Aug 112007

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show.

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show, watching the wide-screen video. It shows soldiers and firemen, then August Busch III, or maybe IV, representing Anheuser-Busch, the corporate parent. He tells us to honor our heroes, which we do, with applause. A whale trainer, perky, live, asks everyone who has served in the American, Canadian, or British Armed Forces to rise. They do, to more applause. I wonder where Australia went. The video ends and the show begins. Shamu splashes soldier and civilian alike.

Bertha, my server for the evening, points out that she makes the salads. I do not order one.

My ten-year-old niece says that she does not understand me and I scare her.

(After our new Poet Laureate.)

Update: Jim Henley comments. Jim and I have had our disagreements in the past, but we stand to shoulder to shoulder in the unalterable conviction that, as bad a poet as Charles Simic is, Billy Collins is worse, perhaps the worst in human history. Sound and Fury comments.

Feb 202007

Our Girl in Chicago, Laura Demanski, has roused me from my torpor by asking for an interpretation of Philip Larkin’s Spring. She might want to quote the whole sonnet instead of its last six lines. Fourteen consecutive lines of verse will probably not tax most readers unduly. Larkin was an accomplished and rigorous editor of his own poems, and if he had wanted the octet omitted he might have thought to do so himself.

Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

The last three words baffle Laura; we will come to them presently. She cites a “reading” of the poem (which also quotes it only in part) that sheds no light on them.

I’d read lots of odes to Spring in my time but none that contained his piquant blend of lyricism and discontent. How often had I not felt that nature was doing its beautiful best but that my mood or circumstances simply didn’t match it? All of us must, at some time, have felt out of harmony with nature. The line ‘And those she has least use for see her best’ acknowledges the paradox that if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents, Spring would not be noticeable except as an accompaniment to one’s own blossoming. We see it so clearly because the contrast with our own state is so marked.

This is less a reading than a view from 10,000 feet, and none too clear at that. The theme of Spring is the radical discontinuity between conscious and subconscious or unconscious life, to which a phrase like “if one’s life were on a par with all that Spring represents” scarcely does justice. The poem is not a description of an unspringlike “mood,” and the “contrast with [his] own state” is incidental. The poet sees spring clearly because he possesses intellect, which is “indigestible,” sterile, unnatural. It is the subject of the poem, although the word never appears. Thinking humans feel “out of harmony with nature” because they are out of harmony with nature.

The theme is not original with Larkin. One finds it in many of the tougher poets — in Emily Dickinson (What mystery pervades a well), in Tristan Corbière (La Rapsode Foraine et la Pardon de Sainte-Anne: “L’innocent est près du ciel”), and in Yvor Winters (A Summer Commentary), among others.

The details in the octet are carefully managed. Nothing is at eye level. Larkin starts on the ground, with people sitting, walking, fingering the grass. “Walk in rings” is literally what people do in parks; it also connotes aimlessness, subconsciousness, mere existence. In the third line the poet shifts his attention upward, to the “calmly” standing cloud and singing bird. The adverb is chosen advisedly: their calm is the calm of belonging, as he himself, in his “pursed-up way,” does not. The light of the sun in the fifth line directs one’s attention to the ground again, to the bouncing balls and barking dogs, and then suddenly we encounter the striking “branch-arrested mist of leaf,” as if the poet were looking upside-down at the tree, growing out of the sky, leaves first, instead of the ground. With all of this back-and-forth between earth and sky, “threading,” in line seven, becomes peculiarly apt.

Lines nine through eleven, with their “piquant” description of the season, have made the poem famous. Such piquancy as they have arises from their continuation of the theme. Spring is “gratuitous” in both the primary and secondary senses. It spawns life — excited, multiple — in a way no other season does, for nothing, gratuitously. (The container, spring, is “excited,” while the contained, the cloud and the bird, are calm.) At the same time, for the poet, spring is also gratuitous, unnecessary — just grist for the conscious mill. “Untaught flower” emphasizes, again, the unbridgeable barrier between thought and not-thought.

In his summary Larkin ironically chooses another nature metaphor, “mountain-clear,” to describe his apartness from nature. One never breaks away entirely. The poet walks in the park too. By now the “immodest needs” should be clear. Spring, for him, will not suffice: it is not enough to breathe and bark and sing and caper. His vocabulary is equally immodest: he treads — threads — “circuitous paths”; those whom the season “has use for” merely walk in rings. Larkin finds this conclusion too grandiose for the feeling of the poem, and he undercuts it with a rhythmic trick. The last line has eleven syllables and rhymes on its feminine ending, giving the impression of trailing off in a mumble. Immodesty, put as modestly as possible.

