Art may spill over from creating a world of language into the dangerous and forbidden task of trying to create a human being.
—W. H. Auden (qtd. in Edward Mendelson, "The Secret Auden")
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Art may spill over from creating a world of language into the dangerous and forbidden task of trying to create a human being.
—W. H. Auden (qtd. in Edward Mendelson, "The Secret Auden")
The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry… For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.
The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.
To recognize Childe Roland as a Gnostic quester is to begin reading his poem as if it were a Borges parable of self-entrapment, another labyrinth made by men that men must decipher. A Gnostic quester is necessarily a kind of Quietist, for whom every landscape is infernal, and every shrine a squalor. In Shelleyan quest the objects of desire tend to touch the vanishing point of the visual and the auditory, but the field of quest remains attractive, though not benign. Childe Roland moves in the Gnostic nightmare, where all natural context looks and even sounds malevolent, and the only goal of desire is to fail.
“Fire Dreams” by Carl Sandburg
(Written to be read aloud, if so be, Thanksgiving Day)
I remember here by the fire,
In the flickering reds and saffrons,
They came in a ramshackle tub,
Pilgrims in tall hats,
Pilgrims of iron jaws,
Drifting by weeks on beaten seas,
And the random chapters say
They were glad and sang to God.
Since the iron-jawed men sat down
And said, “Thanks, O God,”
For life and soup and a little less
Than a hobo handout to-day,
Since gray winds blew gray patterns of sleet on Plymouth Rock,
Since the iron-jawed men sang “Thanks, O God,”
You and I, O Child of the West,
Remember more than ever
November and the hunter’s moon,
November and the yellow-spotted hills.
In the name of the iron-jawed men
I will stand up and say yes till the finish is come and gone.
God of all broken hearts, empty hands, sleeping soldiers,
God of all star-flung beaches of night sky,
I and my love-child stand up together to-day and sing: “Thanks, O God.”
Here’s a question Tumblr should appreciate, which occurred to me last week as I was failing to teach “The Glass Essay” to my creative writing class: why is our (I mean Tumblr’s, not my class’s) beloved Anne Carson never considered a Nobel contender? They need to give it to a Canadian eventually (Bellow doesn’t really count), and many, many people think they need to give it to more North Americans and more women and more poets in general. She’s aesthetically but not sociologically obscure, and she’s also “apolitical” in a way more or less amenable to the Nobel committee’s present interpretation of their “idealism” mandate, which seems to imply something in the orbit of a metaphysical anguished more-than-liberalism irrespective of practical political stances. Moreover, her recent orientation toward opera, dance, design and comics brings a bit of interdisciplinary but still high-brow cred, which lets them shed the stodgy image without having to give it to Bob Dylan. (Speaking of singer-songwriters, somewhere in my drafts, I have guessing game wherein I offer a set of lyric fragments and ask the reader to identify who wrote each one: Anne Carson or Tori Amos? It seemed too silly to post, though, once I decided its accompanying essay, a polemic against some Bourdieu-brandishing cultural theorist who wrote an absurdly snooty academic piece on Amos, didn’t deserve to see the light of day.)
There are passages in his works which rivet a conviction I had long entertained, that the indefinite is an element in the true poiesis. Why do some persons fatigue themselves in attempts to unravel such fantasy-pieces as the “Lady of Shalott”? As well unweave the “ventum textilem.” If the author did not deliberately propose to himself a suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning with the view of bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual effect–this, at least, arose from the silent analytical promptings of that poetic genius which, in its supreme development, embodies all orders of intellectual capacity.
I know that indefinitiveness is an element of the true music–I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision–imbue it with any very determinate tone–and you deprive it at once of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of fiery. It now becomes a tangible and easily appreciable idea–a thing of the earth, earthy. It has not, indeed, lost its power to please, but all which I consider the distinctiveness of that power.
I’m making my way through The Inferno again, with a view toward eventually reading the whole Comedy (instead of stop-starting constantly on various translations of Hell and never making it through Purgatory let alone to Paradise, which is what I’ve been doing with Dante for over a decade). Anyway, a question: Has anyone ever complained that the fault of The Divine Comedy is that it lacks all conflict and, therefore, suspense?
Dante presents a picture of a static universe. The engine of the plot, such as it is, is the progressive revelation of this universe to the poem’s speaker, who is in peril, we’re told (but rarely, excuse the MFA-speak, shown), of ending up in one of this immutable universe’s less salubrious pockets due to his failure to abide by the natural law. But Dante the pilgrim never really seems to be in moral danger; yes, he feels excessive pity for some of the damned souls, but then Virgil immediately chides him and prevents his reaction from getting out of hand, which also stops the reader from being misled along with the pilgrim.
