Apr 272004

What distinguishes poetry from prose? Any poetry critic who can’t tell you should turn in his union card. Yet the answers to this question, from the history of criticism, are surprisingly unsatisfactory. The old Horatian formula of “instruction and delight” is not unique to poetry. Wordsworth offers “emotion recollected in tranquility,” a definition in which neither element seems strictly necessary, and which again applies equally well to prose. Other critics, especially poet-critics, take refuge in impressionism, like Emily Dickinson’s “if it feels like the top of my head has been taken off, that is poetry.” Paradise Lost has not, I suspect, taken off the top of anyone’s head for quite some time, but no one calls it prose on that account. Most critics do not trouble themselves over the question at all: they assert, like Justice Stewart on pornography, that they know it when they see it. But remarks like “that isn’t poetry” are slung about frequently, and even offered as criticism. Clearly the question is worth troubling over.

I suggest a more prosaic definition, so to speak: a poem is what scans. Two objections suggest themselves immediately. The less serious is that it fails to exclude doggerel, like obscene limericks. But if obscene limericks aren’t poetry, are they prose? Or is there some third category of neither/nor? If we do not deny the title of prose to the speech of Monsieur Jourdain, I see no reason to deny the title of poetry to the limerick. Poetry, like art, is not an evaulative but a technical term.

The more serious objection is that my definition excludes vers libre, which doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, but is poetry nonetheless. To deal with this requires a brief theoretical preamble. The basic foot in English is the iamb, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. All natural speech in English is iambic. The previous sentence, for instance, is a line of iambic pentamenter (with a feminine ending).

Iambic rhythm so dominates English that its avoidance often sounds comedic, a fact that Lewis Carroll exploited brilliantly in his Longfellow parody, Hiawatha’s Photographing. It is written, like the Longfellow original, in unrhymed trochees, which are iambs in reverse.

Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of “passive beauty.”
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it,
But when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said “it didn’t matter,”
Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.

The ridiculous matter, set to trochees, is rendered supremely ridiculous. Other non-iambic meters lend themselves to similar effects, like George Wallace’s beloved double dactyls. Feminine line endings tend to undermine iambic movement, and although some serious poets, like Greville and Dryden, are partial to them, they are seen more often in light verse like W.M. Praed’s.

When writing poetry in English, you can studiously adhere to iambic meter or you can studiously avoid it. Anything in between is prose. Free verse consists, essentially, in avoiding any metrical norm by varying the movement continuously. This is much harder than it sounds.

An example may help. Let’s begin with a free verse poem that obviously is a poem, W.C. Williams’ To a Dead Journalist. Read it first, then look at the scansion. Primary accents are bold, secondary accents italic:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Williams wrote in a letter that for him the purpose of free verse was to vary the speed of the foot, and one could not find a better demonstration. The lines range from two to seven syllables, and no two scan, let alone move, alike, even if we disregard strength of accent. The short lines, like 4 and 12, tend to be slow, and the long lines, like 2, 7, and 14, tend to be fast.

Discernible consecutive iambs appear in three places, with point. The list of features in lines 4 and 5, bracketed by the heavily accented monosyllable “closed” and the lightly accented appositive “no longer useful,” is echoed, metrically, by their description in line 10. Williams produces a metrical miracle in lines 12 and 13, with its heavy iambs, after which the poem trails off in a sort of low mutter. The colon at the end of line 13 cleaves life from death absolutely. Continuous variation is impossible to sustain, and would weary the reader in any case, which is why good free verse is short, and scarce; but this poem succeeds completely.

For comparison most any selection from the poetry magazines would do, but let’s pick on someone famous. Let’s pick on Frank O’Hara. This is an excerpt from The Day Lady Died, which in its entirety runs too long for my purposes; you’ll have to trust me that the rest of it is exactly the same:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the Golden Griffin I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the Park Lane
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a New York Post with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Here the conscious variation one finds in Williams is absent. There is no point in scanning this: it has no scansion. Note the indigestable chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes, in line 2, lines 4-5, and lines 16-17. (There would be more, and they would be more obvious, if not for O’Hara’s habit of stringing together sentences with “and” to simulate the breathless effect that Williams achieves without such cheats.) Any reasonably sensitive reader will recognize this passage as prose, and not very good prose either. O’Hara, along with other bad poets, is sometimes praised for his “prose rhythms,” which is like praising a mouse masquerading as a rat for being a mouse after all. O’Hara, says one reviewer, “expand[ed] our ideas about what is poetic.” What say we contract them a little?

(Update: Jim Henley accuses me, correctly, of treating the term “poetry” normatively while taking others to task for doing the same thing. I should have picked a “poem” that I thought was prose but good prose, instead of the one I did. I’ll think about a suitable example and post it when I find it. Kevin Holtsberry comments. Was it really that arcane? mallarme comments.)

