May 282003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle

Since Jim Henley kindly listed me among poetry bloggers, the least I can do is a little poetry blogging, I figure. Remember that endless series on How to Read a Poem I wrote a while back? Thought not, but no matter: it’s practice time. I will take Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream, partly because it’s interesting and short, partly because Stevens is one of my favorite poets, partly because it’s inscrutable on first reading, and mostly because AC Douglas suggested it, and I like to indulge AC Douglas. The third-party imprimatur also protects me from accusations of choosing a poem that happens to illustrate my theories, not that I would ever do such a thing.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

My advice was first to paraphrase, and to paraphrase first look up words that you don’t understand in context, “deal” in my case. There is nothing mysterious about “a dresser of deal”: “Deal” is a term from the lumber trade, meaning a board of fir or pine at least 3″ by 9″. (Stevens’ Collected Poems actually has a period after “deal,” which shatters the syntax, so I’ve followed most editors and used a comma instead.)

Now that we know all the words, what the hell is going on? Some sort of social event, whose nature is finally cleared up in the second stanza, when a sheet (embroidered with fantails, in a stab at art) is pulled from a dresser to cover a woman’s head. This is a low-class funeral, with flowers in last month’s newspapers, sloppy wenches, and a dresser with three glass knobs missing.

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

Ready to paraphrase:

“Observe the cheap goings-on in this cheap kitchen at a funeral: girls who won’t dress properly, a cigar-roller making ice-cream, a boy bringing flowers in old newspapers.

“Now go to the next room, where the dead woman’s body is laid out, uncovered. Take a sheet out of the drawer and give her a shroud. The sheet is hand-cut, but embroidered with fantails; she tried to make some art out of her life, poor as it was. But the sheet’s too short and her feet stick out, making her look even colder and deader than when she was uncovered. Artifice fails to hide the brute facts. Take a good look. (‘Let the lamp affix its beam.’) Reality is in the kitchen, and there is nothing else.”

If you prefer, Helen Vendler, a reliably awful critic, supplies a more overwrought version. Ignore the prefatory chatter about ur-narratives and ur-forms.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream essentially inverts ars longa, vita brevis, the embroidered sheet being literally too short to serve even as a proper shroud. Vita, if we translate it loosely as animal vitality, is what lasts. Truth resides with the wenches, the muscular roller, the big cigars, and the concupiscent curds. In the idiom of the seventh line, be trumps seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Now that I understand the poem, I don’t like it. Stevens’ immense metrical gift does not desert him; the last two lines of each stanza are beautifully executed tetrameter/alexandrine couplets, which are almost impossible to manage gracefully in English verse, where pentameter is expected. But the poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose. Even the pleasures of hedonism are only for the few, and only for a while, and here they have spoiled. Now hedonism is an exceptionally limited view of the world, but it has real compensations, and Stevens has written about them elsewhere, in some of the greatest lines of the last century:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

(Update: AC Douglas offers his own analysis. He doesn’t seem quite as unhappy with mine as the rest of my commentators.)

May 252003

Mike Snider, via The Blowhards, mourns the dearth of hetero male sex poetry. I got your hetero male sex poetry right here! Granted, I had to raid the 16th century to find it.

All my senses, like beacons’ flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia’s name,
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury’s wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard’s heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
Sweet god Cupid where am I,
That by pale Diana’s light:
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our sense with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine:
Look where lies the Milken Way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone.
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust:
Fancy’s scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust,
I stepp’d forth to touch the sky,
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind,
Who can neither forward move,
Nor if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic Pole,
Where Sol passeth o’er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace:
He that lets his Cynthia lie,
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away:
Let no love-desiring heart,
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature’s art,
Wonder hinders love and hate.
None can well behold with eyes,
But what underneath him lies.

