Voices in the Cave of Being
Powers of Style
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made
1. Quality and Form
The great Surrealist-influenced French director Georges Franju once told an interviewer that he didn’t much care for the term “minor film.” For him a successful film was never minor.
I like that.
When small works last and tens of thousands of large ones are forgotten except by the specialist—when Stephen Crane’s four-page “An Episode of War” goes on living, and a four-hundred-page novel like his coeval Frank Norris’s The Pit dies, and the four-line “Western Wind” still speaks to us across the centuries—something important is obviously going on.
And it isn’t simply that perfection is easier within narrower limits, such as in Herrick’s six-line “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,” or Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” or Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, or the best thrillers, or lots of photographs.
A small work may not require the interminable pushing-a-loaded-wheelbarrow-along-a-plank-over-a-chasm-towards-a-mist concentration (Conrad’s analogy) required for the creation of a Nostromo, a Moby-Dick, a Paradise Lost. And the writers of thrillers, or epigrams, or piano rags can build on a base of conventions and expectations, and have a largely non-adversarial relationship with their audience and with other makers of such works.
But if the number of small works that are successful is large, the number of outstanding ones is not. If legions of composers must have dreamed of writing another “Che faró” or “Yesterday,” only Gluck and Lennon-McCartney wrote them, just as there is only one Scott Joplin despite the feeling you sometimes have that almost anyone ought to be able to write a good piano rag.
And not only is there still only one Cartier-Bresson despite the millions of “moment” photographs. The handful of photographs that made him immortal are a statistically invisible percentage of the number of photographs that he himself took.
Anyone can do harmonies. But good tunes and great photo images don’t hang there for the picking—ones that bind things together, essentialize feelings, and stay good regardless of the medium. You can whistle Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as well as his “Für Elise.”
As Ezra Pound points out in his still marvelously readable ABC of Reading, melody “is furthest from anything the composer finds THERE, ready in nature, needing only direct imitation or copying.”
Cartier-Bresson’s greatest images, the greatness heavily dependent on faces—their evolved and culture-laden characters, their decisive-moment expressions—can still affect us in small newspaper reproductions.
It’s not as if taking photos were difficult, either. You just pucker up your lips and click.
Within their chosen limits, such works are indeed “charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (to borrow Pound’s phrase). The aficionado sets them mentally in a complex overlay with similar works and sees how they surpass them; sees them as doing with a classic perfection the kinds of things aspired to in those other works.
To commit yourself to a pattern, whether in a thriller or the kinds of photographs that you print without cropping or re-touching, or in an improvised jazz solo, or a poem, is to commit yourself—if you are committed—to limits and logics, and to the requirement that everything be functional, down to the smallest shadings and pausings.
It is also, when we are speaking of music and poetry, to get back to what Ernest Fenollosa, in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, called “the fundamental reality of time.” Once you’ve committed yourself and the reader/listener to going forward, you cannot call for a halt or time-out, or a second chance, or a change in the rules, any more than you can when embarked on a break in snooker.
But what does success in such terms look like in poetry—not greatness, necessarily, but an individuating and value-charged goodness?
Well, years ago I asked the members of a composition class to write me an example of a compound-complex sentence, and next day one of them handed in, “The dog is cold because he is dead, and nothing we can do will ever make him warm again.” When I asked him, yes, he had indeed once had a dog that died. But he obviously hadn’t known that he was writing a prose-poem.
Someone who had worked for the BBC recalled in print how when he was transcribing E. M. Forster’s seemingly so casual broadcast talks, he again and again found himself setting down the words that he “knew” were going to come next, only to realize that what Forster in fact said was better.
The student’s sentence (compound-complex in more than merely a grammatical sense) is a more poetical example of that kind of forking—forking, like when you are going along an unfamiliar path in the woods and the path forks.
And the pattern wherein you reach forward as you read (“The dog is cold because he—has been out all night?”; “And nothing we can do will ever—bring him back to life?”), only to feel immediately the rightness of what you find is a feature of a lot of good poetry.
It is central, certainly, to all the pleasures and potencies of rhyme, when so much depends on the rhyme word’s not being the obvious word, the word that we ourselves would have put there—the simpler rhyming, say, of Chaucer’s couplets in The Canterbury Tales in contrast to, as W.K. Wimsatt shows, the rhyming of Pope upon different parts of speech (nine/dine, scan/Man), with heightened demands on the syntax.
Or rhyme words that come where we ourselves couldn’t have produced one at all.
Problems have been set, problems have been solved, and that’s always enjoyable. Personally I love Wendy Cope's condensation of The Waste Land into five limericks, beginning with:
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyants distress me,
Commuters depress me—
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.
At no point, when you embark on the sequence, can you guess what’s coming next. But she sustains it flawlessly from stanza to stanza, with a particularly deft final stanza.
It all has to be deft, too, and display a real feeling for the original, otherwise she’d look out of her league and a bit of a vandal, like Mel Brooks odiously spoiling The Bride of Frankenstein for us by staying so close to the original images that you can’t now watch the poignant episode of the Monster and the blind hermit without having Brooks’ coarseness intrude.
And Cope’s poem is good criticism in its way, making valid points about the Weltschmertz in that still extraordinary work, that Colisseum which no visitor to the city of twentieth-century poetry can miss or, once having seen it, forget.
So you can be light and serious at the same time, subject-matter-wise. As are the authors of a double-dactyl that has stayed in my mind from the Sixties, when Bobby Kennedy and the old-style Liberal Hubert Humphrey were contending for the Democratic presidential nomination
The double-dactyl is one of the very few poetic forms invented in the 20th century and has strict requirements— a nonsensical first line, a name in the second line, a single word as the penultimate line, etc.
Bounces up mountains
And barrels down streams.
Nothing beats puberty.
Destiny screams! Brilliant. There suddenly, in place of the tired abstraction of destiny calling, are the screaming (bobbysoxer?) crowds of Bobby’s fans, with a touch of the open-beaked American eagle, soaring imperially in those Western regions where Bobby was indeed mountain climbing and whitewater rafting.
The inevitable looming defeat of the old-style liberal warrior is made all the more galling by the casual knowingness of that “Toodle-oo” and the smooth sweep of the verse.
A funny poem, a skillful poem, a political poem, all together. Was it by John Hollander? Anthony Hecht (one of the two inventors of the form)?
Limericks and double-dactyls and sonnets are closed forms.
When a form has a terminus and the readers know the rules, something has to happen within a specified number of lines.
Part of what gave the Petrarchan sonnet its long life was the suspense of wondering whether the poet could find the necessary two sets of four good rhymes in the octave, and the knowledge that something significant was going to have to happen after the eighth line, and that if it didn’t, as it doesn’t in two or three of Milton’s sonnets, there would have to be a good reason why.
( Paul Fussell speaks of Milton’s “emotional enjambment,” as well as the formal kind, and suggests that “there is always something in fixed forms that stimulates Milton to mild rebellion or to exhibitions of technical independence.”)
“Closed” poems are speech acts during a determinate period of time—time given form.
Wendy Cope’s sequence, one limerick to a section, is a closed one, with the final limerick-stanza especially important, like the last line, the last word in a poem.
The 1890s were the great decade of closed forms in English, the decade when poets sought out the difficulties posed by ballades, sestinas, rondels, villanelles, and the like. Why was that?
Partly, no doubt, it was anti-Victorian “play,” reaching back past the rather too Victorian and naughty-boy William Schwenk Gilbert to the relaxed Regency modes of Winthrop Mackworth Praed and Byron in Don Juan. Partly too, I imagine, it was a homage to France, above all to Verlaine, poet-saint of bohemian Paris as the century drew to its close.
But a big attraction for some poets, I’m sure, was that those forms, with their circularity and their strictly enforced repetition of rhyme words, were not sonnets.