Apr 012004

Immersed, by necessity, in technical matters lately, I began to wonder what my vocation, software, and my avocation, poetry, have in common. (Meanwhile my readers, if any remain, began to wonder if I was ever going to post again.) The literary lawyers go on about the intimacy between poetry and the law and compile an immense anthology devoted to attorney-poets. Who better to speak for the programmers than I? And I do have some company in these two interests: Richard Gabriel, the well-known Stanford computer scientist, is a poet, and among the poet-bloggers Mike Snider and Ron Silliman, two poets as different as you’re likely to find, both write software for a living. Less illustrious, perhaps, than Wallace Stevens and James Russell Lowell and Archibald MacLeish, but computer science is an infant profession while the lawyers have been with us forever.

What the programmer shares with the poet is parsimony, and here we leave law far behind. Programmers, like poets, often labor under near-impossible conditions for practice, and for fun; Donald Knuth, responsible for TeX, the world’s best typesetting program, says that his favorite program is “a compiler I once wrote for a primitive minicomputer that had only 4096 words of memory, 16 bits per word. It makes a person feel like a real virtuoso to achieve something under such severe restrictions.” A popular game in computer science is to try to write the shortest possible program, in a given language, whose source code is identical with its output. Is this any different from writing poems in elaborately complex forms, like sestinas or villanelles, or playing bouts-rimé? In a sense, it’s the constraints that make the poetry.

Successive versions of the same program shrink, even as they improve. In Version 1.0 the developers usually lack, like Pascal in his letters, the time to make it shorter. In 2.0 excess code is pruned, methods and interfaces are merged that at first appeared to have nothing in common, more is done with less. Successive drafts of the same poem shrink the same way, for the same reason. The Waste Land was supposed to have been cut by Ezra Pound from five times its present length. (Pound claimed that he “just cut out all the adjectives.”) Whether it wound up any good is a topic for another day; that it wound up better than it started no one can reasonably doubt.

Good programming requires taste. Certain constructs — long switch or if/else blocks, methods with a dozen arguments or more, gotos, labels, multiple return statements, just about anything that looks ugly on the page — these must make you queasy, your fingers must rebel against typing them. Some programmatic and poetic strategies look eerily alike. The classic way to avoid switch and if/else statements in code is polymorphism, which closely resembles ambiguity in poetry.

Donald Knuth maintains a complete list of errata for all his books, and pays $2.56 ($.028) for every new error you find. In most human endeavor the perfect is the enemy of the good, and many people who have never written a program or a poem might regard Knuth’s quest for perfection as insane. Randall Jarrell once defined a novel as “a long stretch of prose with something wrong with it,” which is amusing but overbroad. A poem is a stretch of verse with something wrong with it; a program is a stretch of code with something wrong with it. A novel is a stretch of prose with something hopelessly wrong with it. For poets and for programmers, perfection seems always a few revisions away. This may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion that the novelist, the civil engineer, certainly the lawyer, cannot share.

In truth, however, yesterday’s code had more in common with poetry than today’s. The great lyric code poems, the brilliantly compressed algorithms, have mostly been written, and live on in the native libraries that all modern programmers use but few read. They are anthologized in Knuth’s three-volume opus, The Art of Programming, one volume each for fundamental algorithms, semi-numerical algorithms, and sorting and searching. Where yesterday’s tiny assembly programs were lyric, today’s n-tier behemoths are epic, and epic programs, like epic poems, never fail to have something hopelessly wrong with them. Nonetheless, in programming we have entered the age of the epic, and there’s no going back. Once, in a bout of insanity, I interviewed for a programming job at a big bank, and encountered a C programmer who liked to work close to the metal. He asked me to write a program that would take a string of characters and reverse it. I asked if I could use Java and he said sure. My program was a one-liner:

string reverse( string pStr ) { return pStr.reverse(); }

The point being that Java has a built-in method to reverse a string, called, remarkably, reverse(). Now I knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted me to use one of the classic algorithms, which have been around since at least the 1960s and are described in Jon Bentley’s excellent book on programming in the small, Programming Pearls, among other places. He wanted a nostalgia tour. But these algorithms are great poems that have already been written. Any decent function library, like Java’s, includes them, and it makes no sense to reinvent them, priding yourself on your cleverness. I didn’t get the job.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. mallarme comments. Ron Silliman points out in the comments that he’s not a software developer after all; I apologize for the error.)

Mar 122004

All rock critics like Elvis Costello because all rock critics look like Elvis Costello.
–David Lee Roth

Were you a grade-school liberal like me? Anyone who isn’t a socialist at 10 has no heart, anyone who still is at 20 has no brains. I grew up in New York’s legendarily Republican Dutchess County, of which Gore Vidal remarked, after a losing run for assemblyman, “Every four years the natives crawl out of their holes and vote for William McKinley.” Maybe so; what they don’t crawl out of their holes to do is vote for Gore Vidal. Dutchess was FDR’s home county, and he never came close to carrying it in four tries. A straw poll of my 6th grade class revealed that I was the only kid who supported McGovern. What I lacked in numbers I made up in energy, plastering McGovern posters all over the walls of the elementary school. My Nixon hatred confirmed, by junior high I knew all the Watergate players, not just the big boys like Haldeman and Ehrlichman but the whole supporting cast — McCord, Segretti, Egil Krogh, right down to Frank Wills, the security guard at the Watergate Hotel who blew the whole thing open. My chess club adjourned early one sultry night in July 1974 to tune in Nixon’s resignation speech, which I watched with undisguised, not to say lip-smacking, relish.