So averse is the Comedy to suspense that when the pilgrim expresses puzzlement at what he’s seeing, Virgil upbraids him for not having properly read Aristotle, an orderly extrapolation from whose philosophy would explain the surroundings clearly. All the characters but one are fixed for eternity, and the one whose path remains open to him nevertheless has God, or at least several of God’s ministers, on his side, which gives him little chance to fail or doubt or wander. This even ruins the poem’s several attempts to generate suspense about physical danger to the pilgrim, as when he confronts impassible ravines or hostile demons. Is there any doubt he won’t come through with Virgil and Beatrice looking out for him?
The poem becomes sheer spectacle, a kind of medieval video game with an unkillable hero, where the onrushing imagery provides almost all of the readerly pleasure. And the images are extraordinary, I’ll say that: the Florentine had, if you’ll forgive me, a hell of a gift for invention. The conceptual dimension of the poem’s imagery is almost certainly the source of its prestige among intellectuals—the fact that each concrete picture enfolds three other abstract meanings of ascending spiritual importance masterfully stimulates the theoretical organ. Does it stir the imagination, though? Maybe Dante was a kind of Kenneth Goldsmith avant la lettre, except that he existed before the “late capitalist extinction of the audience” or whatever and so didn’t haughtily neglect to add beautiful music and sublime visuals. But for all that, it still strikes me as a bit of a soulless enterprise.
You may object that I’m imposing modern criteria—the dialogic text, the autonomous art object, the psychologically deep individual—to a work from a different conceptual universe and historical matrix. I will grant that I can’t really attain a total inner understanding of the medieval Christian cosmos without a far more thorough intellectual and linguistic grounding (if then), but I would argue that works even older than Dante’s manage to be dynamic in ways that his fails to be, and without necessarily being proto-individualistic or secular.
Antigone would perhaps be the famous example, given that the tragedy’s central conflict is undecideable: Creon and Antigone are both right on their own terms and in terms intelligible to the audience, even to a modern audience. Or think of Plato’s self-deconstructing dialogues with their written denunciations of writing and their clashing theories of love or power—Socrates may get the last word, but nobody forgets Aristophanes and Thrasymachus, and they are certainly not “defeated” on the levels of narrative and ontology as Dante’s antagonists are by being already in Hell when we meet them. Or, going back still further, there is Homer’s Iliad, where the end may be foretold but the Acheans and the Trojans make equal claims on our attention and sympathy, which renders their conflict wrenching and tragic for the audience.
Such work moves me because it immerses me in insoluble problems and asks me to choose, as life does. There is too little of this in Dante. It’s not so much that he leaves neither his hero nor his reader free to err, since I grasp his refusal to vindicate error; but because he and we lack freedom, salvation has little felt reality. Francesca has a certain pathos, yes, but she’s already damned, which forecloses our own ability to think or choose. Who would choose her path when we have its end before us? This poem’s theology entails free will, but the poem cannot give us a persuasive image or, better, experience of free will: this is a serious flaw, one immanent to the work’s own premise and not merely applied extrinsically from the present secular and/or gnostic moral and metaphysical order.
I wonder how many people Dante has converted, as Dostoevsky has no doubt converted people—and not only atheists to believers but also believers to atheists—with the urgency of his representations of faith and doubt. I’m not an Italianist or a medievalist; I approach this poem as little more than a common reader. As a common reader, though, I find its eminence somewhat puzzling. I hope I’m wrong—please tell me I’m wrong!
I know not whether I was here too bold,
But in this strain my answer flowed out free:
“Nay, tell me now how great a treasure of gold
Our Lord required of Peter, ere that He
Committed the great Keys into his hand;
Certes He nothing asked save ‘Follow Me.’
Nor Peter nor the others made demand
Of silver or of gold when, in the lost soul’s room,
They chose Matthias to complete their band.
Then bide thou here; thou hast deserved thy doom;
Do thou keep well those riches foully gained
That against Charles made thee so venturesome.
And were it not that I am so constrained
By veneration for the most high Keys
Thou barest in glad life, I had not refrained
My tongue from yet more grievous words than these;
Your avarice saddens the world, trampling on worth,
Exalting the workers of iniquities.
Pastors like you the Evangelist shewed forth,
Seeing her that sitting on the floods committing
Fornication with the kings of the earth;
Her, the seven-headed born, whose unremitting
Witness uplifted in her ten horns thundered,
While she yet pleased her Spouse with virtues fitting.
You deify silver and gold; how are you sundered
In any fashion from the idolater,
Save that he serves one god and you an hundred?
Ah, Constantine! what ills are gendered there—
No, not from thy conversion, but the dower
The first rich Pope received from thee as heir!”
Dante, Inferno XIX (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers)
(This one goes out to my late fellow adjunct instructor and fellow Pittsburgher Margaret Mary Vojtko.)
Here’s a literary-historical question for you, perhaps unanswerable but a spur to thought nonetheless. (Fair warning: this is Tumblr, not a scholarly journal, so in trying to answer it I will proceed by leaps and bounds, without proof-quotes or “on-the-other-hand” type of hedges.) The question:
Did the modernist revolution in literature have opposite consequences for fiction and poetry when it comes to beauty?
