian of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and the autobiographical bragging of Ecce Homo.
The gulfs between the good and the bad parts of a writer like D.H. Lawrence, using so broad a diversity of languages, or Coleridge in his poetry, or Poe in his fiction, is almost enough to make you borrow from the critics in Borges’ imagined country Tlön and postulate several different writers at work under each name.
The same authorial name is attached to “The Windhover” and to a poem about a castaway sailor in which,
Him, after an hour of wintry waves,
A schooner sights, with another, and saves,
And he boards her in Oh! such joy
He has lost count what came next, poor boy.
And Hopkins wasn’t trying to be funny.
So obviously Poulet’s statement is absurd if taken literally. It would compel you (and what would the “you” be?) to lose yourself in an infinite variety of voicings, and accept each in its own terms morally as well.
C.S. Lewis tried the same move in An Experiment in Criticism when he elevated “receiving” works over “using” them. By which he meant, of course, that he wanted you to accept on their own terms the works that he liked and approved of, such as The Faerie Queen. I doubt that he’d have made the same claim on behalf of No Orchids for Miss Blandish or Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, or John Willie’s Bizarre.
In “Wordsworth in the Tropics,” Aldous Huxley points out the comfortably narrowed limits of the Romantics’ “Nature.”
It’s a bit like that with some of the celebrations of “Literature” and “Art” and, insofar as it isn’t purely technical, “Philosophy.”
“Literature,” using the term neutrally, is a zone of energies.
It’s easy to forget, nowadays, the shocks of the Elizabethan/Jacobean “Theatre of Cruelty”—Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, et al—, the Gothic darknesses (epitomized in those chateaux of Sade), the prodigious energies of Balzac and Dickens and Dostoevsky when experienced “raw,” the swirling zones of the mind in Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, the vertiginously swift linguistic moves in some of the poems of Mallarmé and Rimbaud.
And out beyond Dostoevsky exploring the psychology of murderous compulsions (going on from Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-tale Heart”) lie the horrifying pages of Hubert Selby Jr’s The Room, and beyond those, the even more horrifying pages of the fourth issue of Jim and Debbie Goad’s ‘zine Answer Me.
And in the opposite direction, you have the cool deflationary nihilism of Borges’ imagined man of letters Pierre Menard, dedicated (according to his fictive eulogist) to the absurdist task, from which almost nothing resulted, of writing a Don Quixote that would be word for word the same as Cervantes’ novel of that name, but a different and greater work.
There are zones of literature and art—fiction, images, “writing”—where, if you fully give yourself to the experience you can be seduced, corrupted, depleted, coarsened, benumbed. And where the most insidious corruption can be that of the ironical aesthete or the pseudo-objective analyzer.
Nor can you be sure in advance where “quality” is to be found
Here is a passage from a twentieth-century novel:
She went on past the café and the jam of parked trucks. Beyond a field, the railway ran parallel with the road for some way. The track was on a steep embankment and beyond it was a wooded slope. At distances there were bricked arches cut through the embankment far enough past the café for none of the guys arriving or leaving the trucks to notice her. The arches had concrete gullies to carry away the water from the wooded slopes. She went through the arch and climbed up to the trees. She found a flat patch big enough to lie on, spread it with all the brush she could find making a springy pad. Then she came back and crossed the field straight where a big advertisement hoarding stood at the road edge. That would let her find her way across to the same spot in the dark. She went back to the café.
The passage comes from the 1950 edition of Darcy Glinto’s Road Floozie, the 1941 edition of which, along with Glinto’s Lady— Don’t Turn Over (1940) landed the author and publisher in a London magistrate’s court in 1942, where they were handsomely fined. Lady— Don’t Turn Over, an unsavoury paperback rewrite of James Hadley Chase’s unsavoury No Orchids, was withdrawn from circulation, and reissued later with a few minor deletions. It and some of his other early books are now collectibles.