I understood no more of politics than my Nixonite classmates did. I hated Nixon because my parents hated Nixon and I was too young to have learned to hate my parents; I liked my parents. But I was plenty old enough to hate my classmates, and took a none-too-secret pleasure in the fact that my politics differed from theirs. They were nothing more than a way to be superior.

In high school I refused to listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd: that shit was for the heads who wore cutoff jean jackets and smoked in the parking lot. I went in instead for Devo, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Clash, a few deservedly forgotten groups like the Fabulous Poodles (“Mirror Star” anyone?), and of course, as Professor Lee Roth would have predicted, Elvis Costello. Later on, when my ex-stoner buddies sat me down with the headphones and forced me to listen carefully to Zep and Floyd, I was astonished to discover that it was good, really good, and that my own tastes at the time had held up spottily by comparison. The jean jacket boys were right, and I was wrong. It bothered me, as it would bother anyone. Only after several years of conscientious deprogramming could I listen to these bands without prejudice.

When I started to read poetry I stayed away from Keats and Shelley and Christina Rossetti: that shit was for the girls who liked rainbows and ponies, not that I had anything against rainbows or ponies, just the girls who liked them, who wouldn’t go out with me anyway. Even now I can’t read any Keats besides the Grecian Urn, am notoriously unfair to Shelley, and can admire one or two poems by Rossetti only from a discreet distance.

I have spilled my share of pixels here defending objective values in art. Some art is good, some bad, and confusing them is like thinking that the earth is flat or that there’s a fortune to be made in buying real estate with no money down. I am very far from recanting but I have nagging doubts. Elsewhere, discussing public and private reading, I instanced someone whose favorite song is “Desperado” because it happened to playing when he kissed a girl at the junior high school dance. The example is tendentious; in truth most “private readings” are far more subtle and insidious. You admire someone, and he plays you music, and shows you pictures, and lends you books. You admire the exhibits, but to what extent can that be disentangled from your admiration of the exhibitor, if at all? I have a taste for poems about the relationship between the abstract and the particular; on what grounds can I claim it is any more universal or important a theme than the tribulations of love or the inevitability of the grave?

I exhibit certain poems here, and convince certain readers who might not see them otherwise that they are good. But you will never share my tastes exactly unless you’re exactly like me, and God forbid. Yvor Winters, as any steady reader here knows, is my favorite critic. Do I like him on the merits, such as they are, or do I like him because, of all poetry critics, he’s most like me? David Lee Roth might know. I don’t.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. George Wallace points out that it was Egil Krogh, not Emil as I originally had it; I would have known that in 8th grade. Eddie Thomas has some especially interesting remarks. Eloise of Spit Bull comments. Jeff Ward comments.)

Feb 012004

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), author of this somber performance, was a minister to Elizabeth and James I and friend to and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney. His elegy on Sidney’s death is well worth reading. (This text is inferior but it’s the only link I can find. The poem ends “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind” — “keep the bones” jingles.) Greville died one of the richest men in England, stabbed by a servant who believed, mistakenly, that he was to be cheated of a bequest. He was also one of the greatest poets of one of the greatest eras in English poetry.

I have expostulated on tenor and vehicle in poetry, but this sonnet makes me doubt that the distinction is as simple as I made it out. It operates at three levels at least. At the literal level, night is simply night and the eye the eye. By “witty tyranny” Greville means tyranny of the wit, or the imagination. Anyone who has been startled by a shadow on a deserted street at night will understand “forge and raise impossibility.” The precision of those two verbs characterizes all of Greville’s verse.

The first quatrain contains a miniature treatise on epistemology. True perception, for Greville, requires both an external reality to perceive and an observer to do the perceiving. At night “distinction” (external reality) only appears to be lost; it has “gone down with the light” but remains, though hidden. Similarly the eye’s powers are unabated, but with “distinction” hidden they are useless, in fact worse than useless, for the perceiver turns them inward, projecting his own doubts, fears, and errors on a world he can no longer see.

Greville here begins to write at a second level, somewhere between tenor and vehicle. He has in mind much more than mere sight. Everyone, especially writers, who spend so much time cloistered with their own thoughts, knows how easy it is to promote a fancy to a theory, a preference to a dictum. (Of course I’m talking about the rest of you. I never do that.) Greville speaks of “proper reflections of the error” and in another poem of “the error’s ugly infinite impression,” the way it mirrors or ripples outward indefinitely. In his introduction to Greville’s poems, Thom Gunn remarks acutely that “the vowel-alliteration [of ‘ugly infinite impression’] makes it easy to say quickly; the error’s ‘impression’ spreads, similarly, with the ease and speed of a stain on water.”