They didn’t require a sonnet-like progression to a serious truth, the truth of a complex poetic thinking-through—Shakespearean, Miltonic, Wordworthian; above all, not Wordsworthian.
You didn’t have to arrive somewhere. You could stay in a kind of stabilized present when it came to your “thought.”
Thomas Hardy wrote a lovely triolet, “Birds at Winter Nightfall,” in the early 1900s. It should to be read aloud, so that you can feel the snow-charged wind pulling you along, and then pulling you along again just when you think you can rest, and then the bleak drop-down at the end.
Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotonea-aster
Around the house. The flakes fly!—faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone.
You can see why Pound admired Hardy’s poetry. That scene, that snow, that wind, those birds are there.
Hardy had obviously enjoyed quitting the pains of fiction-making after Jude the Obscure, with the need to keep creating inexorable progressions towards philosophically-charged conclusions.
In poetry he was free to relax and create his own nonce-forms, sometimes with difficult rules, sometimes binding several stanzas together with predetermined countdowns—five people becoming four becoming three, etc, as the years pass—or attending to his own inner-ear preference about the number of stanzas to a stanzaic poem. (Four comes up more often than is normal.)
A poet can get a lot of mileage out of the serious game, easiest to play in regular or regular-seeming verse, of lulling the reader into expecting one thing and then giving him/her another.
In W.B. Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” after a run of balanced, spare, syntactical, iambic pairings, starting with
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above.
Those that I fight, I do not hate;
Those that I guard, I do not love,
we read how
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds,
and into the poem, energized by the enjambment and that trochaic “Drove to” come the swirling patterns of World War One aerial dogfights.
Or, more lightly (with brother George’s lovely melody in mind), there was Ira Gershwin’s
Oh, sweet and lovely
Lady be good,
Lady be good
So deft. The first line, as sung, seems just a pleased exclamation. But then it’s the lady who’s sweet and lovely. And she has to be good too. Except that, no, she has to be good to him. Which is to say, not “good” at all.
And how about the opening of The Waste Land?
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing,
Memory and desire, stirring,
Dull roots with spring rain
April kept us warm, covering
Earth with forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
After our mind’s ear has figured out the pattern of the first four lines, we assume as we embark in the fifth one, that there’s going to be a second run of three participles and a clinching rhyme with “rain,” only to have the seventh line simply drift along a bit and slow to a halt with the utterly unrhyming “tubers”?
You can build a whole poem with misdirection.
In Ezra Pound’s “Epitaphs”—two tiny Chinoiserie poems constituting a single five-line poem—the first line arouses expectations of a romantic continuation, probably stanzaic
Fu-I loved the high cloud and the hill,
But then we get,
Alas, he died of alcohol,
with its metrical shortening and throwaway off-rhyme.
So the second epitaph will presumably be a deflationary quasi- couplet too, won’t it?
Wrong again. It isn’t a couplet, it doesn’t rhyme, and the third line, continuing the action in the second, takes us back out into romantic imaginings, and “Epitaphs” becomes a thing of sweet-sour poignancy—small, but beautiful.
And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.
If you want to see a virtuoso playing of the game, here’s the opening of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” from a year or two after “An Irish Airman”:
I placed a jar [where? on a shelf?] in [no, maybe in a closet?]
Tennessee [so, in a State]
But can you quite say that? Placed it in Tennessee? As if, syntactically, that big area of the map were something small, like whatever it is that you normally place things in.
Well, all right,
I placed a jar in Tennessee
(And round it was . . .
Was? Was what? Was something—was, perhaps, a group, a cluster, of something?
I placed a jar in Tennessee
(And round it was) upon a hill.
So it’s the jar that’s round, and it’s been placed on a hill. And?
It made the slovenly wilderness
All right, these are quatrains, as a preliminary eye-flick has intimated, and thus far these lines are metrically regular, so now what will we learn?
It made the slovenly wilderness
[Look even more untidy still ?]
Fooled again, and more strangely, both formally and substantively, for,
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
With the odd flattening and muting of that repeated “hill” and four syllables gone missing, the energized jar makes the wilderness come to a stop around the hill, which now feels (like the jar) a round one.
Great literature, Pound said, is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. Small works, too, can have a high specific gravity, to borrow a term from Yvor Winters.
Hilaire Belloc’s epigram
I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time
is a mildly amusing epigram, with its functional contrast between the slowed-down first line and the speeded-up second one.
But it’s lightweight beside J.V. Cunningham’s also “scandalous”
Lip was a man who used his head.
He used it when he went to bed
With his friend’s wife, or with his friend,
With either sex, at either end.
At each stage there’s a new misdirection, a new trap sprung.
He was a sensible sort of guy, well, not quite, he was the kind of person who would be reading or thinking in bed, well, no, actually he was the slick seducer of a friend’s wife, well, no, hmm! he’d slept with the friend too, and not just one couple (that “or”), and, well—well, evidently he was using his head more literally than the first line suggested.
These various meanings don’t cancel each other out, either.
As Franju said to another interviewer, “Un plan doit avoir un contenu comme un verre,” a shot should have a content like a filled glass.
In some movies, each shot is so charged with visual information that you haven’t fully assimilated it before you have to move on to the next one, so that the movie seems longer than its actual running time.
There’s a bit of that density in Cunningham’s epigram
Deep sorrow and time pauses. Sorrow wastes
To a new sorrow. While time heals time hastes.
Some short or small works, Paul Klee’s, Borges’, and Anton von Webern’s among them, are in effect condensations, given the hovering presence in them of the longer works that the artist could have made but chose not to (as Vladimir Nabokov’s tedious inflation of a Borges-like conceit in Pale Fire reminds us).
And a constellation of small works can amount to a weightier larger one—Cunningham’s A Century of Epigrams, for excample, or the pieces in Kafka’s Meditation, or (oh, why not?) Sergeant Pepper.
When everything miraculously goes right in a work, large or small, as it does in that famous Zen ink-wash drawing of the five perfectly placed persimmons, we partake of fullness, an enduring physical but more than merely physical thereness in the world, an incarnate act of looking.
God is indeed in the details.
But that interfacing, that interpenetration of work and “world,” deserves a closer look.
In the style-shift that began in the early nineteen-hundreds, craft and skill weren’t in the service of mere play, despite their dandyish play-like use at times.
They were related, to the felt imperative (deriving essentially from Flaubert, and manifest in Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Conrad, with Ford Madox Ford as their standard-bearer) to “show” rather than “tell,” and to a recoil from abstract terms and cliché phrases into which the reader pours the pre-mixed notions that he or she brings to the poems
Art, said Yeats,
bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematic form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.
And we remember Stephen Dedalus’s scornful reference to “All those big words that make us all so unhappy,” and Hemingway’s comparable distaste for them, especially the big ones, the calls of Duty and Honour and bleeding ravished Civilization, that had been so important a part of the patriotic rhetoric of the Great War.
T.E. Hulme’s voiced fondness for “the dry hardness which you get in the classics,” and his conviction that “the great aim is accurate, precise and definite description” carried a lot of weight.
But the abstract/concrete dichotomy may not be altogether neat and tidy. And concreteness may not be, well, as concrete as it sounds.
A statement like “I feel so unhappy,” set down out of context on the page, is indeed abstract, and wouldn’t acquire a charge of expressive meaning—a report on a “real” inner state—simply by being in a piece of verse.
But it might be very moving when made in the quavering voice of an old woman in conversation—an old woman, not normally given to self-pity or to comments on herself, who is telling a visitor that she’s been refused permission to take her old dog with her to a retirement home.
The spoken word isn’t necessarily more expressive than the written, and when you try recording poems for the first time in what you feel is a particularly sincere and expressive fashion, you are likely to be shocked by how flat you sound.