Update: Laura is not a dullard. She has written a vast deal of entertaining and informative prose, which is not what dullards do. One does not suddenly become a dullard by failing to quote the octet.

Oct 242006

Discoveries of unpublished poems by famous poets depress me. We already suffer from an enormous glut of poetry — even, perhaps especially, by famous poets — and of art of all sorts. A law that required artists to burn half of their finished product, the way Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls, would vastly improve public taste. Poems are generally left unpublished when their author does not think they merit publication. There are exceptions, and accidents. A pretty good Philip Larkin poem escaped publication because of girl trouble. Wallace Stevens omitted one of his best poems, “The Course of a Particular,” from his collected verse, although he fortunately remembered to publish it elsewhere. But nearly always the poem is no good. Sometimes it’s not by the famous poet either.

Reading Robert Frost also depresses me. Frost is a popular poet, the closest thing to a poet laureate America ever had. He read at Kennedy’s inauguration, and he is said to have made a living from poetry. There are several reasons for this. Frost usually, and always at his best, writes short rhymed iambic poems; his readers feel assured that they’re reading honest-to-god poetry and not that sissy modern stuff. His themes are simple, his settings are rural, and his vocabulary is small. Frost looks the part, the very model of the crusty New England sage. His name doesn’t hurt either; it’s as good as Cary Grant’s, and he was born with it. Frost also has considerable talent (his best poems are probably here and here), but this is incidental.

I wrote in my last post about characteristic moments in the work of an artist. There is no need to search in Frost: his chief characteristic is a vacillating, go-with-the-flow pseudo-profundity that plays, and pays, especially well in America, and it is everywhere. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, perhaps, but one could also do a great deal better. Frost is perfectly satisfied with himself, and resents any attempt at improvement:

Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
(“Build Soil”)

Frost hedges this passage a bit with “rate,” but its import is obvious. He is openly hostile to intellect:

So if you find you must repent
From side to side in argument,
At least don’t use your mind too hard,
But trust my instinct – I’m a bard.
(“To a Thinker”)

No thanks. But it is a very American attitude.

To be fair, “The Road Not Taken”, his most famous poem, is celebrated principally because it is misread. It is usually thought to counsel leaving the beaten path, which is pretty pallid moral advice but is not what Frost has in mind. Its title, often misremembered, significantly, as “The Road Less Traveled,” refers to the path that the narrator doesn’t take, not the one he does. The narrator, confronted with the fork in the road, is “sorry that he could not travel both and be one traveler.” Neither path is much less traveled at all: “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” The traveler’s difficulty is, having chosen one, he misses his chance to choose the other, because “way leads on to way.” The poem does not advocate the road less traveled; it is about the agony of having to choose at all. Had the traveler chosen the way more traveled by, that, too, would have made all the difference. There is something sneaky about his putting the narrator on the less-traveled road, when either road serves the logic of the poem. I suspect Frost of intentionally inviting the common misreading.

Last month’s discovery of an unpublished Frost poem, therefore, occasioned no joy in the GotM household. The complete poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” is available only to subscribers to the Virginia Quarterly Review, which leaves you and me out. But I can piece it together from scattered quotations; and since I am too puny, I trust, for the VQR to sue for copyright infringement, here it is:

On the backside of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.

It is late in an afternoon
More grey with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow
When it is blue jay and crow
Or no bird at all.

So someone heeds from within
This flurry of bird war,
And rising from her chair
A little bent over with care
Not to scatter on the floor

The sewing in her lap
Comes to the window to see.
At sight of her dim face
The birds all cease for a space
And cling close in a tree.

And one says to the rest,
“We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.”

Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.

On that old side of the house
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.

Frost has one of the best ears among 20th-century poets, and it shows to advantage especially in the first and last stanzas. In the second stanza the grammar wanders. Frost’s preternaturally articulate animals make an egregious appearance (see “The Oven Bird,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and passim). Is it me, or is there something ridiculous about blue jays discussing the First World War? The central comparison, of fighting men with fighting birds, is trite. It is not among Frost’s best hundred poems, and if it had never been found no one would mourn its lack.

