FOR FRANZ WRIGHT


L
……………………………………………….Liberation, Vendredi, 19  Janvier 1990

A small poem that dares to say what you probably meant when you came here blazing, Franz Wright — for almost certainly such anger was the result of a divine touch in you that does not allow you to compromise with anything or anyone.

Also a poem that has something to say, so it’s for Thomas Brady too, who will hate it.

For the record, this poem has been rejected by many of the top poetry reviews and journals in America over the years, the editors usually saying something like: “…drawn to the language in ‘Leonardo Amongst Women’… find myself distanced by the more didactic second half.” Or from another angle: “We can appreciate the craft and passion of your poem, but not the loss and worshipful longing it is steeped in.” The poem remains unpublished to this day.

……………………………..LEONARDO AMONGST WOMEN

…………………………………..The bulk not the vectors
…………………………………..is what old Merlin draws,
…………………………………..the wash of his own weight
…………………………………..shot through silk in motion.

…………………………………..Thus the kneeling girl that
…………………………………..God wants even more than he,
…………………………………..sheen of eggplant fish and
…………………………………..satin light on rose paper.

…………………………………..Yet even the new faithful
…………………………………..schooled to ask too much
…………………………………..study not the secret in the folds
…………………………………..but just the pale hands clasped
…………………………………..in prayer, the inviolable eyes
…………………………………..raised to praise everything but
…………………………………..the veiled act taking place
…………………………………..preposterously below—
…………………………………..precisely where the raw clay plug
…………………………………..cradled in that lone man’s hope
…………………………………..lingering turned, sweetly bound,
…………………………………..dignified in clinging drapes
…………………………………..and tight swaddling clouts
…………………………………..the immaculate desire to be
…………………………………..defined not by what we do but
…………………………………..like a mute maiden what she is
…………………………………..wound in her cocoon.

…………………………………..And so with unfurled wings
…………………………………..folding back like perfumed letters
…………………………………..in the dark, virgin lips signing
…………………………………..in the last low light and every
…………………………………..flute and hollow, genius spins
…………………………………..the miracle of thighs with down
…………………………………..so light it only lifts to knowledge
…………………………………..stroked the other way, leading
…………………………………..the man’s hand of God
…………………………………..to know those things
…………………………………..it never sees or ever thinks
…………………………………..but only dies to dream.

…………………………………..And if we priests and doctors
…………………………………..cannot bow our heads to live
…………………………………..draped amongst the women thus
…………………………………..we cannot hold God’s absence
…………………………………..live nor like the genius maiden
…………………………………..be the empty vessel it desires—

…………………………………..and then we only die to dream
…………………………………..no more—
…………………………………..and all our saints are peeping toms,*
…………………………………..and all our gold, lead.

………………………………………………………………“Les études de draperies,”
………………………………………………………………..Musée du Louvre 1990

______________________
This poem is based on a small Leonardo da Vinci exhibition I saw in the new underground gallery at the Louvre in 1990 called “Les études de draperies” — I have carried the original pages from the great Parisian left-wing newspaper, ‘Liberation’ (Vendredi, 19  Janvier 1990), with me ever since, the event meant so much to me.

The exhibition consisted of a series of experimental sketches in which the artist wound damp muslin strips around small, featureless lumps of clay and then drew just the wraps — one of the most eloquent demonstrations of the fullness of emptiness ever conceived in the mind of man but widely experienced, one suspects, by women.

* NOTE added December 4th, 2018: In the version of the poem discussed in this thread the last two lines read: “and all our saints are fools,/ and all our gold is lead.” I always annotate that discrepancy when it leads to confusion in the following discussion.

THE POEM OF MELANCHOLY HORROR

For the poem of melancholy horror to succeed, the reader must fall under its spell.

But just a tincture of the didactic and the effect is ruined.  Modern poets are especially prone to spoil this type of poem; they write of the horrible, but rarely combine horror with melancholy—which produces the sublime effect we have in mind.  The poem of melancholy horror peaked between 1800 and 1960.