But speech, actual situational speech, can indeed be informed by a whole repertoire of stressings, pausings, and timbres, so that the words, “I never gave him any money” can have over a dozen distinct meanings, depending on where the stresses fall.
The old lady is displaying unhappiness, not merely reporting on it. Unhappiness is there, concretely, in the whole run of the words as she speaks them.
In the modernist style-shift driven by Hulme, and Pound, and Ford, and codified a bit later by F.R.Leavis, we see a concern with achieving that kind of concreteness.
Statements like “A poet could not but be gay,/ In such a jocund company” and “And then my heart with pleasure fills…” are pretty abstract, aren’t they?
But the daffodils are there in the first two stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” with their energizing verbs, their opening spaces inviting the gazing eye, and the dramatic shift from “Fluttering and dancing in the breeze” to:
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch’d in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay.…
We don’t just read the word “daffodils” and fill it up with whatever our own sense of those flowers may be.
In a good deal of bad nineteenth-century poetry, as viewed through Fenollosan or Poundian or Hulmean eyes, language collapsed into clusters of linguistic tokens, each presumed to exist in a one-to-one relationship with something real and already known out there.
Like “a poet.” Or his “heart.” Or “pleasure.”
The modernist emphasis on active verbs was a shift towards people and things doing things, and away from one-to-one concepts like “a poet,” or a poet’s “heart,” or “pleasure.”
It was a shift from “I am very skeptical about his ability to bring it to completion” to, “I bet he doesn’t finish it.”
In the process, verbs themselves become less reified, too. When we read the opening lines of Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”—
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
we don’t start asking epistemological questions about what it means to “know” something, any more than we do when someone says, “I just know he’s going to be late.”
We know the relative weights that the words have in ordinary speech, the kind of speech that’s actually spoken.
And how verbs work can have its bearing on the “classicism” that is the nominal antithesis of, or corrective to, “romanticism.”
Almost all good short poems are strong in verbs. It is what gives them their charge of meaning and anchors them, while permitting the right kinds of openings-up to go on, the kind that lead us back into the physical, but more than merely physical, world.
Limericks, those sociable haiku of Anglophone society, are about things and people doing things, so that we are led through start-to-finish sequences of action.
Some of the best epigrams are informed by actions:
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
‘And where do bad Americans go?’
‘They go to America”
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
You ask me how Contempt who claims to sleep
With every woman that has ever been
Can still maintain that women are skin deep?
They never let him any deeper in.
In his admirable book on Baudelaire, Martin Turnell observes that “The verb is the pivot of Baudelaire’s poetry. The predominance of the verb is essentially a classical trait….”
And T.E. Hulme’s famously influential “Romanticism and Classicism,” ca 1912, was a summons away from what he saw as the vaporous, the emptily idealist side of Romanticism. It was an effort to ground poetic discourse in recognizable human experiences.
But here, too, there isn’t a tidy antithesis.
By and large, the kinds of poems we tend to call classical are indeed about people, including individuals who may themselves be romantic, doing things in a recognizable human society.
Like Fu I and Li Po. Like Yeats’ Irish-volunteer World War One airman.
But the poetry of the poetically unclassical Eliot, like that of Yeats, is also a-buzz with action.
Women come and go, the Thames sweats oil and tar, the tiger springs in the new year, the leaves clutch and sink into the wet bank.
And when the American orientalist Ernest Fenollosa reported that “I had to discover for myself why Shakespeare’s English was so immensely superior to all others. I found that it was his persistent, natural, and magnificent use of hundreds of transitive verbs”, he was testifying to a more than merely personal shift in awareness.
What I’ve been talking about is a stylistic base-line that makes it possible to say real-world things plainly when you want to, like “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo,” or, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot, stalking in my chamber,” or “Le vent se lève! … Il faut tenter de vivre!”
But once that grounding is established, more abstract words, particularly Latinate ones, can resume some of their musculature, their kinaesthetic energy, so that those multitudinous seas of Macbeth’s great soliloquy are as splendidly there for us as the mackerel-crowded seas of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”
It is customary to say that Germanic words in English are more concrete than Latinate ones, and so in a sense they are.
But it isn’t mere pretentiousness, or a desire for the aureate, that makes us say at times that we’ll “investigate” a problem, rather than “look into” it, or elucidate something, rather than throw some light on it.
Latinate words tend to be more extensive with respect to space and time than Germanic ones, implying more permanence or finality; as in the difference between exterminating and killing off, or a lot of food and an abundance of it.
And if we think of an investigation as taking more time and being more complicated than a looking into, it is because, even if we have never turned to a dictionary to find out why, the way in which “investigate” has been used has implicitly acknowledged and preserved its own grounding in action.
To investigate—in-vestigare—is to be on the track of something; following up a trail—perhaps a winding or fading trail, not always easy to read, requiring pausings, interpretings, renewed momentum, persistence.
A stretch of poetry containing few or no Latinate prefixes and suffixes, such as the first stanza of Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” or the first stanza of Hardy’s “The Voice”—
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.—
is likely to be very specific and local.
In his essay on the Chinese written character, Fenollosa talks about how you can still discern basic physical activities in ideograms—“see” the man walking or the moon behind the tree. It was a notion that much impressed Pound, and apparently, once you get beyond the simplest elements, untrue.
But just as Fenollosa, coming to the Chinese language from the outside, “saw” things that are lost in modern Chinese in the compound ideogram, so an erudite and sensitive Chinese scholar might marvel at the rich metaphorical bases of our own Latinate compounds.
And English poetry benefited considerably from a new alertness to the musculature of words, whether or not manifested in a sustained interest like that of Gerard Manley Hopkins in philology and folk locutions.
So we see in some of the classics of modern poetry what we have in Shakespeare in conjoinings like “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or,
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red,—
conjoinings in which the Latinate words, when they enter, are working to the full stretch of their powers.
Note, for example, how Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (“Only a man harrowing clods/ In a slow silent walk”) builds to the drama of “Yet these [the whispering maid and her wight] will go onward the same/ Though Dynasties pass.”
Or how in that cunning poem of rhyme-and-syntax misdirections and thwartings of expectations, Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” —
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill—
builds to the pounce and flare of “It took dominion everywhere.”
In this kind of writing, metaphors and similes become more firmly linked to the physical reality of beings and things in action, with a sharpened sense of the differences between figurative and literal statements.
Here, for example, is the octave of Hopkins “Spring,” much the best part of the poem (as is mostly the case in his sonnets):
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—.
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
There is only one “is” there. For the rest, things are shooting, looking, echoing, rinsing, wringing, striking, brushing, descending, racing, and having their fling.
But it is all controlled energy.
When the blurred familiar idiom of having a fling is re-energized so that we can feel those lambs gamboling, it’s because of the linguistic scrupulousness leading up to it.
The weeds aren’t engaging in pyrotechnics. They’re growing up through the spokes of old cartwheels lying in farmyards, which I’ve seen myself (though it was years before I recalled this).
Thrushes’ eggs are pale blue as well as rounded, and the nests (as Google informs me) are usually placed close to the ground, so that you can feel the act of peering down onto them and the comparison suggesting itself.
The metaphor of your hearing being cleansed has been freshened into the more tactile “rinse,” which has been further energized by the addition of “wring,” as in wringing out, with overtones also of bell-like tones and the wringing of your heart.
“Lightnings,” plural, loosens the conventional “like lightning” and gives you, instead, a flickering series of aural (electric?) shocks.
And though I can’t vouch for whether the leaves of peartrees are shiny, I know that one summer when I was sitting in the little front yard of our summer rental in Provence and glanced upwards, the rim of the little tree there did indeed appear to be touching the deep blue of the sky and, because of the downward curve of its line, made the sky itself seem to be moving downwards.