Its discoverer, Robert Stilling, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, likes it better than I do:

“War Thoughts at Home” dwells in that moment before darkness, doubting the necessity of the bravery that drives a soldier-poet like Thomas [Edward, a friend of Frost’s who was killed in the war] to enlist. Its doubt stands at odds with the poet’s own stoic convictions about war and violence. And the ending, dead on a side track? This is neither fire nor ice, but this is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend. These stanzas’ troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.

Stilling is shilling for his discovery, and who can blame him? I made too much fuss about a couple of unpublished poems myself, and I’m not bucking for tenure. But my God, Frost made a career out of a “troubling lack of conviction.” If he had abandoned poems on that account there would be nothing left. What we have, in short, is the spectacle of an ambitious graduate student, who has not read Frost with much attention, making his career on the back of a poem that Frost regarded, correctly, as unworthy of inclusion in his permanent work. Which is most depressing of all.

Aug 142006


Idly browsing in the bookstore one day, I found this, carefully wrapped in onionskin and folded into an old edition of Hardy’s Collected Poems. The road to ignorance may be paved with good editions, as Bernard Shaw remarked, but its byways are littered with interesting ephemera.

Dear Mr. Smyth,

The assignment is all of the “Collected Poems” of Hardy. But I asked the class to give particular attention to those on pp. 7, 15, 58, 83, 99, 112, 124, 152, 161, 194, 222, 234, 248, 255, 269, 271, 288, 297, 325, 328, 369, 387, 390, 391-8, 409, 412, 439, 456, 505, 566, 598, 648, 658, 685, 710, 799.

I hope you recover quickly.


The signature is Mark Van Doren’s. Van Doren taught English at Columbia, including a legendary “Introduction to Poetry” course, for almost forty years. The tone of this note aligns with his reputation for brooking no nonsense, regularly tossing students out of class for failing to read the assignment. In his autobiography Van Doren claims (though I find this hard to credit) that a student once attempted to excuse a late term paper on the grounds of being in love. “Then you don’t love her very much,” Van Doren said. “How can you say that?” asked the student indignantly. “You won’t sacrifice a mark for her.”

He was also an excellent poet and critic, who wrote brief and readable books about Shakespeare, Dryden, and E.A. Robinson, among other subjects. The selections available on the web do not do his poetry justice, but this conveys some of the flavor.

Mark Van Doren is remembered only as the father of game-show cheat Charles Van Doren, and then only because of the hit movie made about the scandal, Quiz Show, in which he is played by Paul Scofield, with twinkly donnishness, as the soul of upright virtue — which, by all accounts, he was.

The hapless Mr. Smyth, it appears, was too ill to attend class and had to receive his assignment in writing. He must have quailed when he read it. All of the collected poems? All of them? They run to 800 pages of small print. I have read Hardy, quite assiduously, for years, and have not got round to nearly all of them. Nor do I expect to.

Unfortunately the poems Van Doren singles out for “particular attention” have more pedagogical than poetic interest. They include the Satires of Circumstance, which date badly; one or two philosophical colloquies that neatly clarify Hardy’s views on God and pessimism; and a few anthology favorites. They exclude all of his best poems.

Still, three generations of students found Van Doren inspiring. Even Smyth, once recovered, seems to have bestirred himself sufficiently to make an abortive start on the assignment. The table of contents shows the first six poems dutifully ticked off, and then nothing. One wonders how many times he was thrown out of class. However many it was, he kept the book, at least for a while, and took some pains to keep the note. Something probably got through.

Aug 122006

The idea that aesthetics has a lot to do with self-similarity occurred to Benoit Mandelbrot thirty or so years before it occured to me, although if you ask Mandelbrot there are vanishingly few ideas that didn’t occur to him first. It’s Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, and Mandelbrot, not necessarily in that order.

So it isn’t original, which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature is one of the best-selling books on mathematics of all time, mostly because it has a lot of pretty pictures. Fractals are fun to look at. Little copies of the whole structure are buried everywhere within it. Zoom in to 10 angstroms, or out to 10,000 feet: in any part of the picture the same intricate patterns appear.