Finally, as we ascend to the tenor, the poem is theological. The “evils” and “devils” of the closing couplet belong to Christian vocabulary, along with, less obviously, “depriving” and “error.” Gunn identifies night, at this level, with Hell. More precisely, it is man’s state deprived of divine Grace — “thick depriving darknesses.” Here reality is God. Life on earth is vanity, “self-confusednesses,” “self-offense,” and error, from which there is no escape but Grace. Whether the reader objects to the sentiment is beside the point. Greville knows perfectly well that the human mind can “distinguish” on its own, in some circumstances, and says so, in the same poem, and in the same words. The poem shows a great mind wrestling with an impossible intellectual situation.

To a modern sensibility Greville has no obvious appeal. The verse movement in Campion and Morley is sprightly: in Greville it is stately, even ponderous. Ralegh despairs cynically: Greville hopes, but realistically. Donne imposes and dramatizes his personality: Greville submerges his. Spenser rhapsodizes: Greville analyzes. Sidney was a dashing soldier who died young on the battlefield: Greville rendered greater service to the state by surviving to old age. His poetry was obscure in his own time, and its qualities guarantee its continued obscurity. He is only the subtlest, most precise intellect of all the Elizabethan poets. Intellect was not popular then, and it is less popular now.

(Update: Here is a portrait of Greville in which he looks very like what he was.)

Jan 182004

Is it possible to review books and movies without resorting to the following?

  • It’s a true story. I’ll spare you Oscar Wilde on life imitating art, because I suspect a large percentage of Oscar’s epigrams came from scouring the papers for journalese that he could stand on its head. Invert a cliché, produce a witticism. It’s a neat trick and I’ve used it myself, but it’s on the lazy side.

    Sorry. I was talking about true stories. We have two words in English, realism and reality, for the excellent reason that they don’t mean the same thing. The lamest possible defense for an inconceivable plot is that it actually happened. Inconceivable events happen all the time. Fiction wants plausibility, not reality: for reality I can ride the subway. Of course, the less plausible the “real-life” event, the likelier it is to be turned into a book or a movie. (On a side note, have you ever noticed that the more sordid the work, the higher the praise for its, usually, “gritty” realism?)

  • I laughed I cried. The Neanderthal version; “I was moved” is a slightly more evolved form. I cry at the movies. I cry at good movies, like Babette’s Feast and Brief Encounter; at good-bad movies, like Love Story and It’s a Wonderful Life; and at irredeemably bad movies, like Brian’s Song and Backdraft (don’t ask). This fact should interest no one and doesn’t much interest me. The point is, it’s easy to make the audience cry. Acquaint them with a sympathetic character and kill him, preferably her, off, preferably young, preferably with a lingering but picturesque disease. (Unfortunately tuberculosis is almost extinct. Consumption would have been the perfect choice: we make shift now with leukemia and sundry non-disfiguring cancers.) Cue swelling music, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto or Pachelbel’s Canon or something of that sort. Pass out handkerchiefs.

    Laughing is more reliable. But only a little. The Women is a funny movie, but the one line in it that always makes me laugh is a throwaway: a woman passes through a room with her daughter, saying, “And don’t think I didn’t hear that Princeton boy call me an old grizzlepuss!” Now I happen to find archaic insults funny. I would hesitate, however, to recommend the movie on that basis.

  • Surprise! Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn’t worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze, OK? If you’re watching a movie or reading a book to find out what’s going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney’s annulment.
  • Nuanced, edgy, hommage, longueur, intimate (adjective and verb, also intimation), harrowing, dazzling (my eyes!), lyrical.

Thank you for your cooperation.

(Update: Terry Teachout comments, about suspense, and he has a point. Suspense is a joy of its own, and I could certainly be read as suggesting otherwise. I want to know how it ends as much as the next cultureblogger. But you shouldn’t be in it strictly for the ending, or even mostly, even the first time.)

(More: Rick Coencas also stands up for suspense, sort of.)

Jan 162004

Michael Blowhard hypothesizes two concert attendees, one of a Black Sabbath show (Oz-era, one hopes), the other of Pollini playing Chopin. They both report that the show was “great,” and Michael has a few questions, which I will number for convenience:

1. Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a “greater” experience than the other?
2. What is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has? Does any such relationship exist, necessarily, at all?
3. Is it possible, or even semi-possible, to assert that greater works deliver greater experiences?
4. By what measure and on whose authority?
5. And to what extent does the answer depend on who’s doing the experiencing?