The other day I mentioned this effect to my friend Joyce Stevenson when we were sitting near a tree in her back yard. She saw it too.
No wonder Leavis, for whom Shakespeare’s mature language was the English language at its fullest, would give the English Hopkins equal billing with the American Eliot and Pound in his New Bearings in English Poetry, and return to him in several articles.
I was pleased to discover for myself, happening upon their use elsewhere, that the fireplace that goes “black out” in Yeats’ “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and the swans that “climb the air” in “The Wild Swans at Coole” were Irish idioms, not Yeats’ private coinages.
All of this makes it easier to be clear about the “purifying of the language of the tribe” (Eliot’s phrase) that Pound and Eliot and others were engaged in.
It wasn’t a question of choosing between “concretions” (a mere thinginess of separate objects) and “abstractions,” or of eschewing generalizations, or of opting, in the old cliché way, for the “classical” over the “romantic.”
Be wary of generalizations—of course. Particularly if one has become weary of the pronouncements of the Great Victorians.
Every reader of detective fiction like Conan Doyle’s, and G.K. Chesterton’s, and Dashiell Hammett’s knows the dangers of premature categorizing.
One of Chesterton’s best-known Father Brown stories turns on the repeated assertion by witnesses that no-one had gone into a block of flats on a particular morning. In fact a mailman had, or rather, the murderer pretending to be a mailman had, but they simply hadn’t “seen” him as a person.
And if the anonymous head of the Op’s detective agency noticed rain falling outside the window, he would concede only that it appeared to be raining—presumably, said the Op, on the off-chance that someone upstairs was pouring water down.
Hammett himself went further than Hemingway in his pursuit of objectivity. In two whole novels, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, we are never told how a character “felt” or “thought” but only what they did and said—the movements of their mouths, eyes, and so forth.
Which makes The Maltese Falcon almost unreadably mannered in places.
However, there are generalizations and generalizations.
Some generalizations, like the old lady’s “I feel so unhappy,” more or less sit there, needing to be exemplified—“Earth hath not anything to show more fair,” “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” ”April is the cruelest month,” the first two being the kinds of cliché exclamations that could be used in ads, the third at least having the shock of strangeness so that you wait for more.
And all three do indeed get memorably developed.
But you can also have generalizations that are more or less free-standing, by virtue of their definiteness and their charge of information.
Again and again, Baudelaire’s poems open with powerful generalizations, or with formulations (adjectival, adverbial) that are themselves generalizations.—“La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lesine,/ Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps” (“Folly, error, sin, stinginess/ Possess our souls and exercise our bodies”) “Fourmillant cite, cite plein de rêves” (“Swarming city, city full of dreams”), “Ma jeunesse ne fût qu’un ténébreux orage,/ Traversé çà et là par des brilliants soleils” (“My youth was just a shadowy storm,/ Crossed here and there by shining suns”).
And at times they achieve an almost unbearable poignancy of non-figurative truth-telling, as in the opening stanza of “Le Voyage”:
Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univer et égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit.
[To the child, in love with maps and pictures,
The universe is vast as his appetite.
Ah how immense the world is by lamplight!
How small the world is in recollection.]
Tr. Barbara Gibbs
Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely open with self-contained first lines of generalization. Nor, mostly, do Hardy’s greatest poems (“He does not think that I haunt here nightly,” “Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost,” etc).
Yeats, on the other hand, matured into one of the great poetic masters of confident generalizations—”Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/It’s with O’Leary in the grave,” “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” etc—and of collocutions like “the desolation of reality.
Eliot didn’t do badly, either, Bartlett-wise, with “April is the cruelest month,” and “This is the way the world ends,/ Not with a bang but a whimper,” and his pre-conversion crack in “The Hippopotamus” about how “God works in a mysterious way—/ The Church can sleep and feed act once,” and the sonorous the passage in “Gerontion” about the “cunning passages” and “contrived corridors” of History.
Plus the later asseverations of Four Quartets, most powerfully in the Dante-esque passage in Little Godding in which the Doppelgänger visitant warns the autobiographical speaker of what may await him in his socially distinguished old age, including
the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Off-hand, I can’t think of any obvious Bartletts by Pound, except the dramatic-monologue “Damn it all. All this our South stinks peace” and “What thou lov’st well remains. The rest is dross” from the Pisan Cantos.
And what do we have, generalization-wise, from William Carlos Williams?
But of course there’s always Robert Frost.
So you can see what was at issue, and the kinds of things that Pound and Eliot, both of them strongly Francophile, were getting at with respect to language in their Mallarméan concern to “purify the language of the tribe” (Eliot’s phrase from the Little Gidding passage).
The real objection to a pseudo-Baudelarian fin-de-siècle passage like W. E. Henley’s
The Wind-Fiend, the abominable—
The Hangman Wind that tortures temper and light—
Comes slouching, sullen and obscene,
Hard on the skirts of the embittered night
is not that it is abstract but it is falsely concrete.
It not only falsifies the wind (can you feel a wind there? feel it on your face or up under your coat).
It also falsifies the hangman, in contrast to Baudelaire’s beggars. Public executioners, like “heroic” nineteenth-century surgeons, had dignity, being (as Elias Canetti interestingly explains in Crowds and Power) the figures whom everyone feared.
And the passage contrasts with the actual Baudelairean concreteness of personification at the outset of “Au Lecteur,” the poem whose final line Eliot lifted into The Waste Land, and which he introduces Les Fleurs du Mal, that major book of the modern city.
La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.
[Ignorance, error, cupidity, and sin
Possess out souls and exercise our flesh;
Habitually we cultivate remorse
As beggars entertain and nurse their lice.
Tr. Stanley Kunitz
Likewise, the real objection to some of those much-honoured Romantic generalizations like Shelley’s “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart/ And come, for some uncertain moment lent,” or Keats’s, “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan” is not that they are self-pitying but that they are experientially so thin.
What they look bad beside is not “affirmative” generalizations about the human condition, but what we have in William Dunbar’s reverberant fifteenth-century “Lament for the Makaris” in lines like:
Our plesance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
Timor mortis conturbat me.
As he calls the roll of the dead poets, the makers, we do indeed feel the feebleness of the flesh, our flesh, and the speaker’s fear of death—and of possible damnation.
And so we do, more complexly, when Thomas Nashe’s sixteenth-century “In Time of Pestilence” tells us how:
Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.
There are no Henleyesque melodramatics there. Nor is it merely “period” poetry. This is for real, just as the greatest poetry of fifteenth-century Francois Villon is still for real.
In the kinaesthetic slowing-down of the second line that’s required for proper enunciation (“tasteth death’s bitterness”) and its contrast with the tripping first one (“Wit with his wantonness”), we are drawn towards the sensations of the sick mouth, as Leavis was drawn towards the sensations of the well one in his impression of teeth biting into an apple as you read of those “mossed cottage trees” in Keats’ “To Autumn.”
And with the syntactical surge forward of the subsequent sentence (“Hell’s executioner/ Hath no ears for to hear/ What vain art can reply”), we have an opening up into actual executions.
For the executioner implacably carrying out his official task, you’re simply there as a generalized object, not as your about-to-be-annihilated, and intensely conscious, individual self.
An important part of Pound’s and Eliot’s linguistic self-education had come from the great, and greatly kinaesthetic, French poetry of Rimbaud, Laforgue, and Corbière, with its resemblances to the older poetry in English that I’ve just mentioned—and the resemblances of that to what we have in the pre-classical Villon, as in his great ballade of the hanged men, with lines like,
Quant de la chair que trop avons nourrie
Elle est pieça devoré et pourrie
Et nous les os devenons cendre et poudre
De nostre mal personne ne s’en rie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre
[As for the flesh we loved too well
A while ago it was eaten and has rotted away
And we the bones turn to ashes and dust
Let no one make us the butt of jokes
But pray God that he absolves us all.