In self-similarity the part resembles the whole. Symmetry, a different affair, describes a relation between parts. Self-similarity implies some form of symmetry. If A and B are both part of C, and both resemble C, then A will also resemble B, in some sense. But the converse is false. Parts A and B may resemble each other without either resembling the whole, C, in the slightest. One tends to think of self-similarity (and symmetry) as visual, but the principle is structural. The play-within-a-play and the colloquy of the gravediggers in Hamlet are instances of self-similarity. For symmetry, take a lesser play, say Noel Coward’s Nude with Violin, in which a famous modern artist resembling Picasso dies and turns out to have hired a different person to produce the work for each of his “periods.” Each act, in which one of the period painters shows up to claim a share of the estate, resembles the others, but none especially resembles the whole. The play is symmetrical but not self-similar.

Christopher Alexander, in The Nature of Order, gives fifteen principles for “living” architecture, at least six of which can be subsumed under self-similarity. “Local symmetries,” “deep interlock and ambiguity,” “echoes,” “positive space,” “good shape,” and “gradients” are all aspects of what I’m talking about. And a lucky thing too, as one of my principles is that no list of principles should reach double digits.

Alexander also includes “roughness” in his list, which is very much to the point. Fractals fall into two categories: exact and approximate. The first known fractal (arguably), the famous Koch curve, a mathematical monstrosity with unbounded perimeter but finite area, is exact. It is also boring. When you’ve seen one level you’ve seen it all. Everyone likes to look at baby animals. What makes them “cute” is that they are copies of their parents, but inexact ones. They belong to category two.

Self-similarity is a deeply ingrained way for people to see the world. All pre-scientific theories of genesis involve self-similarity. Embryos were first thought to be full-grown animals in miniature, with tiny heads and limbs. It sounds absurd now, but if you knew nothing of cell division and had no microscope handy you might make the same guess. Lamarck precedes Darwin because he assumes that all traits are inherited, that is, that self-similarity applies in full.

If art, as is commonly alleged, speaks to our deepest selves, one would expect it to show self-similarity everywhere, and sure enough it does. Pictures, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” which Mandelbrot reproduces in his book, are the first place to look. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are fractal. Music, to my untutored ear, is replete with structures that repeat approximately on different scales, such as leitmotifs taken up first by the winds, then the strings, the brass, and eventually the whole orchestra. I will leave this speculation to those who know, as I do not.

Poetry, however, I do know something about, and perfectly symmetrical verse forms have never gained much traction in English. The sonnet has fourteen lines, and in neither of its standard forms do these lines divide into identical groups. The Petrarchan version has its octet and sextet, and the Elizabethan its three quatrains, along with that last awkward couplet that Shakespeare could never quite figure out what to do with. The villanelle, with its six triplets and 19th line, exhibits the same sort of approximate symmetry. Then there’s the Spenserian stanza, eight lines of pentameter with an alexandrine tacked on to the end. A while back I remarked the stupor produced by extended passages of Pope, in reams of closed, perfectly balanced heroic couplets. Neatness is not all your second-grade teacher cracked it up to be.

Great poems exhibit symmetry and, especially, self-similarity in a high degree, though this may not be obvious to the casual reader. Consider Ben Jonson’s To Heaven:

1 Good and great God, can I not think of Thee,
2 But it must, straight, my melancholy be?
3 Is it interpreted in me disease,
4 That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?
5 O be Thou witness, that the reins dost know
6 And hearts of all, if I be sad for show;
7 And judge me after: if I dare pretend
8 To aught but grace, or aim at other end.
9 As Thou art all, so be Thou all to me,
10 First, midst, and last, converted One and Three,
11 My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state,
12 My judge, my jury, and my advocate.
13 Where have I been this while exiled from Thee,
14 And whither rapt, now Thou but stoop’st to me?
15 Dwell, dwell here still! O, being everywhere,
16 How can I doubt to find Thee ever here?
17 I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
18 Conceived in sin, and unto labor born,
19 Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
20 And destined unto judgment after all.
21 I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground
22 Upon my flesh t’inflict another wound.
23 Yet dare I not complain or wish for death,
24 With holy Paul, lest it be thought the breath
25 Of discontent; or that these prayers be
26 For weariness of life, not love of Thee.

Jonson longs for death while rejecting that longing intellectually. To understand this you must enter partly into the Christian experience. If you refuse, then a large portion of great art is partly or wholly closed to you, and the loss is not easily afforded. It may help to remember that you would likely be Christian had you been born in England in the 16th century. Human beings were no different then, you are extremely unlikely to be more intelligent than Ben Jonson was, and the number of atheists in England at the time was an engineering zero.