“Glinto” was one of the several pseudonyms of Harold Ernest Kelly1899-1969.The two or three Westerns by him as Buck Toler that I have read show no talent whatsoever—not a trace—not a flicker of stylistic vitality, not a touch of originality or individuality anywhere, start-to-finish. They are dreadful. On the other hand, “Preston Yorke’s” Space-Time Task Force is so dense with what I take to be Kelly’s own SF jargon, his eye very much on his own imagined world at the expense of dramatic action, as to be also (by me) impossible to get through.
Kelly was, shall we say? a marginal writer—hardboiled or noir if you approve, exploitational if you don’t, and in any event way way off the radar screen of “literature.”.
But that passage gave me a thrill when I first read it a year or two ago, and it still does. It has the kind of “concreteness” that I was talking about in “Powers of Style.” It opens up a space in which you (well, I) can momentarily live and breathe. It makes me want to say, instinctively, That’s art!
And part of what is involved seems to me this.
The writer, his mind’s eye on the scene in front of him, is giving much more than what would be needed to simply get her settled later on for the night. The purchasers of scruffy paperbacks in the Soho area were not seeking “art” in a book described on the cover of the 1950 edition as “A burning exposure of the moral background to long-haul trucking in America.”
The writer is feeling his way forward with her. He is feeling and seeing with her in her problem-solving. He is enjoying the act of writing. And so he is throughout her odd, alienated, but sympathique peregrinations, without the programmatic noir bleakness of actual American writers like James M. Cain.
Nor, despite the magistrate’s disapproval, is the book conventionally violent or obscene.
Predating Camus’ L’Etranger, it is a sort of existentialist-novel-before-the-fact. Did the French, who loved James Hadley Chase, ever pick up on it, I wonder?
So I would say that here too we have what I was talking about in “Powers of Style.”
You start sensing at the outset what kind of thing it is that you are being offered, the “language,” the operative conventions, the figuratve contract with the reader.
And then, as I said apropos of “forkings,” you start registering departures from the implicit norm, the implicit minimal rules of the game that would have enabled the author, like a writer of verses for Hallmark greeting cards, to create an acceptable, a printable, a money-earning work.
Such departures may be bad, like forced rhymes and cliché syntactical distortions in order to get the obligatory metre. Glinto’s attempts at American underworld speech and proper names, back in the early Forties, are often ludicrous.
But the departures can also be good. And Glinto’s Deep South Slave (“First Printed in Great Britain 1951,” according to the second page) is so good, both in itself and in its rendering of the American South, as to make me wonder whether Kelly and his brother simply pirated it for their Robin Hood Press
But if so, where did it come from, I wonder—a non-exploitational and knowledgeable-seeming novel about racial injustice in the 1930s?
As I said at the outset of “Powers of Style,” the real question about any work is not, is it major or is it minor, but is it good. And goodness transcends categories.
I imagine that Winters experienced the kind of frisson that I myself felt with the Road Floozie passage, but much more intensely, when in one of Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets he came upon the reference, apropos of the concept of mutability, to
The tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
Her crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of time.
I don’t know whether the last two-and-a-half lines are, as Winters says, the best in Wordsworth. I wouldn’t want to have to read all the others in order to find out. But it seems to me quite likely.
Into them flood what feels for me like the light and air of the Roman compagna (towers in Britain tend not to be free-standing). You can hear that shout piercing the quiet air, perhaps in the early morning before the birds and insects are out. You can see the sudden crumbling fall of the tower, irregular in outline, with vegetation sprouting from it.
As Winters says, in a sentence that is itself poetry, “These lines make us realize the true nature of dissolution, or an aspect of the true nature, as that which works continuously and so subtly as to be imperceptible until the indeterminable moment when the object can no longer sustain its own weight.”
When Leavis speaks of how “words in poetry invite us, not to ‘think about’ and ‘judge but to ‘feel into’ or ‘become’—to realize a complex experience that is given in the words,” the statement and the major essay in which it occurs, “Literary Criticism and Philosophy,” points us usefully forward.