Let’s get one thing straight first: the aesthetic experience, like all experiences, exists entirely in the mind of the audience. Of course the stimulus, the work, is real, but no aesthetic experience is possible without an audience. Art is art by virtue of communicating something to someone else. The viewer recreates the work for himself, which can be done well or badly, and it is only the recreation that counts. The viewer is his own artist, not in the deconstructionist sense of all interpretations being equally valid, but in the sense that only he is responsible for bringing the art back to life. As J.V. Cunningham puts it:

Poets survive in fame.
But how can substance trade
The body for a name
Wherewith no soul’s arrayed?

No form inspires the clay
Now breathless of what was,
Save the imputed sway
Of some Pythagoras,

Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.

To experience a work of art well is to see what is there and nothing that is not. Let’s simplify Michael’s hypo a bit, controlling for the variables. Imagine the same person reading the same book twice, say five years apart. Everyone has reread a book and said to himself, “My God, how did I miss that the first time?” This happened to me with Portrait of a Lady the third time I read it, a couple years ago. Finally I’d had enough adult experience, and paid close enough attention, to understand, among other things, the solipsism that makes Gilbert Osmond such a monster, his insistence that everything in his universe reflect his pinched self. I can judge the aesthetic value of my three readings because I have direct introspective access to all of them. The third reading was deeper, broader, more complete — greater, in a word.

The answer to Question 1, however, is no. In the trivial case the Chopin fan may be a chronic liar who slept through the concert and praises it to impress his friends. More seriously, there is something to be got out of Black Sabbath, though less, perhaps, than what can be got out of Chopin. Quite possibly the Sabbath fan has concentrated so much better than the Chopin fan that he has had a superior aesthetic experience, though from an inferior work of art.

Which brings us to Question 2. Greater art offers the potential, but only the potential, for a greater experience. The viewer must realize that potential, and the work lies fallow unless he’s up to the task. Intensity, I should emphasize, is not the standard, but propriety. People are often deeply moved by bad art because it happens to accord with their prejudices. This is like being deeply moved by the sound of your own voice. We have all reread books that mattered to us as adolescents, only to be horrified at how bad they really are. The first reading sours in retrospect, and it should. The experience was meretricious: you were taken in.

To Question 3, which is the guts of the matter, we’d better be able to answer yes, otherwise critics, English teachers, and culturebloggers may as well hang up their collective spurs right now. Fortunately we can. There are things to notice in works of art. It is better to notice them than not to. Great works of art simply have more to notice. Nobody’s in charge, of course, and there is no quantitative standard (Question 4). We argue about what is there and what is not, and the best argument, if we’re lucky, carries the day.

If the answer to Question 5 isn’t obvious by now, imagine that the Sabbath fan, who hates classical music, was forced to attend the Chopin recital and the Chopin fan, who hates metal, was forced to go to the Sabbath show. Wouldn’t both of their experiences suffer in consequence? Sure they would.

Aren’t you sorry you asked?

(Update: James Joyner comments. Will Duquette comments. John Venlet comments. George Hunka comments at length. Lynn Sislo comments, and meta-comments. )

Jan 142004

Several bloggers are reading my homeboy, the late American poet and critic Yvor Winters, which pleases me greatly, and misreading him, which comes with the territory.

I first encountered Winters’ name in the back pages of The New Republic, where the reviewer, discussing someone else, referred to him slightingly as “opposed to everything the 20th century stood for.” Ah ha, thought I, there’s the critic for me. I dug up a copy of Forms of Discovery — which is not the best place to start, the novice should try In Defense of Reason instead — and soon hoovered up everything he wrote.

Eliot is still generally regarded as the most influential critic of the century; history will judge that it was Winters. He taught poetry and American literature at Stanford for forty years; among his students were dozens of distinguished poets and scholars, including J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, and Scott Momaday, who will eventually be numbered, along with Winters himself, among the finest poets of the 20th century. (That’s two appeals to posterity in two sentences if you’re scoring at home.) Winters personally introduced several poems to the canon, including George Herbert’s Church Monuments, Robert Bridges’ The Affliction of Richard, and F.G. Tuckerman’s The Cricket (with help from Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson). His reevaluation of Elizabethan poetry, upgrading Wyatt, Jonson, Greville and Gascoigne, and downgrading Spenser and Sidney, is now a well-regarded if not yet the standard view; in the early 1960s an English department hack published an anthology of Elizabethan poetry that plagiarized Winters’ choices, extremely eccentric at the time, almost exactly, without so much as mentioning his name. Other causes of his, like Jones Very, Charles Churchill, and Sturge Moore, have met with less success: then again nobody reads Lancelot Andrewes on Eliot’s account either.

Winters campaigns, in a phrase, against emotion for its own sake. He insists that indulgence in emotion without adequate motive leads to sloppy writing, sloppy thinking, and sloppy living. This leaves him hostile in philosophy to the Transcendentalists and to their 18th century continental predecessors like Shaftesbury, who find wisdom in impulse. And it leaves him hostile in poetry to the British romantics especially, who constantly fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, without troubling to tell the reader anything about the thorns or even why they are thorny at all.