The poem is a prayer and an apology, and contains, in good fractal style, several prayers and apologies within itself. It is written in heroic couplets, but is 26 lines long, and naturally resists, like most of the classic English verse forms, division into equal parts. There are no enjambments until the very end, in lines 24 and 25. Every full stop ends a line. Yet the movement escapes Pope’s monotony because the argument moves forward and the syntactic unit varies. There are nine sentences (if we count the ejaculation that begins line 15 as part of the question); In line count they run two, two, four, four, two, two, four, two, and four.

The first sixteen lines deal mostly with God, the last ten mostly with man. Both sections are syntactically symmetrical. The first opens with two questions of two lines apiece and closes the same way. The second reverses the procedure, surrounding the short sentence with the two longer ones.

In lines 11 and 12 “faith, hope, and love” are exactly the qualities that a Christian might exhibit toward his “judge, jury, and advocate,” respectively — no other order would do. Jonson’s sleight-of-hand at the end of line 10, where he interposes a reference to the Trinity (“converted One and Three”) to break up his literal trinities, simply beggars praise.

The Elizabethan fondness for wordplay is employed tastefully, for once (cf. “when first your eye I eyed”). “Everywhere” and “ever here,” in lines 15 and 16, are effective; but “disease” and “ease,” in lines 3 and 4, are a masterstroke. “Ease” implies “death,” and sure enough we find “death” at the end of line 23, as distant from the end of the poem as “ease” is from the beginning. “Thee” rhymes with “be” to begin the poem, and “be” with “Thee” to end it. “Me” and “Three” and “Thee” and “me” are rhymed again almost exactly in the middle of the poem, separated by one couplet. “[J]udge me after” in line 7 balances “judgment after all” in line 20. “After all,” a throat-clearing device in most writers, including me, is resurrected here to become living language.

Despite a theme that will not resonate with most modern readers, To Heaven remains one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Can there be any doubt that it is largely the structure — the fractal — that we respond to?

Aug 202005

Camille Paglia very likely agrees with Woody Allen that 80% of life is showing up. Author, teacher, scholar, advice columnist, courageous defier of contemporary orthodoxies left and right, tireless propagandist for the rapist within, and so much more, Paglia doesn’t just show up, she never goes away.

As for the nature of this prodigious output, we have Sexual Personae; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art; Sex, Art and American Culture; Sex in New York City: An Illustrated History; Madonna Megastar; Sex and the Single Professor. Can anyone find the pattern here?

Still, Paglia must weary of a single subject, and in Break, Blow, Burn she has ventured into poetry. The book is a “close reading” of 43 short poems ranging in time from Shakespeare to the present. One might think that so busy a woman as Paglia wouldn’t have time to learn anything about poetry. She doesn’t.

I am prepared to absolve her of much of the criticism of Break, Blow, Burn, which has been directed toward her selection. Supposing that Paglia thought these the greatest 43 poems in English — and she nowhere makes such a claim — her 43 would inevitably differ from yours or mine. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Dickinson, and Roethke have three poems each; Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Stevens, and W.C. Williams two apiece. The warhorses — “The World is Too Much with Us,” “Westminster Bridge,” “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “Song of Myself” — are out in force, but leavened with a few excellent and lesser-known choices, like George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s pallid “Woodstock” has occasioned grumbling, but rock lyrics are what mostly passes for poetry nowadays, and it is by no means the worst poem in the book.

I am willing to overlook her tasteless attempts at relevance and titillation. (I remember reading a passage from Vamps and Tramps in praise of the “Dionysian” Rolling Stones and thinking, Whoa. The Stones. How cool is that?) She wants to use “Leda and the Swan” as an excuse to talk about swan penises? OK. She wants to characterize the worms in “To His Coy Mistress” as “gang rapists,” or the relationship between Hamlet’s father and Claudius as “male-on-male rape”? Fine. She wants to call Sylvia Plath “the first female rocker”? All right. You’ve opened a Paglia book and this is the price of admission.

What I cannot forgive is the violence she does to the poems themselves. Poetry achieves its effects through the relationship between sound and sense, and to elucidate them requires technical analysis. You have to read carefully and you have to know something. Zero for two, you may want to consider another line of work.