It’s defective if taken literally, since it presumes that you already know that what you’re reading is a poem and innately different from more abstract discourse (or, I suppose, from “mere verse”).
But Leavis’s own critical practice makes clear that it’s an invitation, and that you don’t have to choose between an absolute assimilation—the kind that helps gets you A’s as a student—or a supposedly neutral and “objective” dissecting.
The committed reading is what you are trying to do. It’s an expansion of your own being, an entering into experience that you may not yet have had, or into ways of coping better with ones you’ve had.
But in fact the entry may not be possible, there may be off- putting things in the first five lines (you’re not going into that 42nd Street movie theatre after looking at the stills), or blips and collapsings along the way (though maybe you should persist and see if things pick up again).
And it’s that kind of reaching forward, with an initially suspended judgment, and a measure of hopefulness, that we see in the criticism of Pound and Leavis and Winters and others.
As Leavis said, you’re not working with a yardstick and seeing if the work measures up. It isn’t something apart from you, like a physical object.
You are reading, a term that has been a good deal “problematized,” in part because earlier the guardians of culture couldn’t see any difficulty with the term and wouldn’t take Leavis seriously.
Reading was reading, something you just did, like eating. It was what you could write a précis of after you’d finished.
Not that you’d in fact eat a bowl of mush at five months or a gourmet dinner at age forty in the same way.
But how, then, to “read” poems? How about some examples?
Well, since I’ve kept mentioning them, how about, oh, Leavis’s essay “Gerard Manley Hopkins” in The Common Pursuit (one of his finest) or Winters on what he calls post-symbolist poetry in Forms of Discovery?
For that matter, I guess I’ve been doing reading myself in “Voices” and in those shorter pieces in “Saying Simply.”
It’s not a question of some particular grand method, like that formalized explication de texte that used to be (is it still?) taught in French classrooms and which could take you methodically through a number of aspects of a poem,
And which wasn’t necessarily all misguided either (Paul Pieltain is excellent on Valéry’s Le Cimitière Marin), in contrast to its American equivalent, still—incredibly— showing up in 1990s exam papers for the Graduate Record Exam, in which a poem becomes essentially a proposition developed as if by an orator, with a consistent tone, appropriate would-be persuasive details, and the possibility of right/wrong multiple choice questions about it (“This line is an example of (a) dramatic irony, (b) moral self-condemnation, (c) oedipal resentment….”)
The Harvard School of Poetic Exposition, as it were
Talk about time-lags! When I came upon those papers, it was like finding a psychiatrist still practicing phrenology. No wonder Derrida & Co. were hailed as liberators.
There is no particular transmittable method in Leavis and Winters whereby at the end of the operation the flesh of the lobster is on one plate (or inside your stomach) and the shells are on another.
They have written no would-be-complete analyses of individual poems.
But they show how you can pass between the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, literature as revelations of states of the unique individual soul—its “feelings,” its movements, its spiritual insights—and, on the other, the smooth public orderings of well-made rhetoric.
And between speaking about literature with faux-objectivity, in the spirit of that still not wholly dead command to the writers of high-school paper, “Don’t say ‘I,’” and offering merely “personal” and subjective impressions.
When Pound and Leavis and Winters range across poems from several centuries, without any inhibiting sense of straying outside their areas of competence, something important is going on.
We are not looking “back” with them at radiant or darkening landscapes of the mind, with all kinds of special pleadings on the grounds that such-and-such was “of” this or that period.
We are in the permanent literary present that we enter when we talk in the present tense about what a writer “says,” or what a character “thinks,” or how a poem “ends.”
To use the standard technical terms, it is a synchronic rather than a diachronic approach—but without some hypothesized style of the chronological present as the base against all other poems are judged.
On the contrary, what is at issue is in part what the poems being written in the present should be like.
It is also what used to be called an existential approach. Each work that you read is there, neither automatically inferior or superior to you because of age, and inviting you to appropriate and inhabit it—and, of course, to like or love or applaud it.