One suspects most anti-romantic critics, like Irving Babbitt or Paul Elmer More, of being insensible to the considerable lure of romanticism, of priggishly denouncing vices by which they were never tempted. Winters, on the other hand, was very nearly seduced. His early poems, like those of William Carlos Williams (think of the fire engine and the red wheelbarrow) and like American Indian verse, which influenced him greatly, derive their power from an intense focus on tiny particulars that borders on the maniacal. His first book of poems was called “Diadems and Faggots,” after a line from an Emerson poem that David Fiore, ironically, quotes against him. He finally concluded that he had to think better, and use better methods, to write better poetry, and retain his sanity. He deliberately sacrificed intensity for balance, lest he end up, as he put it, “a minor disciple of W.C. Williams.” This felt experience gives his criticism a uniquely charged earnestness. Winters takes Emerson far more seriously than Emerson ever took himself.

Winters is most notorious for his oft-repeated pronouncement that a poem is “a moral judgment of a human experience.” His contemporaries, Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom for instance, commonly translated this as a demand for a sort of propositional poetry, and the misapprehension persists in Lawrence White:

I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher’s teacher, & I thought it’d help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the “poetry is the highest thought” thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? … Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he’d have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he’s submitted so far.

This reminds me of my father’s remark, when I showed him J.V. Cunningham’s poem on the Central Limit Theorem, that he preferred the Central Limit Theorem. Winters does not ask for the Critique of Pure Reason in verse, and the phrase “poetry is the highest thought” appears nowhere in his work to my knowledge. He interests himself in the relationship between the paraphrasable content and the emotion the poem provokes. In the precise adjustment of this relationship, through various technical means of which rhyme and meter are only the crudest, lies the judgment. He praises such poems as Rimbaud’s Larme, which has no paraphrase to speak of, Allen Tate’s The Subway, in which the paraphrase is mad (much like Winters’ own Danse Macabre), and Elizabeth Daryush’s Still-Life, in which the moral judgment differs entirely from the paraphrase.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Yeats, with whom this tempest began. Yeats is not just foolish, he is resoundingly foolish. He affects a vatic tone, insisting that the reader treat his risible ideas seriously. The resounding is far more irksome than the foolishness. A poet’s got to know his limitations, and Yeats was never too clear on his. Winters understood his very well:

What was all the talk about?
This was something to decide.
It was not that I had died.
Though my plans were new, no doubt,
There was nothing to deride.

I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.

Orchard tree beside the road,
Bare to core, but living still!
Moving little was my skill.
I could hear the farting toad
Shifting to observe the kill,

Spotted sparrow, spawn of dung,
Mumbling on a horse’s turd,
Bullfinch, wren, or mockingbird
Screaming with a pointed tongue
Objurgation without word.

Nov 192003

There was a discussion about Henry James and the movies a while back (here and here) at Terry Teachout’s blog, and I shall join the James Gang, fashionably late as usual. (Terry’s blog is called “About Last Night”; mine should be called “About The Week Before Last,” or “About Last Century.”)

It seems paradoxical that James should be so popular in the movies, because he is known as such a literary sort of writer. In fact he is not literary at all, in the sense that, say, Joyce or Borges is literary. There is no self-reference in James, no Joycean polylingual puns, no Borgesian labyrinths, nothing really but incident. His characters marry, cheat on their wives, win and lose fortunes, and on occasion, as in The Princess Casamassima, resort to violence. James had a taste for melodrama — true crime accounts were among his favorite leisure reading — and a talent for it too: Isabel Archer’s “kiss like summer lightning” with Goodwood that ends Portrait of a Lady, Strether’s exhortation to Chad Newsome to “live! only live!” in The Ambassadors, the entire plot of The Wings of the Dove. The last scene in The Heiress, Montgomery Clift pounding on Olivia de Havilland’s door as it dawns on him that he will never again be let in, may not be true to the text of Washington Square but is certainly true to its spirit.

James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections. This results in the legendary clotted prose that gives the impression, as H.G. Wells described it, of an elephant trying to pick up a pea in the corner. Examples are everywhere; one from The Awkward Age will serve:

Mr. Longdon stared; but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”

“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world is therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”

Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”

“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”

“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.

“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But, of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”

Mr. Longdon remained mute awhile, and when he at last raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”

He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend, to play any part, and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”

The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions — which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccesfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

(Update: Michael Blowhard, while not commenting exactly, jumps off from here to an amusing game of his own. Our Girl in Chicago comments.)

Nov 182003

Jacques Barzun writes:

When an undergraduate at a great university in the nineties, my fatherly friend had taken a course on the English lyric. The readings were from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the lectures, by a well-known scholar, consisted of a careful account of the lives of the poets. The schools they went to, the patrons and wives they had, the journeys they made, the books they read and published were minutely chronicled, with thoughtful discussions of moot points and rival theories. Then, after two or three hours thus spent, the lecturer would come to the assigned lyric: “And now, gentlemen, what shall we say of this exquisite work? There is only one thing to say — a gem, a gem!”