The modernist poet-theorists, after all, derogated both ornament and emotion; Pound redefined beauty in high-medieval and neo-Classical terms as “fitness to purpose” and eulogized rough, edgy Browning among the Victorians (whereas melodious Tennyson was the favorite Victorian whipping-boy of the modernists). Eliot and Pound had harsh words for Shakespeare (Pound preferred Chaucer; Eliot pronounced Hamlet an artistic failure), Milton, and the Romantics and their nineteenth-century successors (the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes). They elevated instead colder, more organized, and more conceptual figures from the western tradition: Dante* and Donne most famously. Forget the messy subjectivism and musical passion of the Romantics (including the proto- and the post-) from Shakespeare to Wilde—the modernist watchword in poetry is Classicism.
But the modernist novelists present a different picture. Woolf revered Shakespeare and Shelley and Pater, Fitzgerald was legendary for his love of Keats, Faulkner read (messy, subjectivist, proto-Romantic) Don Quixote once a year, Lawrence looked back to the American Romantics and Forster to the German, and Nabokov, of course, had Pushkin. Even Joyce and Beckett never shook the youthful Shelley influence, and Joyce (whose two least attractive features were very Dantean: the excessive systematizing and the vindictive obsession with local politics) allowed that he would take Shakespeare over Dante if it came down to the proverbial desert island (though even here the renegade Irish Catholic couldn’t resist a Swiftian barb against the capitalist Bard of the empire: “the Englishman is richer,” he mischievously explained of Shakespeare’s superiority to Dante).
Accordingly, isn’t it the case that fictional prose becomes conspicuously beautiful as its focus moved inward in the twentieth century (by “beautiful,” I mean deliberately rhythmic and patterned, full of sound devices like alliteration, consonance, assonance and various forms of pleasing repetition as well as holistic imaginative devices like metaphor and simile), while poetry goes in the opposite direction, toward the austerities pioneered by Imagisme or the rigorous anti-affective maneuvers of the avant-garde, which latter continues into the present in such worthless crap (sorry, I can only keep up the mask of scholarly impersonality for so long on a mere blog!) as Flarf and conceptual poetry and whatnot? Are there passages of nineteenth-century fictional prose so beloved for their linguistic beauty as the conclusions to “The Dead” or The Great Gatsby or The Unnameable, the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, the opening of Humbert’s narration in Lolita? And this trend continues straight to the end of the twentieth century, in the work of older writers at least: read just the final paragraphs of Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Toni Morrison’s Paradise for prose-poetry up there with the best of the 1920s.
Earlier fictional prose was not so concerned with beauty; if language-conscious, I would suspect it tends toward the gestures of rhetoric (i.e., concerned with persuasion) rather than any sort of lyricism, as when Dickens mounts his soap-box or George Eliot starts philosophizing. The major exceptions that leap to mind—Melville with his Shakespearean and Miltonic thunder that would make way for Faulkner and his successors; Flaubert with his precise visuals and flowing sentences that inspired writers as varied as Joyce and Cather, Hemingway and Nabokov—were more valued in the twentieth century than in their own time.
And we can further say that modernist novelists were in a role analogous to the Romantic poets themselves in the history of their respective art forms. That is, as the Romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment period of Newton’s sleep and Voltaire’s mockery by sweeping the overly social, overly satirical, and overly objective out of poetry to clear a space for emotion and metaphysics and lyricism, so too did the modernists confront the “materialism” (as Woolf called it) of late-Victorian and Edwardian realists/naturalists, who, like Enlightenment figures before them, were too narrowly focused on society as such and too naively hopeful about rational solutions. Rather than looking to Dante and Donne to re-animate Classicism with the modernist poets who were revolting precisely against Romanticism, the modernist novelists followed Shakespeare and Keats in combining psychology with lyricism, in setting subjectivity to prose music, as in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Mrs Dalloway or The Sound and the Fury. And I confess I am with them—I can appreciate Dante and Donne, sure, but I love Shakespeare and Keats.
I should avoid any comparison with our own period, but, if you’ll permit me to generalize, it seems to me that we’re in a rationalist and satirical cultural desert, choked by glib sarcasm, ephemeral political commentary, and mindless technocracy—and a lot of our fiction (and, indeed, our criticism), which is overly rhetorical, “funny” in a forced way, militantly anti-metaphysical, and boringly sociological, clearly shows it. Some kind of neo-Romanticism is in order, and will, I think, arrive in due course, since history is not teleological, as both progressivists and declinists like to believe, but cyclical.
*Dante, too large a figure to be captured by these categories, is obviously susceptible to both Classical and Romantic interpretation. In general, the Classicist would emphasize his imagistic objectivity, pattern-making intelligence, and conceptual order, while the Romantic would praise his visionary intensity, his musical terza rima, and the passion of his poetic personae. See Wilde’s The Critic as Artist for a Romantic Dante.
(In memoriam edition)
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
—Seamus Heaney, "Exposure"
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Seamus Heaney, “Personal Helicon”
RIP. Coincidentally, I assigned this poem for next week’s reading in my creative writing class. I will try to do it justice!