On Herbert’s “Church Monuments” she essays this remarkable passage:

The memento mori takes the form of an hourglass with the curvilinear silhouette of the human body: “That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” As the sands flow through the hourglass, Herbert makes us hear and feel faint, regular pulses (like a water clock) on the words “flesh,” “glasse,” “dust,” and “time.” Then, with the end of time, the hourglass wobbles and tumbles off the end of one line onto the next, where it smashes to powder.

….The poem is in fact structured like a fall — a formal cascade like Baroque fountain: Herbert ignores the stanza breaks and lets his sentences spill over the gap. The effect is refreshing, like soft rain dribbling off a roof. The poem’s playful, soothing rhythms distance its unsettling imagery of death and decay.

From the top: the body as an hourglass is a commonplace of the English Renaissance. It is not intended to be visualized; such resemblance as exists applies only to women, in the best case, and is irrelevant in this poem. The quoted lines sound nothing like a water clock (in part because water clocks don’t make noise). They derive their effect from variation: the heavy accents on “glasse,” “dust,” “time,” and “dust” again, come after six syllables, then four, then six, and finally ten. The famous last line of Greville’s elegy on Sidney produces a similar effect: “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.”

Assuming the hourglass were involved, “smash” would be a singularly inappropriate verb for a poem about dissolution. But the antecedent of “which also shall be crumbled into dust” is “all our time,” not the hourglass. The thought of time itself dissolving gives this passage much of its concentration and power.

It would be difficult for a poet to “ignore” his own stanza breaks, but in any case Herbert published the poem without them; later editors added them to clarify the rhyme scheme. Yes, the stanzas are all enjambed, but the most violent enjambment of all, on which Paglia does not see fit to comment, comes mid-stanza, in the very passage she quotes, between “shall” and “be,” which splits a verb phrase and emphasizes the utter finality of the end of all things.

The rhythms in this passage, and throughout the poem, are as far from “refreshing” or “playful” or “soothing” as can be imagined, as any moderately sensitive reader can hear for himself. (Not that rain dribbling off a roof is too refreshing either, unless you’re thirsty.) Herbert does not try to “distance” his reader from death and decay; quite the contrary. His rhythms emphasize the grimness of his subject in the most effective possible way.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I,” though a fine poem, is metrically undistinguished in every respect. Of line 13:

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art

Paglia writes: “Rapid, darting rhythms capture the dove’s flight as it swoops in to ‘wing’ the poet’s soul to safety.” Never mind that she invents the dove: Donne is rarely rapid, and never darting, and this line is among the statelier in the history of English literature. In each of the first three feet the unaccented syllable is longer than the accented, which slows and flattens the line. The awkward juxtaposition of a dental and a glottal in the second and third feet slows it further. How much of this is accidental, Donne being Donne, is a nice question. For “darting rhythms” try his contemporaries Campion or Greene or Peele. They are all inferior to Donne as poets but incomparably superior as metrists.

W.C. Williams, a master of tiny sound effects, she simply does not understand. The miracle of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has nothing to do with the fact that the stanzas look like wheelbarrows, though I suppose they do. It is the contrast between the red of the beginning and the white of the end, and the echoing vowel sounds, long long short, in the lines “glazed with rain / water” and “beside the white / chickens”. Paglia proceeds to claim that “This Is Just to Say” resembles an icebox, crossing over from irrelevance into absurdity. The rhythms of the poem are not “halting”; the feet vary widely, and often inversely, in length and speed, which is essential in good free verse. You can hear it especially in the two lines “they were delicious / so sweet”, where the two-syllable foot is slower than the five-syllable one.

The narrator of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” according to Paglia, “shares [Blake’s chimney] sweep’s dangerous naivete: both are cheerful, chatty innocents who meet but never comprehend the dark forces at work in the world.” There is nothing “chatty” or “sing-song” about the first stanza; its diction is exact, and “kindly,” on which she places so much emphasis, is intended ironically. The narrator shows the same intelligence from beginning to end. It is not the “Or rather” at the beginning of the fourth stanza that provokes “the hesitation or stutter”; it is the fact that Dickinson inverts her usual hymn meter of four feet followed by three to three followed by four. The line “the dews grew quivering and chill” does not involve metonymy, which is not adequately defined as “rhetorical displacement.” Paglia’s aside about “Dickinson’s archaic, Anglo-Saxon capitalizations (which were condescendingly ‘corrected’ and removed in the first posthumous collections of her work)” is a slur on Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Bianchi, who displayed more sensibility in editing her poems than her later editor Johnson did and far more than Paglia does in explicating them. (One of Todd’s greatest sins as an editor, as Paglia fails to note, was to omit the fourth stanza of this very poem. The stanza itself is bad, but integral, and it is a close judgment whether the poem is better without it.)