You are there. You’re grounded —well, figuratively.
As you are Rimbaud’s sonnet “Au Cabaret Vert,” quoted admiringly by Pound in his major 1918 essay on French poetry.
Is it “romantic”? “classical”? Either? Neither? Both?
Depuis huit jours, j’avais déchiré mes bottines
Au cailloux des chemins. J’entrais à Charleroi,
—Au Cabaret Vert: je demandai des tartines
Du beurre et de jambon qui fût à moitié froid.
Bienheureux, j’allongeai les jambes sous la table
Verte: je contemplai les suject tres naifs
De la tapisserie—Et ce fut adorable,
Quand la fille aux tétons enormes, aux yeux vifs,
—Celle-là, ce n’est pas un baiser qui l’épeure!—
Rieuse, m’apporta des tartines de beurre,
Du jambon tiéde, dans un plat colorié,
Du jambon rose et blanc parfumé d’une gousse
D’ail,—et m’emplit la chope immense, avec sa mousse
Que dorait un rayon de coleil arriéré.
[For a whole week I had ripped up my boots on the stones of the roads. I walked into Charlerois—into the Green Inn; I asked for some slices of bread and butter, and some half-cooked ham.
Happy, I stuck out my legs under the green table: I studied the artless patterns of the wallpaper—and it was charming when the girl with the huge breasts and lively eyes,
—a kiss wouldn’t scare that one!—smilingly brought me some bread and butter and lukewarm ham, on a coloured plate;—
pink and white ham, scented with a close of garlic—and filled my huge beer mug, whose froth was turned into gold by a ray of late sunshine.]
Tr. Oliver Bernard
“The actual writing of poetry,” Pound observed, “ has advanced little or not at all since Rimbaud.”
To find an equivalent in English back then to the verb-propelled charge of recalled experience in “Au Cabaret Vert,” with its total unrhetorical at-homeness with itself, you would probably have had to turn to some of the poems of Hardy or Edward Thomas, or else reach back to Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me.”
And it’s a better poem than “Daffodils.” And a movingly tranquil recollecting of a moment of tranquillity in a far from tranquil young life.
In it it we have passed through a series of forkings in which at the outset what might be a social-realist narrative (those boots, those roads) modulates into what might be a sexual encounter, only to arrive at the comfort after effort, the young warrior’s repose of garlic-scented ham and a huge foam-topped glass of beer with the late afternoon sun shining through it.
And all this with a casual, virtuosic observance of the rules of sonnet rhyming while employing his comfortably relaxed own syntax.
If there’s hell in the Villon passage, there’s a bit of Heaven in the Rimbaud.
Without any assistance from “fancy.” or, in the picturesque sense, “romance.” There’s nothing there in the poem that isn’t there.
So perhaps in the end “concreteness,” and “substantiality,” and Leavis’s “felt life” are those of the experiencing consciousness in each particular successful poem, its mode of coping and being —being in the world, to borrow Heidegger’s term.
And it’s there for us because of the linguistic features (and others) that I have talked about, and not because of what we “know” about the poet from other poems by him or her, or other kinds of writing by her or him—diaries, letters, and so forth—, or writing about him/her by contemporaries, searching through which is akin to the doomed quest for the fully explanatory key text by the scholar-critics adrift in Borges’ Library of Babel.
3. Vision and Craft
The changes that I have been talking about were in part a way of coping with an epistemological problem lurking in high Romanticism.
The problem, as formulated by Kant (who was not himself a Romantic), was that there was indeed a Reality out there, the way things really are, but you couldn’t attain to it by the normal processes of ratiocination, which is to say achieve a connection with the real that was independent of the processes of rational enquiry, including concepts like space, time, and causality.
But if, in the offered solutions of Fichte (whose Science of Knowledge reads like Spinoza on acid) and, adapting him, Schelling and Coleridge, the world is a unity in which substance and spirit are one, like a coin with two sides, or a growing plant
—and if some individuals, true “poets,” possessed the godlike gift of an instantaneous apprehension of wholes in which ostensible opposites—inner/outer, spirit/substance, love/justice, and so forth— were reconciled
—and if they could embody those perceptions in poems that were themselves organic wholes, well, reality was back in business, with metaphors and symbols—truly poetic ones, not mere compressed similes—as its principle agents of synthesis.
And if the “inspiration,” to use that old-fashioned term, welled up from within rather than being injected from outside, so much the better, since it allowed you to have a religious sense of the universe without the network of obligations of formal Christianity.
You could listen to your “self,” that deep and more-than-merely personal human self and attend to its revelations and mandates in the conviction that what you were seeing was indeed there.
And this authenticity made it easier to resist the dispiriting claims of mechanistic science, with its devaluing of individual consciousness.
It was a bit like Calvinism, though. You might be one of the elect, but you never knew for sure that you were.
And the greatness of the achievements of “geniuses” like Shakespeare, and Goethe, and Dante in whom the world spirit became most fully conscious of itself—the biggest blossoms on the stems, as it were—set standards that it was very difficult to live up to.
And visionary power, the kind that could indeed make you feel that no-one had seen in that fashion before, like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the very great poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, did not always come when called.
So writing poems was liable to become (after the example of Wordsworth in his endlessly self-congratulatory Prelude) an affirmation that you, too, had poetic experiences. And reading, whether by you or others, become in part a search for assurances that you were the real thing—or for symptoms indicating that you weren’t.
And would-be visionary stimulants like laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and, a little later, hashish didn’t, once addiction had set in, deliver on their promises of transcendence.
And crashes and burn-outs, with or without drugs, occurred, Hölderlin’s among them.
And if you lost faith in the poetic enterprise, you could find yourself empathizing with one of the characters in Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Symbolist play Axel (1886) who says,
“Do realize, once and for all, that there is no other universe for you but the very conception of it reflected at the back of your mind; for you can neither see it fully, nor know it, nor even perceive one single point of it as that mysterious point must be in its reality. . . . . Appearance, such as it may be, is, in principle, merely illusory, shifting, fallacious, and elusive.”
It was that kind of perception that had struck the twenty-four-year-old Stéphane Mallarmé twenty years before with paralyzing force, a paralysis from which he freed himself by foregrounding, with increasing ingenuity, the crafting of poems.
The renewed interest in “making,” the consciousness of figurative language as arising out of a matrix of common speech, and the growing importance of a concreteness that involved more than just a “soft” interiority interfacing with “hard” externals made the writing of poetry a less lonely business. Everything did not have to depend on the hard-won world view of the individual.
Articulating values could be, in part a discernment of relationships out there in the organic world, and no less meaningful on that account.
The spring that Hopkins celebrates in the octave of “Spring” pulses in its own terms. The lambs are lambs, not bearers of pennants with “Innocent” on them. The thrush is an ear-cleansing caller, a protector of eggs, a creator, not an embodiment of Wordsworthian and Shelleyan messages. Even the kestrel of “The Windhover” is an evoked real bird in the octave, there in the rhythmic ebb and flow of the lines as they enact
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
The “ordinary,” the everyday, the taken for granted could be revivified by a more intent looking.
Rimbaud’s “Au Cabaret Vert” is doing so much more than simply saying, “I stopped by a pub and had a couple of open-face ham sandwiches and a glass of beer.” And Rilke’s“Ripe apple, pear and banana” in Sonnets to Orpheus is a particularly lovely evocation of the “simple” experience of taking fruit into the mouth.—in David Young’s translation, “Something nameless/slow, a flood of discoveries/startled loose from the flesh of the fruit.”
The poem culminates in “O Ehrfahrung, Fühlung, Freude—riesig.” (“Oh experience, sensation, happiness—immense.”)