–Fulke Greville

Greville (Lord Brooke), incidentally, friend and biographer of Sidney and finance minister to Queen Elizabeth I, is the greatest English poet that you’ve never heard of. To clear up a few difficulties of diction and syntax: “Die” has the standard Elizabethan double meaning of sexual climax. “Lies,” in the last line, has both of its modern senses. “Thoughts take thought that go of trust” means that one’s own anxiety makes one’s thoughts unreliable; it is a gloss on the preceding line.

This poem mocks the conventions of Elizabethan courtly love poetry and praises sex for its own sake in the most brutal terms. Greville gives us the dithering lover, absorbing himself in spiritual concerns, in three brilliant images: the river running away from the river-bank, the North Pole deserted by the sun (the “line” of “Where Sol passeth o’er the line” is the Equator), and the convict preaching from the gallows. The poem’s brutality derives from the fact that Greville, a Calvinist, believed in the absolute separation of body and soul, and allegiance to one, for him, entails rejection of the other. He later turned to the soul and wrote even better poems than this one, which is a post for another day.

May 152003

I receive a suspicious number of hits for search strings containing “analysis” — “Emily Dickinson there’s a certain slant of light analysis,” and “analysis invictus” and “herrick virgins time analysis” and the like. (On the other hand, I’m #30 on Google for “bestiality tutorial.”) Finally, yesterday, “Alison” fessed up:

AAAAHHHHH somebody help-im reciting this poem sonnet for a speech and drama exam tomorrow, ive been trying to find info on Lizzy [Elizabeth Daryush, who may not have answered to “Lizzy”] for ages but cant find anything im so frustrated!! anyway id just thought id let you all know-some of your comments were helpful though! Bye

You know, Alison, in my day we didn’t have this new-fangled Internet thingy. We had to walk ten miles through a blizzard to the library to plagiarize Lionel Trilling. And we liked it! helping high school students with their speech and drama homework since 2002.

May 062003

Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.

Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.

It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likely includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has “a message,” it is the kind that has none.

Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.

Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.

We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.

Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.

Apr 052003

It’s a poetry controversy! These are rare and I can’t pass up an opportunity to weigh in on Tony Hoagland’s essay on the necessity of meanness in poetry. I agree with Jim Henley and Eve Tushnet (scroll down to “Golden Mean,” Blogspot archives hosed as usual) that “meanness” is not the right word. Jim suggests “savagery” or “ruthlessness,” but I don’t find those quite satisfactory either. I propose “hatred.”

Love is blind, hate never. Hate clarifies, and great poets hate with excellent reason, as Yvor Winters tactlessly points out:

During the Romantic movement a great deal of sentimental nonsense was written about the isolation of the artist, and the nonsense usually verges on self-pity… The fact remains, however, that the artist, if he really is an artist, is really isolated, and his personal life in this respect is a hard one. There are few people with whom he can converse without giving offense or becoming angry. It is no accident that so many great writers have sooner or later retreated from society: they retreat because they are excluded. A first-rate poet differs from his contemporaries (and I include those who think of themselves as literary contemporaries) not in being eccentric or less human, but in being more central, more human, more intelligent. But the difference in this respect between, let us say, a great poet and most distinguished scholars is very great, and few scholars are distinguished; and the scholar cannot recognize the difference and is scarcely prepared to admit the possibility of the difference, for he regards himself as a professional man of letters. To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him; but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

This passage is not free from self-pity either, but it is salutary to be occasionally reminded by our betters how they really see us. The overwhelming fact in the life of any great poet is impenetrable human stupidity, yours and mine. Emily Dickinson did not spend her life in her room because she was a crazy lady.

Some of the greatest poetry in English is hate poetry, although you’d never guess it from Hoagland’s limp examples. Proceeding by century, from the 16th we have Ralegh’s The Lie, Gascoigne’s Woodmanship, and Ayton’s To an Inconstant One. From the 17th, Jonson’s Ode to Himself (“Come, leave the loathed stage”) and Dryden’s MacFlecknoe. Paradise Lost is an interesting case. God, whom Milton loves but cannot see, is a bore: Satan, whom he hates and sees all too clearly, comes to life. This is the truth behind Shelley’s remark that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it.