…that last ritual phrase had become a family catchword that had to be explained to every newcomer. When something was approved of in a general way, but not really known or warmly liked, it was “ajemmajem.” The girls themselves, when asked about a new young man who had proved pleasant but not entrancing, would reply casually, “Ajemmajem.”

Michaela Cooper, writing about Ozymandias, acquits herself more creditably. She steers clear of Shelley’s life, which has long been a magnet for fatuous utterance. She summarizes its themes accurately; ars longa vita brevis and sic semper tyrannis and all that. She discourses on Chinese boxes and Russian dolls — the traveller tells the story to the narrator, quoting the epigraph on the statue, which itself quotes Ozymandias! According to Michaela this represents “three different aesthetic modes,” though I fear that is more her idea than Shelley’s, who was reliably simple-minded. She even throws in a reference to Edward Said. Michaela has a promising future in literary scholarship, and I wish her all the best.

Still, when evaluation time rolls around, she treats us to “intensity,” “dramatic contrast,” and “mind-exploding effect”: ajemmajem, in short. Now I, too, once thought as Michaela and spake as Michaela. Ozymandias was the first sonnet I ever memorized and I still have it off by heart. So it is with regret that I report, from my dotage, that Ozymandias is a bad poem, trite, stereotyped, and imprecise at every turn.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Poets are supposed to take special pains with language; let’s look at the language. “Antique,” with its orientalizing flavor, was mildly embarrassing in 1817; it is more embarrassing now. Edward Said would certainly object were he alive to do so. Nothing could be worse than “lone and level,” unless it is “boundless and bare.” Both pairs are applied to the sands; one would have more than sufficed. The vast and trunkless legs of stone present a striking image. Torsi missing their appendages are common enough, but Shelley’s trunkless legs and head are unique, to my knowledge, in the history of statuary.

The visage raises further difficulties. It’s no easy trick to frown and sneer at once; try it sometime. And to discern a frown, a wrinkled lip, and a sneer of cold command in a shattered visage one would have to be a remarkably perceptive traveller. “Fragmented” perhaps, “faded” possibly; but “shattered”? This was one of Shelley’s favorite adjectives, and he employed it here because he liked the sound.

In line 8 we have the heart that fed. What did it feed? If we generously allow “them” to serve as the object of “fed” along with “mocked,” then the heart fed “those passions” in line 6. The heart must belong to Ozymandias; so the passage means, “the sculptor well understood the passions that fed Ozymandias’s heart, and that the sculptor mocked, and that survive both the sculptor and Ozymandias.” But this is too convoluted to be impressive.

I can sympathize with the sentiment of Ozymandias, as I can with most of Shelley. But its theme is banal, and banally expressed. Michaela describes Ozymandias as “viscerally political and democratic,” emphasizing the political and democratic. Spare a thought for “viscerally” too.

(Update: George Wallace improves on the original. Michaela Cooper replies, in detail. I think she’s right about “antique,” and I like, though am not convinced by, the links to the frowning and sneering statues. Mike Snider comments. Rick Coencas comments. Chris Lott comments.)

Nov 032003

Letters aren’t usually to my taste, but I except an odd little book I’ve just finished, W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence 1901-1937.

One of our correspondents needs no introduction. Yeats the Great The other, T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944), was the brother of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was still being assigned in freshman philosophy when I was in college. He made his living at the graphic arts, in which he showed considerable flair in an art nouveau vein; it is the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing. Among other things he designed most of the covers for Yeats’ books. Moore the Obscure Moore was also an extremely distinguished poet and verse dramatist, and he wrote at least one poem and two verse plays (Medea and Daimonassa) that are far better than anything in Yeats.

Yeats plays the great man in his letters, as he does in his poetry, constantly prevailing on Moore for small and not-so-small favors. He borrows money — it is not always clear whether he pays it back — makes appointments and breaks them, pleading fatigue or “neuralgia,” and, once, egregiously, sends Moore to the copyright office on his behalf.

I am going to send you a bundle of plays to get copyrighted. Mrs. Emery, who would have done this for me, is away and for certain reasons these plays have to be done at once… You will be able to do the whole thing in an afternoon…. Will you send the plays to the Censor, or, if not, will you send me his address? It might be as well for you to send them. I will of course send you a cheque for the cost.

“I will of course send you a cheque for the cost”: God forbid I should ask you to do me a huge favor and pay you for it in advance. Personally I would have told Yeats to get stuffed. But Moore accedes gracefully, as if he too were convinced of Yeats’s superiority.