Moreover, the celebrations could accommodate some of the opposites of high Romanticism, by means of intelligent reasoning, not the mysterious workings of the Imagination.
Wallace Stevens’ great meditation in “Sunday Morning,” beginning with the unforgettable green cockatoo on that calm sunny morning, and full of the fruits and beauties of the earth, is also informed by the recognition that certain kinds of transcendence aren’t possible.
But the incomparable naturalistic conclusion isn’t a melancholy turning away from illusion. Nature, here, in this vision of plenitude in a generous continent, is: the doings of creatures going in a more real fashion about their business. The berries are ripening. The pigeons will rise again with the morning’s light.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
And of course Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin” is the great pondering of the presence of death in life, but as a natural process. It is a pondering in which he maximizes both the energies of death and those of here-and-now Being in this Provence landscape of sun, and sea, and fruits, and warm dry earth, and the sound of crickets, ending famously with:
Le vent se lève…il faut tenter de vivre!
L’air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envoles-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompe d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
[The wind is rising!…We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking.]
Tr. Cecil Day Lewis
The firming-up of real-world experiences, and their detachment from a Beyond from which they were presumed to derive their authority made easier the construction of larger symbolic systems
—by Yeats and Pound with their constellations of value-charged individuals and episodes,
—by Lawrence in his multiple explorings as poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, psychologist, travel writer, literary critic.
—by André Breton in the intricate cultural cross-fertilizings of Surrealism,
—by Rilke and Stevens in ways that, alas, are mostly closed to me conceptually,
Implicit in most of this was the Nietszchean recognition that so-called transcendent values were extrapolations from, and symbolic configurations of, this-world ones—and none the worse for that.
If the Last Supper embodied values, it was partly because feasts in general did, whether in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or To the Lighthouse, or (to skip ahead) Nan Goldin’s lovely photo of five friends picnicking on the grass beside the River Charles.
And organicity came to have more definable aspects, making it more than a matter of subject and origins.
With further implications for the nature of the poetic self, and of more than merely poetic self-hood.
4. Organicism (1)
As I have suggested, part of the drama of closed-form poems lies in departures from a prescribed, or path-of-least-resistance, regularity, The privately felt has not been denied utterance by the public rules.
And part of what makes stanzaic poems dramatic is the departure at the start of each stanza from how the preceding one opens and closes.
The opening of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole” is lovely in its “objective” precision:
The trees are in their autumn beauty;
The woodland paths are dry.
Under the October twilight the autumn
Mirrors a still sky.
Upon the brimming water, among the stones,
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
Where will the poem go next? Presumably (since we’re creatures of habit, however recently established our expectations) into a further run of precise description.
But no, instead there’s the lift-off into wider space and time, including interior space, and energized, characteristically, by the verbs, with
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me,
Since I first made my count…
And the first of those two lines, “The nineteenth autumn” —pause—“has come upon me,” with its extra syllable, and the almost equal disyllabic weighting of “nineteenth,” moves more slowly than “The trees are in their autumn beauty.”
The stanza goes on from there, and the stanzas go on shifting like that.
Yeats had made himself into a master of that kind of thing,
I talk more about the poem, and about a lot of other stanzaic poems, in the Comments in Personals.
And the same principles apply with free verse, though the units are likely to be less definite and the contrasts milder.
When we embark on the second stanza of Pound’s “Epitaphs,” for example, we expect (having, we think, however subliminally, grasped the operative convention in the opening couplet) that we’ll again have a “lofty” line about some other character, corresponding to “Fu-I loved the high cloud and the hill,” which will then be undercut in the way that “Alas, he died of alcohol”
Instead we get, “And Li Po also died drunk,” and then the further reversal of direction that I spoke of earlier on.
Pound’s early stanzaic poems lack the Yeatsian kind of progression, though, and impeccable though his phrasing could be in small free-verse units, the poems in Lustra and Cathay are predominantly, like “Epitaphs,” either an unbroken flow or in two parts, with a difference in tone between the two.
Which can be charming, as in Pound’s “The Lake Isle,” playing off Yeats’ much-anthologized one.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
Piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant Cavendish
And the shag,
And the bright Virginia
Loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
Or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing,
Where one needs one’s brain all the time.
Lovely, the contrast between the inspired “For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit” and the reiterated, “O God, O Venus, O mercury, patron of thieves,” with again, as in “Epitaphs,” an unbalancing and the second stanza not going in the direction that the reiteration suggests.
But in Cathay it is only in the flawless “The River Merchant’s Wife” that you have a start-to-finish flow, right at every point, of distinctive and individually memorable units. The longer and ostensibly richer and weightier “Exile’s Letter,” which Yeats included in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, is a virtually unbroken flow that’s hard to hold in the mind.
The superiority of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius in his oeuvre is partly a matter of Pound’s having found how to think stanzaically.
For Eliot, on the other hand, the stanzaic (using the term for both “regular” and “free” verse) was the natural mode of poetic thought.
“Whispers of Immortality,” ”Sweeney Erect,” and “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” those quatrain poems from the early 1920s, are splendidly melodramatic with their eye-catching and very different openings—“Webster was much possessed by death,” “Paint me a cavernous waste shore,” “Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees”—their sharply individuated stanzas, and their unpredictable but successful progressions .
And in “Prufrock,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and The Waste Land he confidently heightens the dramatic differences in tone between each verse unit, with an over-all patterning that was peculiarly his own, and which carried over into the Four Quartets, both individually and as a whole, with their over-all patterning.
Burnt Norton really is an opening and Little Giddings a concluding, over and above what is talked about in them.
You don’t get such effects to the same degree in Laforgue. Nor is there a comparable inevitability in the progression of Valéry’s “Le Cimitiére Marin,” in part perhaps because he inserted new stanzas in already self-sufficient (published) texts.
Re-establishing poems, whether or not stanzaic, as expressive sequences of discrete units encouraged a more attentive reading. You didn’t simply relax into a generalized mood after taking your cue from the first line or two.
It also became easier to acknowledge that some parts could be working better than others without the work’s therefore becoming a failure because it wasn’t “organic.”
When Yeats, stimulated partly by Pound, revised his poems, he was improving details, rather than doing a Wordsworthian or Keatsian revisioning.
And implicit in such revisings was the fact that the poet hadn’t received the poem through some kind of quasi-divine inspiration—and that it was nevertheless still a poem and not “mere verse.”
You could also bring to earlier poetry by other hands a mind that was doing more than deciding what kind of poem you were looking at (Romantic, Classical, Ironical, and so forth) and reacting accordingly because you “knew” what you’d be finding there.
Older poems, too, could be affairs of what I have elsewhere called stretches.
The progression from the first to the second stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” for example, doesn’t become any less good because of what goes on in the rest of the poem.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vale and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margins of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The first stanza narrows down from the active “I wandered” and “that floats on high” to the merely participial fluttering and dancing, and the syntactical parallelism of “Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing,” ending with the light “breeze”
The second reverses the process, the first line exploding with the latinate “Continuous” and syntactically incomplete, so that you drive forward into the second line to see what main verb is coming.
That line too is incomplete, so you come to the third line and a new momentum is begun that requires the fourth line for syntactic completion.
The stanza closes with an almost equal energizing of the perceiving self taking in those ten thousand daffodils at a glance, and the, well, the (alas) slightly literary sprightly dancing of those ten-thousand head-tossing flowers like a lot of country maidens in an operetta.
The weakness of the rest of the poem doesn’t affect these things.
The Imagist movement, as articulated best by Pound, and still (like the invention of the sonnet earlier) generating decent poems many years later, made it possible to distill out the “good” parts in more discursive poems or drafts of poems without lapsing into mere scene painting.
Like that Zen ink-wash drawing of the five persimmons, it foregrounded the act of perception.