The best English poem of the 18th century is Churchill’s Dedication to Warburton, a savage attack on a literary bully and fraud. (It’s unavailable on the web; if someone asks nicely I’ll post it.) Honorable mention to The Dunciad and Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. In the 19th century vituperation seemed to go out of fashion; but the 20th yields up Bogan’s Exhortation, J.V. Cunningham’s Ars Amoris and “Hang up your weaponed wit”, Winters’ own Danse Macabre. This is more or less off the top of my head. You’d be hard-pressed to produce a list of love poems of comparable quality.

And always remember, when you read these poems, that it’s you and me they’re talking about.

(Update: Jim Henley comments.)

Mar 252003

Eddie Thomas, who ordinarily philosophizes, ventures into poetry analysis — of very bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He chooses “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine,” by the Derailers, a honky-tonk band I’ve never heard of. The lyrics run:

Every time we talk, you keep asking me
Where our hearts are headed and how it’s gonna be
Well it’s too soon to tell, I can’t make that call
I’m not a fortune teller, I don’t have a crystal ball

Your guess is good as mine, I’m playing it by ear
And I’m not really sure, where we go from here
Where our love will lead, we may learn in time
Baby your guess is good as mine

Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, forget about the past
Let’s enjoy the moment, don’t leave the best for last
There may come a day when we can reminisce
Right now we better concentrate on every single kiss

Eddie finds a good deal in this doggerel: “[W]hy is she concerned about the future so early in the relationship? Isn’t it likely that she’s deciding if he’s worth giving it up for? And isn’t his worth exactly what he is trying to get her not to think about? This isn’t carpe diem exactly, and I don’t think he’s concentrating on every single kiss, but I wish him luck.”

One difficulty here lies with the term carpe diem, which is not so simple as it appears. One version is a plain celebration of youth, which one might call naive carpe diem. The locus classicus of this theme in English is Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” This poem celebrates youth: “That age is best which is the first,/ When youth and blood are warmer.” Herrick, a clergyman by trade, piously and disinteredstedly advises the virgins to marry while they’re young.

Unlike Herrick, his contemporary, Andrew Marvell, in “To His Coy Mistress,” has an agenda, and makes no bones about it: “And your quaint honor turn to dust,/ And into ashes all my lust.” He evinces no desire for marriage, and such love as he has for his mistress is subjunctive. Perhaps with world enough, and time, “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow”; but without it love doesn’t even enter the picture. “To His Coy Mistress” might be classified decadent carpe diem. The poem’s extremely high polish conceals its cold-bloodedness. Marvell even refers to himself in the third person in the title, as if to emphasize his distance from the scene. Although I find things to admire in this poem, I don’t, unlike Eddie, wish the poet luck in his designs — assuming they are real, and the poem is not merely an academic exercise.

The Derailers’ song is more like Marvell’s poem than Herrick’s. What both versions of carpe diem share, however, is a tightly circumscribed view of experience. It abstracts away everything that is not immediate experience, which is most of what makes humans human. Eddie wonders whether his reading is private. I don’t think so. He interests himself in what is not stated in the poem, which is legitimate, provided it bears on what is stated. By doing so Eddie indirectly points up what makes carpe diem always a minor theme.

I look forward to the day one of the Derailers self-Googles and happens on this exchange.

(Update: Eddie comments, wondering if there is “a loss of truth” when song lyrics lose their music. I would say there is a loss of power. Poetry, at its best, depends largely on subtle metrical effects, which music swamps, so song lyrics that employ them are largely wasted. I remember my favorite songs for their music, and only incidentally for their lyrics. The only band I know whose lyrics are interesting by themselves is mid-70s Pink Floyd.)