Wallace Stevens bears most of the brunt of her frequent abuse of biography. Often she confuses the narrator with the poet, in the traditional freshman manner. Paglia lets drop that Stevens’ wife appears in “Sunday Morning,” from which I have been unable to discern, after several dozen readings, that the man was even married. Of Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” she remarks: “The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep.” Evidently: and “My Last Duchess” was evidently written by a murdering medieval duke, A.E. Housman evidently survived countless suicides to become a famous classics scholar in middle age, and as for “Piazza Piece,” I bet you had no idea that Death writes poetry and wears dustcoats. One might excuse Paglia on the grounds that the “note” that the poem purports to be is not the same as the poem itself. Unfortunately she adopts a similar technique throughout, reproducing, for instance, a speech from Hamlet’s father’s ghost as a self-contained poem and discussing it as if it were in Shakespeare’s person.

Arriving at “Anecdote of the Jar,” Paglia takes flight:

In style, the jar more resembles an earthenware pot than a polished vase on a pedestal. It rejects the elite standards of uniqueness and perfection of the European “masterpiece.” Stevens was born and raised in Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where home produce was “put up” in ceramic crocks or glass canning jars and where farmers’ markets still abound. The region borders on West Virginia, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, through which the Appalachian mountain chain drops to Kentucky and Tennessee. Hence Stevens’s Tennessee jar, with its dollops of canned or sampled nature, may also be a jug for moonshine (fiery corn whiskey), that staple of the Southern underground economy… Behind his respectable facade in Hartford, perhaps Stevens in his secluded hours of poetry thought of himself as running a secret still on his own mount of the Muses.

Obliged though I am to Paglia for the definition of “moonshine,” that’s only one kind. This passage is another. It is known, in the argot of literary criticism, as making shit up. The reader may be pardoned for having forgotten in all the hubbub that all we know about the jar is that it’s “round upon the ground,” “gray and bare,” and “tall and of a port in air.” About the “secret still” the less said the better.

Everything Paglia writes about “Anecdote of the Jar” is wrong, including “and” and “the.” “This cryptic poem is about art making,” she says. It is not. It is about Stevens’ single subject, the sterility of the human intellect, represented by the jar, and the consequent necessity of hedonism. This might have occurred to her had she spent more time reading his poetry and less fantasizing about his private life. “Without human framing nature remains ‘a slovenly wilderness,’ a primeval chaos.” No again, as lines 3 (“It [the jar] made the slovenly wilderness”) and 6 (“It [the wilderness] sprawled around, no longer wild.”) make clear. (Italics mine.) Anyone who has come upon a wild scene that looks pristine at first and then spotted a piece of trash will appreciate what Stevens means. The jar makes the mess, which is why it is “gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” These details are indeed “inscrutable and intractable” when you have the poem backwards from the get-go. It is only fair to point out that most of the Stevens specialists don’t understand it either.

Blake’s “London” she treats as a catalog of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, which makes a hash of “in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” and which would have outraged its author. To interpret the “marriage hearse” as the spread of venereal disease is not only contrary to the author’s intent but illogical. Syphilitic prostitutes may blight marriages with plagues, but why “the marriage hearse”? Blake is pleading, as usual, in favor of anarchy and against law and civil society in every form. This is the man who wrote “damn braces, bless relaxes.”

I will not revisit my little dust-up about “Ozymandias” here. Suffice it to say that my severest critics and I would agree that, whatever the merits of the poem, it decidedly does not “wipe out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Shelley was as firm a believer in human progress as anyone this side of Robert Wright. In “Ozymandias” it is the tyrants who perish. This is a good thing.

I think I’ll buy a copy of Madonna Megastar. I hear it’s a picture book.