It seized the moment, and potentialities within it, as Moritake did with,
Fallen petals rise
Back to the branch—I watch:
Oh . . . butterflies.
and T.E.Hulme did with::
Above the quiet dock at midnight,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height
Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away,
Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.
You could feel in “On Westminster Bridge,” the thrill of how
Ships, towers, dome, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
You could discern, in a poem of your own making, or of an associate’s, the controlling metaphor or analogy or “image” that was doing the real work, and (freed by free verse from the need for padding) make that the poem.
Pound, as he himself famously recorded, distilled a whole twenty- or thirty-line poem down to the two-line “In the Metro.”
And the “moment” did not have to be a mere flicker. Poems by Verlaine like “Dans l’Interminable Ennui,” “Un Grand Sommeil Noir,” and “La Lune Blanche” give you moments.
La lune blanche
Luit dans les bois;
De chaque branche
Part une voix
Sous la ramée…
Du saule noir
Où le vent pleure…
Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre
Que l’astre irise…
C’est l’heure exquise.
[The white moon shines in the woods; from each bough comes a voice under the branches—O beloved. The pond, like a deep mirror, reflects the outline of the black willow, where the wind weeps—let us dream; it is the hour. A great tender peace seems to descend from the firmament in which the star glimmers—it is the exquisite hour.]
Tr. John Porter Houston and Mona Tobin Houston
Rimbaud’s “Au Cabaret-Vert” is a more solid “moment.”
The changes that I’ve been describing made good poetry harder to write in some ways, or at least more challenging.
They shone a brighter light on details of language and form, enlarged the repertoire of formal devices, strengthened the connection of poetry with common-language speech in its syntax and not just its diction, and showed how there could be over-all shapings.
And in so doing they increased the possibility of definable errors or failures at this or that point in a poem.
But they also diminished some of the Romantic either/or pretensions and pressures.
They made it easier to read the words of a work sequentially, and with complete concentration at every point, rather than getting the impression at the outset that this (if it was) was a Real Poem, and then relaxing into its general mood.
It became easier, too, to note that some parts were working better than others, without the work’s thereby becoming a failure because it wasn’t “organic,” and therefore not a real poem.
And there was less need, if any, to think about the over-all “mind” of the author.
If you could legitimately read in that fashion, it made all poems, up to a point, synchronous rather than diachronous.
Which is to say, co-existing in a verbal present rather than receding further and further into the mists or Golden Age landscapes of time, with presumptions about conventions and attitudes that had to prevail at this or that point on the time-scale.
Not having to strive for length and a consistent regularity in order to be impressive has obvious advantages.
During the great early years of the Talkies, features could still be short, visually charged, and not compulsively loquacious. Some of them run only an hour or so, but are so packed with meaningful visual and aural information that they feel longer.
The classic horror movie The Most Dangerous Game runs only sixty-three minutes, The Black Cat sixty-five, The Island of Lost Souls seventy-two.
Among the blessing of the free verse movement was freeing poets from having to come up with impressive enough generalizations to fill out the necessary number of lines for a “serious” poem.
And should a poet wish to talk about major themes without aspiring to a single insistent bardic voice of generalizing authority (Miltonic, Wordsworthian), a longish poem in the early decades of the century could consist of multiple units and voicings, each with its own kind of local precision and what I have elsewhere called “language,” whether metred verse in various kinds of stanzas, like Yeats’s “Meditations in Times of Civil War” and “The Tower,” or the more variegated units of The Waste Land in the same year—in effect, poetic suites.
In “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” for example, in which Yeats was trying for different takes and tones on a central theme or preoccupation, you could have the controlled, historically knowledgeable, contemplative magnificence of :
Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains . . .
and the low-keyed casualness of:
An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
and the symbolizing anxiety of,
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our anxiety; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
and the intensified anxiety of
Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye’s complacency,
The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.
The range of permitted utterances could be further extended, too.
In one of Max Beerbohm’s cartoons, a po-faced little girl, the young Mrs. Humphrey Ward, confronts a hugely grinning Matthew Arnold leaning against the mantelpiece in sponge-bag trousers, and asks him, “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will you not be always wholly serious?”
In the idea of the artist-as-sage lay the idea of the artist-as-serious, after the Wordsworthian or Shelleyan fashion. Edward Lear, and Lewis Carroll, and W.S. Gilbert were not serious writers. And if a “serious” writer occasionally kicked up his or her heels, as Eliot would do later as Old Possum, the gap remained.
But the multiple languages used by writers like Yeats, and Lawrence, and Pound permitted of varying degrees of earnestness, and the doing of things that do not require you to be at an extended pitch for a long time.
The Lawrence of poems like “Bats” wasn’t a pseudo-Lawrence or sub-Lawrence, minding the store while the real Lawrence of Women in Love was off on vacation:
Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.
Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;
Wings like bits of umbrella.
Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag to sleep;
And disgustingly upside down.
Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.
In China the bat is a symbol of happiness.
Not for me!
This too was Lawrence, staying in touch with the organic world without needing to rationalize and dominate it.
The Yeats of those shorter, more playful or sardonic poems of the Thirties, such as “A Statesman’s Holiday” was still Yeats
The grab-bag Lustra (1915) was Pound in mid-passage, keeping his hand in with a variety of observations as he thought his way forward from the cultural base of an idealized, quasi-historical Mediterranean.
In contrast to Eliot, Pound wasn’t obsessive about the forms of his books.
There were precedents for all this across the Channel.
The author of those over four hundred deftly quatrained or coupleted addresses on the envelopes of letters to friends, or notes accompanying gifts of preserved fruit, or Easter eggs, or writings by himself was—ta-da!—that notorious prober of the deeps of existence Stéphane Mallarmé.
But it was Verlaine, that presiding spirit of the English Nineties, who had been the great liberator, moving easily among styles and forms, juxtaposing Baudelairean grandeurs, and his own uniquely “Verlainesque” delicacies like “Les sanglots long/Des violons/D’automne,” and epigrams, and cabaret songs in argot, with phonetic spelling:
Je m’suis marié le cinq ou l’six
D’Avril ou d’Mai d’l’anné dergnière,
Je devins veuf le neuf ou l’dix
D’Juin ou d’Juillet, j’m’en souviens guère...
[I was married on the fifth or sixth of April or May last year, I became a widower on the ninth or tenth of June or July, I hardly remember.]
And what he helped to liberate British poets from was the tradition wherein the truly serious poet, the real poet, the real maker and shaper, was a writer of long narratives about knowledge and discovery (The Idylls of the King, The Ring and the Book, The Prelude, Paradise Lost,) in which the author was the one true perceiver, the real seer—or else a writer of sonnets, either philosophical ones or ones about true love, and in either case deeply sincere ones.
Poems could become more intimately personal, too, because more individuated.
Hopkins, even at his most extravagantly emotive in poems like “Spelled from Sibyl’s Leaves” wasn’t Lear on the heath.
He was writing sonnets that largely observed his own principles with respect to sprung rhythm. And by that conscientious making he was demonstrating that his persistence as poet, while functioning as priest and teacher in an all too mundane world, was part of an honourable tradition and not mere self-indulgence.
And we know more about the “classical” J.V. Cunningham, not all of it flattering to his “image,” from his hundred epigrams, written always with precise formal control, and including a voiced dislike of confessional poetry, than we do about some of
Those fools who would solicit terror
Obsessed with being unobsessed,
Professionals of experience…,
by whom he no doubt intended poets like Dylan Thomas.
We know poems like his “An Interview with Doctor Drink,” a wholly “modern” equivalent of the anguish in poems like Fulke Greville’s Renaissance “Down in the depth of mine iniquity,” or Baudelaire’s “L’Ennemi,” or Hopkins’ “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”
I have a fifth of therapy
In the house, and transference there.