Mar 072003

Chard Whitlow
(Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Evening Postscript)

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again — if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded tube.

There are certain precautions — though none of them very reliable —
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell.”
Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray, not for your skins, but your souls.

And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain.

–Henry Reed

Mitigating factor: Eliot said about this poem: “Most parodies of one’s own work strike one as very poor. In fact one is apt to think that one could parody oneself much better. (In fact some critics have said that I have done so.) But this one deserves the success it has had.”

(Update: Felicity McCarthy comments.)

Feb 262003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading

The vehicle of a poem is the figure that carries the weight of the composition. The tenor is the subject to which the vehicle refers. (These useful terms come from I.A. Richards, author of Practical Criticism, which has the peculiar distinction of being the funniest work of literary criticism ever written.) Usually when two critics disagree about the meaning of the poem, one is reading at the level of the tenor, the other at the level of the vehicle. Great poetry succeeds at both levels. Consider J.V. Cunningham’s To the Reader:

Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
In commentary,

For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text,

And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

The vehicle here is scholarship, and how readily a work can be buried in the footnotes. On this level the poem is witty but not very profound. Yet there is the strange first line: Time will assuage — what exactly? What time always assuages: experience. What sort of experience? The answer is in the second-to-last-line, which refers to the text not as “lost,” as you might expect from the vehicle, but as “loss,” which is quite different. Cunningham is speaking of unhappy experience — but in general, rather than mourning some particular loss. The visceral quality of the experience necessarily diminishes as time passes. What is gained is “gloss” — only from a distance can you evaluate the experience and learn from it. The loss is real, but so is the gain, which may be sufficient compensation. This is the tenor.

To the Reader is remarkable in that every detail functions on both levels; most poems are sloppier. The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., is a more typical example. (It’s too long to reprint here, but go read it, it’s worth your time.) As Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, pointed out a while ago, at the level of the tenor the poem deals with the implosion of American Protestantism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The shay’s career, like Protestantism’s collapse, begins with the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Musil writes: “In America, the New England Protestants had their own interpretation of the earthquake: God was showing the world that what the world thought was ‘Godly’ just didn’t measure up to divine standards at all. So the New England Protestants set about redesigning their Calvinist faith.” Just as the Deacon, a cleric, builds his shay. One hundred years later, the attempted reforms of Protestantism collapse, just like the shay, and “Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Unitarianism and many, many other new or revitalized religions emerged from that mid-19th-century religious ‘Big Bang.'”

The one-hoss shay, however, does not gradually fall apart, as religious reforms do. On the contrary, Holmes takes pains to point out that, since every part of the shay is precisely as well-constructed as every other, the end finds

The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, —
All at once, and nothing first, —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

Musil says about this that “Holmes exaggerates the precision of the collapse,” but there’s more to it than that. In fact this detail is irrelevant to the tenor but indispensable to the vehicle, which is literal in this case. The poem, at the level of the vehicle, satirizes engineering. (It is quite popular with engineers, and hangs in many workshops.) Every made object has a weakest point, where it eventually breaks. Holmes’ Deacon neatly solves the problem by building each part to last exactly one hundred years. This is a superb joke on engineering but has nothing to do with Protestantism, just as the shay’s birth on the day of the Lisbon earthquake has a great deal to do with Protestantism and nothing to do with engineering. Some details work on one level and some on the other, whereas Cunningham manages his two levels seamlessly. This is one distinction between great and less great poetry.

To return for the last time to the Thomas Hardy poem, My spirit will not haunt the mound, with which I began the series: at the level of the vehicle, the poet says that he will live on only in the memories of those who cared for him in life. But at the level of the tenor, however, Hardy is addressing not his friends, but his readers. Otherwise why is he writing poetry at all? The details of where his “phantom-footed shape will go” are notably general: there are “places,” and “ways,” and that’s all. The places and ways are real, and they are imagined. They are from his life and his writing both.