Good introductory textbooks, such as Joseph Bergmann and Daniel Mark Epstein’s Heath Guide to Poetry, are like that.
But how do you cope with the abundance and diversity of texts? If you try appropriating everything you will, as I’ve said, go crazy. Or else you remain detached and it all becomes superficial.
So you “read,” and that reading is, or at least ought to be, word by word, and line by line, since words follow one another in sequence.
And it is an evaluative reading, but not in the sense that you begin with an abstract model of what a poem must be, and then flip through a mixed heap of them on a stall, picking one here, discarding one there, and putting another aside for further examination, and so forth.
Rather, it is a mode or modes of attention, a kind of expectancy and alertness, that is similar whether you are a reader or a writer of poetry, or both together, and in which you are indeed partly judging the poem in its own terms, meaning the expectancies it arouses at the outset, and the conventions, the game-rules, that it appears to be observing.
Those conventions may be much more subtle than simply that this is a satire, or a love poem, or a sixteenth-century-Petrarchan- love-poem, and so forth.
As if those categories and conventions had a pre-existing and compelling objective existence, rather than being extrapolations and averagings from a number, perhaps a large number, of particular poems.
Ezra Pound says in ABC of Reading, “I believe the ideal teacher would approach any masterpiece, that he was presenting to his class, almost as if he had never seen it before.”
In a way, you want to read as if you hadn’t read this particular work before, but remember all the others that you’ve read. So that you can have again that shock of recognition that comes with a sense of difference, perhaps uniqueness.
Artie Shaw said of Bix Beiderbecke that he made a new sound. There can be something of that in the first line of a poem, just as there can in the first shot of a movie. You prick up your ears or open your eyes slightly. There’s a touch of strangeness there, a hint of promise.
You get it when April, at the start of The Waste Land isn’t a-coming in, or a bit late this year, or doing/ not doing its seasonal duties, it’s the cruelest month (with explanation following).
You get it when “They flee from…me,” which is to say that we don’t have quite the kind of identifiable “they” here that we’d have in formulations like “They flee the angels’ flaming swords” or “They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.”
You get it with “That is no country for,” and “While my hair,” and “Complacencies of the peignoir,” and so on
A tingle. A frisson. A promise. And you start riding the wave in the hope that it will carry you through unfalteringly to a closure.
And if you find that you care about formal features, not as identifiers (this is a Petrarchan sonnet so it will be weighty if that’s what the poet wants) or as authenticators (the poet is a paid-up member of the guild), but as themselves part of the expressiveness of the poem, organizers of the ongoing modes of being in it, you will be attending to those too, without necessarily verbalizing your reactions.
And you will be hoping, each time that a poem starts promisingly, that the poet will have been able to keep it up until the end.
And the modes of being will involve thought and judgment to varying extents, ranging from weighty and explicitly philosophical or religious poems to the kind of poem so light and deft that there is little there but the delicate adjustment of tone to subject.
And as various poems accumulate for you as belonging in some way together, even when on the surface it looks as if they shouldn’t, you can be drawn towards a more general positioning of yourself in the world—if, that is to say, the poems that you admire and would like to have written yourself—, and which can affect such poems as you do in fact write (if you write poems)— have been appropriated and not simply “studied,” as if they were objects essentially separate from yourself. (But what would that “self” be?).
And philosophical and/or moral and/or political questions may indeed be involved too, at least if you believe that what is said in poems, meaning said or conveyed in individual sentences or in details of phrasing (for an adjective or adverb can say something, at times something major), really matters.
In what was once a famous passage in his essay “Literary Criticism and Philosophy, “ Leavis speaks of how the, for him, serious critic asks himself,
What, on testing and re-testing and wider experience, turn out to be my more constant preferences, what the relative permanencies in my response, and what structure begins to assert itself in the field of poetry with which I am familiar? What map or chart of English poetry as a whole represents my utmost consistency and most inclusive coherence of response?