Jul 142005

You will recall from Part 1 that I owned a typescript of two unpublished poems by Yvor Winters and referred to my readers the question of what to do with them. Arguments were offered for selling, publishing, and burning. The arsonists had much the worst of it. Their best point was mine: that publishing them would muddy Winters’ reputation, and the reputations of poets are easily muddied. Still, even Helen Vendler can probably distinguish these juvenilia from such performances as “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Before Disaster,” “To the Holy Spirit,” and “Danse Macabre.” Eddie Thomas suggested that burning them will spare my heirs (my girlfriend) from thinking about what they stand to gain from my death — this typescript, and a stolen eight-ball from the local poolroom. I thank Eddie for making me feel, for a moment, like the billionaire who informs his grasping nephews that everything will go to the dog shelter. Perhaps he will be mollified to know that Lisa was only kidding. You were kidding, right sweetheart?

The historians pointed out a few matters that did not occur to me. We preserve literature for reasons other than strict aesthetic merit. Colby Cosh cites the poetry of Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t much good but which we are happy to have. Colby also reminds me that as an accidental executor my responsibilities may differ from, say, Max Brod’s. Bad poetry, Michael Krantz points out, may shed light on the good, though in my own experience it tends only to obscure it. I agree, however, with George Wallace that I have hedged about them sufficiently that no one will likely take these poems for more than what they are. In short, the historians win.

The mercenaries, led by the terse Paul Frankenstein, may take comfort in the fact that publishing and selling are not mutually exclusive. But I like owning the typescript and I don’t need the money. Certainly I will sell it before I dine on dog food.

Since I’m not going to get rid of them, I see no reason to withhold them. So here they are.

The Hermit

The shaggy old man of the canyons
Was fearful for mortal to see;
But he scattered his crumbs to the song-birds,
And raised the sage flower for the bee.

All folk turned aside when they saw him,
They feared his strange eyes and long hair;
But he played with the fawns in the shadows,
And dug up sweet roots with the bear.

And so when he died no men mourned him,
For he was a stranger to men;
But the fawns stare big-eyed from the shadows,
And the old bear moaned in the glen.

And the birds gave over their singing,
And the canyons were lonely and still;
And the birds dropped leaves over his body,
And the bees hummed his dirge on the hill.

To A Coyote

Gentle pussyfooter of the gulleys,
You of the sleepy slouch,
Of the furtive tail,
And the leering eye,
With your long tongue sliding enviously
Out of one corner of your mouth,
Your coat is moth-eaten,
And your ribs show through it,

But wait,
Where have I seen you before?

–Yvor Winters

Jun 252005

Fifteen years ago I walked into the Phoenix, a poetry bookshop on Jones Street that no longer exists, and asked what they had by Yvor Winters. The proprietor went to the back and returned with several items from the library of Glenway Wescott (1901-1987), a distinguished novelist and a friend and contemporary of Winters. I promptly relieved him of them for more than I could readily afford.

Among the items was a typescript of two poems, “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote,” signed by Winters, with a note by Wescott: “I found this with poems of my own not later than the summer of 1920? (I think)”. To judge by the style he is correct. Winters’ first book of poetry, The Immobile Wind, was published in 1920, and these obviously belong to him, and to that period. They have appeared nowhere in print to my knowledge.

Winters took considerable pains with his literary estate. He issued a Collected Poems in 1952, revised it, adding two later poems, in 1960, and collected his early poetry in 1966. He was very definite about what he wanted to keep, as he was about most matters. In the introduction to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-28, he wrote as follows:

I publish this book to provide an authorized edition of my early and “experimental” work. Some one would do this in any event, and probably some one who would sweep all of my uncollected work into a single volume, with no indication of what I had considered my best work at the time I was writing and publishing it. I include three small books [The Immobile Wind, The Magpie’s Shadow, and The Bare Hills], a group of four poems previously uncollected from magazines, and two later groups of some size… Any other uncollected material is rubbish.

Some one else has done this, regardless, although Winters has been fortunate in his editors so far. In 1978 Donald Davie published The Poetry of Yvor Winters, which included everything from Winters’ own two collections and only fifteen additional pages of what he wished to throw away. In 2000 R.L. Barth put out a fine selection of Winters’ verse, along with a well-edited Selected Letters, which are amusing and harrowing by turns.

The Complete Poetry of Yvor Winters, with the usual trappings, critical detritus, and library pricing, is surely in our future. Sooner or later an academic with more diligence than talent will get around to exhuming Winters’ literary remains. He will want to see my typescript.

I will not reproduce “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote” here. They are, in fact, rubbish. The typescript gives me great joy to possess, and I will not let it go until I die. The question is, what then? Should I donate it to a library and put the poems in the public domain? Or should I burn it? You tell me: I honestly don’t know.