Doctor, there’s not much wrong with me,
Only a sick rattlesnake somewhere
In the house, if it be there at all,
But the lithe mouth is coiled. The shapes
Of door and window move. I call.
What is it that pulls down the drapes?
Disheveled and exposed? Your rye
Twists in my throat: intimacy
Is like hard liquor. Who but I
Coil there and squat, and pay your fee?
Drink was at the center of Thomas’s being for years, and he never wrote about it in his poems. There’s authenticity and authenticity.
6. Organicism (2)
Paradoxically, the experience of the “organic” in poetry may come most for the reader when there are the kinds of formal complexities that I’ve talked about. Which would put it in some good company outside literature.
The performances that embody an effortless-seeming grace, whether in ballet, or figure skating, or great jazz improvisations, are in fact the result of a whole slew of difficult formal imperatives absorbed and transcended.
It is the shapely that flows.
A good public or classroom lecture is paced. It is an affair of units and variations. When someone simply talks continuously for fifty minutes it’s likely to be tiring to listen to, however much the speaker him/herself may be enjoying it and believing that her/his golden words are sinking deep down into the consciousness of his or her auditors.
Cunningham has suggested that it can be helpful to think of a poem as being analogous to the symbolic record of a game of chess—Pawn to King 4, and the like. It can indeed.
Reading such a record, there are lots of things that you don’t think about if you’re trying to follow the essential logic of that particular game, including all the places where a player could have made one move but in fact chose another. (Did my own analogy of “forking” slip into my mind from this article? I truly can’t remember.)
But there is chess and chess. When someone praises the brilliance of a game, they’re speaking about one at an advanced level, in which each of the players is thinking several moves ahead, so that the “forkings” in it are spots where each of the directions in which the player might go would open up a whole structured sequence.
No-one, on the other hand, would want to read records of the games that Carol and I played in the third-class lounge of the SS Sylvania (or was it the Ivernia?) on our honeymoon trip to Europe in 1957, games in which each of us was barely seeing one move ahead.
A game was played, checkmate had occurred, there had been a start and a finish. And we’d had fun playing, even though at one point a bemused onlooker finally pointed out that we had the board the wrong way round.
But if organicism, as a biological metaphor, implies development and meaningful sequences, then our games were completely inorganic, even though our minds were vastly more relaxed than those of players in a championship would be.
Or again, in snooker too you have a prescribed start (the balls at particular locations on the table), with an even more definite terminus than in chess (the last remaining ball, the black, has been sunk).
And it can be thrilling, particularly if you know how difficult it is to have your cue ball (white) end up where you want after sinking a ball, to watch onscreen a master player like Steve Davies or Stephen Hendry make lovely long breaks in which the white ball always comes back to where another red ball can be sunk, as a prelude to sinking a coloured ball (and vice versa).
And occasionally, without the element of luck in making a hole-in-one in golf, a player may run the whole prescribed sequence from start to finish, each time sinking the black, the highest-scored ball, after sinking a red, and ending up with a bare table and a perfect score, than which you cannot go higher.
And what you know was going on, though even experienced commentators can see only a few possible strokes ahead, is that the player had been able to sense a configuration, in however ghostly a form, when he opened the game with the required shot that disrupted the triangle of the red balls.
So here too, even more than in a great game of chess where the patterns of possible development keep shifting as the players take turns, you have a development, with one perfectly done thing leading to the next, in an incredibly complex spatial-temporal sequence.
Which is to say, if you want to use the metaphor, an “organic” development.
But a perfect score isn’t a paradigm from which everything else is a falling-off (the game inorganic when it doesn’t occur).
It’s simply the highest, ultimate, most marvelous example of the workings of “vision,” intelligence, total, uncluttered, wholly self-forgetful concentration, and consummate technical skill that you see at work between great players in a game in which, as in chess, each player has to re-envision the next stretch of play when his opponent has had his turn and left the balls in a new configuration.
And, like chess, snooker doesn’t become an intrinsically different game when “great” players play than when tyros do, so long as they observe the rules. Snooker is snooker. The same rules and same possibilities are there for everyone.
In which connection, see my remarks about Genius in “Lagniappe and Leftovers.”
It is customary these days to speak as if discrimination was bad per se, and so it is, if by discrimination we mean judging by irrelevant standards.
But being indiscriminate is also not generally considered a good thing.
You’re unlikely to applaud when you’re told than an army has been killing soldiers and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.
And if perceiving true resemblances is important, it goes along with perceiving and caring about differences. In dog-show trials and ballroom dancing competitions, the judges are noticing (discriminately) fine points of difference that most of us are simply blind to.
Robert Frost famously remarked that free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. (Not that it’s all that difficult to keep extruding blank verse, as Shelley demonstrated, particularly if you’re not fussy about what parts of speech your lines end with.)
But without a net, a “game” on a tennis court would only be possible if both parties, as they do when warming up or tossing a frisbee, were trying to enable the other to reach the projectile, not miss it. (It would be too easy to send the ball to where the opponent wasn’t.) Which could have its own balletic gracefulness and variety, no doubt, and be more of an equalizer among players of different ages and abilities.
However, it would lack the thrill of the precise placing of balls through windows of opportunity, the overcoming of difficulties created, the clear-cut sequences of returns in a good rally, the complex plannings ahead inside the time-frame set by the score-keeping (“Love fifteen—Love all”), the intricate interconnectings with another’s “mind”—mind, not “personality”—and the felt presence of spectators who know the formal rules and can judge when you have made a tactical or strategic error.
Passable free verse is easier and quicker to write, of course, just as good colour photos are easier to take than good black-and-white ones. A particular blessing is that whereas if you can’t come up with a final line for a sonnet—can’t make the rhyme—you simply don’t have a poem at all, the final line of a free-verse poem may not be as good as you might wish, but it’s a closure nonetheless and a poem is there.
And it’s easier to talk in free verse about that fascinating character called “I,” the gourmet meals it prepares, the partnership that’s gone sour, the childhood visits to loving grandparents, and so on.
But after a while, free-verse poems by a variety of hands can start merging in the mind the way that TV actors do nowadays, with their good-looking and well-tended faces to which nothing very much, outside of breaking into showbiz and having love troubles, appears to have happened. The real-life agonies and ecstacies haven’t been recreated in the verse, as distinct from being referred to.
By and large, the most memorable poems, the ones that take up more or less permanent residence in the textbooks, are what can loosely be called formal verse.
Certainly the, to use an old-fashioned term, best-loved poems are.
“They had faces then” (Gloria Swanson to William Holden in Sunset Boulevard).
In any event, when you think of all the poems that start with a flare and then fizzle out
—and of the kind of “regular” poem in which the writer attempts to convert prose into poetry by rhyming on whatever words happen to come along (“in,” “by” and the like),
—and the syntactical distortions resorted to in order to meet the demands of metre and rhyme.
—and the free verse that lurches from time to time into iambics.
—and the strained metaphors and limp personifications that keep shouting “Poetry! Poetry! We’re a poem!”
—and the two (it’s usually two) contrived final lines in which the poet is labouring to go out with a bang rather than a whimper—
well, a poem in which everything goes on wheels from the first word to the last and everything works can feel like a minor miracle, can’t it, regardless of length?
And you can see why so many more good poems were written in English in the twentieth century than in either of the two preceding ones.
And why, despite the American obsession with the big novel, and the confusion of size with scale, the classic modern novels, the kind we immediately think of as epitomizing an experience or attitude, tend to be relatively short: The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, The Red Badge of Courage, A Portrait of the Artist, The Sun Also Rises, A High Wind in Jamaica, The Catcher in the Rye, Good Morning, Midnight, To the Lighthouse, etc.
And why very long ones like Ulysses, and À la recherche du temps perdu, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude use multiple languages.