So, it is some of those things that have been involved in my own reading of poems and thinking about poetry over the years, and which I’ve talked about in Voices.
But I didn’t begin with everything tidily worked out in my head, and then proceed to present it with due lecture-room clarity, the kind that enables students to make serviceable notes if they want to.
I don’t have that kind of mind. I am in sympathy with the old lady described by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel who enquired what logic was and, when told that it was a way of organizing your ideas so that you could express them clearly, said plaintively, “But how can I know what I think till I see what I say?”
I was working things out as I went along, as I usually do.
It can be a help to have, as I do, a lousy verbal memory. It really does mean that you reread poems somewhat as if for the first time.
One thing I do know is that voicing a poem—experiencing it ongoing in time, as a sequence in which every syllable is sounded, whether literally or in the mind’s ear—is very important.
This need not be a solitary activity. Discussions with others about emphases and meaning (“I never gave him any money”? “I never gave him any money?) can be helpful.
Anything that truly helps to get the poem more there for you is good, as I found when struggling with the French translations and going to dictionaries and to translations and glossings by others.
Some acquaintance with metrics can also help, not as a set of rules with points off for breaking them, but as a way of seeing more exactly what’s there, just as being able to read music can, or so I gather, enhance its appreciation.
But once the tape’s running and the clock’s ticking, no-one else can do it for you, and it’s only you who are voicing the poem, a single “you,” not one self doing the reading and another observing, any more than during a rally in tennis or any other activity where you’re fully there during those moments.
And part of the blessedness of such moments or stretches of focused attending is that they’re an escape from the curse of self-consciousness, or from a formless semi-consciousness.
However, what you are likely to find initially (unless you’re a “natural,” as some people indeed are) is a large gap between how the poem sounds, as you hear it in your mind’s ear as your eye glides along the lines, and how it sounds on the tape, which is likely to be HORRIBLE.
So you have to go back again, and study the poem, and give yourself to it, like an actor entering into a part and making it his/her own, so that he/she can be that character at that moment when voicing or revealing those particular attitudes.
(Imagine the labour required of an actor these days to shake “To be or not to be” loose of all the voicings of it by others that he may have heard.
Going further and trying to memorize a poem can be a bit like trying to write one.
Some parts become clear and memorable early, just as some lines did for Yeats( on the evidence of manuscript versions) in successive drafts of poems like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Leda and the Swan,” where they are constants. Others refuse to come clear at first, so that there are lacunae where you know that something lies ahead but you’re not sure how you get there, how one part leads to another.
And in doing all this, you are likely to find yourself getting into odd spaces of the mind, almost physical, but not in the familiar perspectival way, just as you do in the dentist’s chair when with your eyes shut you experience the cavernous space inside which which there are unlocated pressures and vibrations and occasional pains, a unchartable, non-visual space.
I tried to catch something of the nature of such poetic spaces in my account of “Church Monuments.”
You may also, of course, when compelled to think about the soundness of this or that generalization, or of the whole attitude in the poem, find that you can’t go on, that you don’t want to internalize this particular utterance.
You are forced into finding whether you can really make such-and-such a generalization in the poem with conviction on its own terms, and not as part of the hypothesized “character” of the author (the kind that scholar-specialists hypothesize when they tell you defensively, “Well, you have to understand about her parents.” ).
I mean, why should a dumb statement be permitted a standing in verse, at least when treated seriously, that it wouldn’t have outside it it? Contrariwise, some other generalization may acquire an increasing weight for you.
In Winters’ criticism, there’s an important distinction between making a rational statement (in the form of a generalization) and making a rationally defensible utterance, the kind you could defend if asked to.
All this is part of the process of growth and learning and change. And it has real-world implications.
It’s always a thrill making scandalous pronouncements that go clean against what what common sense appears to tell us—academic-intellectual equivalents of Dada-type reclassificatory moves in art, whereby some hitherto non-art activity, such as cutting your finger nails, gets “transformed” into art.