At the heart of the letters is an argument about “Ruskin’s cat” that runs for several years. Yeats believed in ghosts and spirits, like many of his mystical Irish friends, and tries to justify their existence to Moore philosophically:

John Ruskin, while talking with Frank Harris, ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat. Now if the house cat had come in both cats would have looked alike to Ruskin. (I know this for I once saw a phantom picture and a real picture side by side.) Neither your brother [G.E.Moore, who defended in his Refutation of Idealism the common-sense view that the external world exists independent of our senses] nor [Bertrand] Russell gives any criterion by which Ruskin could have told one cat from the other. No doubt if pressed they would have said that if Ruskin’s cat was real Harris would have seen it. But that argument amounts to nothing. Dr. Smyllie, a well-known Dublin doctor, made his class see the Indian rope trick by hypnotic suggestion a few years ago. All saw it: whether the suggestion was mental or merely visual makes no difference. Perhaps Russell would say ‘a real object’ persists, a phantom does not. Shelley pointed out that the same dream recurs again and again… not only things but ‘dreams themselves are a dream.’

Moore replies sensibly enough:

Do you deny that there are such things as illusions? Do you think that there are black snakes wriggling on the counterpane of a man who has D.T.? If so, we are only quarrelling about a fact, not a word. If you suppose there is a separate reality for each one of us that is not what we usually mean by reality it is putting a new meaning to the word… Do you deny that our sense can be deranged and make mistakes, just as our reasoning faculty may, as in Othello’s case, make a mistake? If you bang your head against a door you see stars that are not there but swim around as though they were. The blow has deranged your sense of sight, just as a disease may, or a hypnotic trance, or even a conviction may.

This reduces Yeats to incoherence.

Damn Russell — he is as fine a mathematician as you like, but when he philosophises a politician walking on his hands… Your brother is not a politician but a philosopher. Berkeley and practically all philosophers since have contended that ‘sensations’ are part of the human mind and that ‘we know nothing but spirits and their relations.’ Your brother and his school contend that ‘sensations’ are ‘behind,’ not in, the mind. They, like Berkeley, are concerned with immediate knowledge: what you write about hallucinations has nothing to do with it.

Yeats’s summary of philosophic thought on the mind-body problem leaves something to be desired. He makes a hash of Moore’s brother, who said that sensations were “before” the mind, not “behind” it. And “immediate knowledge” begs the question of whether a hallucination is “knowledge” at all. Yeats goes on in further letters to adduce the range of early 20th century spiritual phenomena — photographs of thoughts, Richet, Madame Blavatsky and the like — eventually exasperating Moore:

It is all moonshine and nonsense… When you say that seeing two pictures on the wall when only one is there is as good proof of the existence of two pictures as if both were on the wall you contradict yourself, because you admit there is only one on the wall. You make a distinction between what you know to exist and an illusion of sense and deny it at the same time. That is to make two contradictory propositions both of which cannot be true. It is not a question as to what happens to be fashionable among intellectuals, but as to whether there is a case that can be stated without involving a contradiction. Fools follow fashions in thought as in other things and then they think because they are very many they must needs be right as well as strong.

This is as close as he comes to calling Yeats a fool. Of course Yeats is a fool. Mrs. Yeats is reported to have said that Yeats simply never understood people; certainly he did not understand Moore.

Now it is possible, I suppose, to be a fool and also a great poet, although I can think of no such case. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else. Even more than Blake, his poetry is preposterous because his ideas are preposterous.

Yeats is generally considered one of the master stylists of the 20th century. Yvor Winters explains his reputation:

In the first place, there is real talent scattered throughout his work; in the second place, our time does not recognize any relationship between motive and emotion, but is looking merely for emotion; in the third place, Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, has overwhelmed his readers thus far. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence. If the poet asserts his own greatness long enough and in the same tone of voice, the effect is hypnotic; we have seen the same thing on the political platform in the persons of such speakers as Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler.

Winters omits one point: Yeats looks like a Great Poet, with his piercing gaze, roman nose, and snowy hair. He was exceptionally jealous of his hair. He refers in the letters to the equally fine-maned Bertrand Russell as “bald-pated,” and in his poetry frequently employs bald men, as in The Scholars, as a symbol for intellect, which he despised. The reputations of Shelley and Whitman also profit from their looks. Moore, by contrast, looks like the harmless village eccentric. And Yeats is a great man, and no one has heard of Moore.

(Update: Colby Cosh troubles to read the Moore poem I cited. He dislikes “carven,” which is a perfectly respectable English word, although it smacks of the 1890’s, from which Moore, and Yeats for that matter, never freed himself entirely. He objects on metrical grounds to line 5, which I scan as follows:

Though un / intend / ed, ir / revoc / able!

The inversion in the fourth foot is unusual, but not problematic. Neither is the elided article in line 6; Moore is writing not about a particular incident but a type. What I think raises this poem to greatness is its perception of the nature of speech; “self-bemusing ease” is a master stroke. Bloggers have talked a lot lately about how easy it is to hit the “Send” button or the “Print” button. This poem is about how easy it is to hit the “Talk” button. I will be very happy if everyone reads it as attentively as Colby does.)

(Further: Alan Sullivan doesn’t like the poem either. Craig Henry comments. Alex(ei) comments. Mike Snider promises to tell me, sometime, why I’m wrong, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.)