The claim that everything is a “text” is one of those flesh-creepers that can make you feel momentarily as if the cloud-capped-towers, the gorgeous palaces, and all the aspirations and agonies embodied in them, are dwindling down to the black-on-white of page print and can be closed up and put away in the stacks.
But when a death warrant, a seed catalogue, The Communist Manifesto, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and the limerick about the young man from Madras (“Who was having a boy in the grass”) are all equally texts, just as all those supermarket shoppers are people, you pretty well have to start over again and explore each individual text to see what’s going on in it, rather than assume that you already know it because of the socio-political pigeonhole you’ve put it in.
The statement that there’s no hors-de-texte need not imply, as happens when misleadingly translated as “There is nothing outside the text,” that there’s nothing physical out there,
It’s more like saying, unexceptionably, that there’s no au-dessous-de-la-melée, meaning no entirely disinterested position above this or that “struggle” that you’re involved in.
There’s nothing difficult, for most of us at least, with the idea that all texts are created in part because of encounters—near, distant, vivid, murky, forgotten, whatever—, with other texts.
Which doesn’t in the least entail their being created only out of materials and strategies in those other texts.
To know what to do with “promenade” in that poem by Rimbaud, you need to be able to have some idea in your mind’s eye of where, in or near a French town back then, respectable people could be out strolling at night under the presumably planted lime-trees.
And I still don’t know exactly what those tartines would look like that the girl brings on a coloured platter in Rimbaud’s “Au Cabaret Vert.” They sound as if they might be open-face sandwiches. But were there baguettes back then, or would the loaf have been round?
So I feel easier in my own mind about no longer being bothered by assertions about the “death of the author,” if by “the author” is intended some “mind” above or beyond the texts themselves. Which isn’t at all to deny the existence of ongoing mental activities that can’t be directly accessed.
I have no problem accepting that by “Yeats” or “Eliot,” we mean all those letters, essays, poems, and so forth, not all uniform, not all of them wise, nice, or anything else, any more than we ourselves always are.
Plus believable reports by others of what was said in conversations—Boswell’s Johnson, Brassai’s Picasso, Kraft’s Stravinsky, and so on, the believability itself a matter of critical judgment, unless a tape-recorder was running at the time. (It’s amazing how nominally respectable biographers and historians these days still give us, without explanation, what purport to be the exact words of conversations where no record was being kept.)
And reading those texts in the way I’ve been talking about, which I suppose could be described as simultaneously phenomenological and formal, is also a means of reconstituting this or that particular “author,” so that we can indeed legitimately speak of individual names and doings, and see thinking going on, at times, from poem to poem.
But it is the thinking there, the achieved formulating in this particular work or part of a work— an affair of much more than merely “stating,” let alone of unconsciously “revealing”—that we value, and which can extend into other situations, and help us with our own thinking and being.
That way, it becomes harder to talk glibly what this or that writer “believed,” or “thought,” as distinct from what goes on in this or that text (exploring, defining, attacking, arguing, etc).
And to ignore legitimate questions of context—In what form was is it said? Where? At what age? Under what circumstances? To whom? In what kind of relationship?
And to play the gotcha game whereby, having accepted uncritically, and with too little examination of the works themselves, a generalized image of a writer—usually a benign image—you then presume to have uncovered, again on the basis of too little evidence, mostly biographical, what the writer was really like, with a resultant undermining of whatever is there in the works themselves.
As if Larkin, that most intently and lovingly focused of jazz critics, was “really” a racist. Or for that matter, as if T.S. Eliot, before the biographical scrutinizing of him began, had really been Mister Wisdom.
It also becomes harder for individuals and individuality to be collapsed into the typologies of psychologists, social scientists, and power-hungry politicos, or to be deconstructed by intellectual terrorists who talk about the Death of the Author.
Do they also talk about the Death of the Composer, I wonder?