American poetry in the last 20 years seems to be wholly absent of what we call melancholy horror.   We always seem to say, ‘That’s not melancholy, that’s depressing.’   We could assign this recent phenomenon to what we might term the scientific ego in the contemporary poet, a sort of clever hardness which will have no part of Victorian or Romantic sorrow.

Molly Peacock, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Lowell, to name some slightly older poets at random, have written poems of melancholy horror, but a determined busy-ness and verbosity, combined with a didactic intent, ensures failure.  Fred Seidel often gives us horror—and ego.  But there’s no melancholy, no shadow.

Part of the problem involves an acute misreading of Poe’s Heresy of the Didactic.  The issue is one of appearance: one must not appear to impart a moral or a lesson to the reader.

It is fine to impart a lesson; one just cannot seem to do so.

Poe made this quite explicit.

In terms of appearances, we all know that the best way to call attention to something is when we bungle the hiding of it.

This is what the modern poets do:  They know they cannot preach, but they cannot resist doing so, and because the moderns, in being good moderns, have chucked the stage devices of cheap, theatrical effects of the “old” poetry, and because the moderns suffer no hesitation in being frank and discursive in the above-board modern style, they tend to blurt out their lessons, which are poor lessons to begin with—since these moderns are not in the habit of really having anything to say, having been taught that the didactic should be avoided.

Pondering their Poe and the writings of the New Critics, with its ‘heresy of the paraphrase,’ the modern poets have come to think that one can write poetry while having nothing to say at all; if one cannot paraphrase their poem, they think, if their poem has no message or meaning, this is all the better, and perhaps, one day, they may even reach that ‘pure’ style of non-style all moderns affect,  and yet, given the modern style, in which melancholy surfaces and all sorts of cheap Victorian effects are to be eschewed, what remains is a kind of didacticism by default, sans lesson, sans moral, sans theme, just a kind of blathering that “wins” by avoiding the pitfalls Poe and the New Critics superficially laid out.

What Poe really meant—no one knows what the New Critics meant, since they never really thought the problem through—was this: The poet must not appear to be didactic; if the poet can impart a message without anyone noticing, good for the poet.  Thus a Wordsworth, who does have something to say, can succeed even in the face of Poe’s “heresy,” while a Robert Lowell, let’s say, stumbles, for Lowell imparts only the vaguest half-lessons, not because his lessons are well-hidden, but because he discursively bungles the HIDING ITSELF precisely because there is very little worth hiding in the first place.

If Lowell’s poem, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” for instance, were coherent in what it were ‘trying to say,’ the melancholy horror might work; but as it is, the poem is unfocused, flat, the transition from the stated theme to “as a small boy…” is clumsy; the poem has no emotional impact not because the theme lacks horror, but because the poet lacks wit.

Here, then are some of the best Lyric Poems of Melancholy Horror, certainly not meant to be definitive:

  1. Darkness  –Byron
  2. Because I Could Not Stop For Death  –Dickinson
  3. Mariana –Tennyson
  4. Bluebeard  –Millay
  5. La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –Keats
  6. The Truth the Dead Know  –Sexton
  7. In the Waiting Room  –Bishop
  8. In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned   –James Wright
  9. Pike  –Ted Hughes
  10. Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
  11. Lady Lazarus   –Plath
  12. A Brown Girl Dead  –Countee Cullen
  13. Mental Traveler   –Blake
  14. O Where Are You Going?  –Auden
  15. Sweeney Among the Nightingales   –Eliot
  16. The Men’s Room In the College Chapel  –Snodgrass
  17. Alone  –Poe
  18. The Phantom-Wooer  –Beddoes
  19. My Last Duchess  –Browning
  20. The Tourist From Syracuse  –Donald Justice
  21. Rime of the Ancient Mariner  –Coleridge
  22. Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
  23. Blue-Beard’s Closet  –Rose Terry Cooke
  24. Death of The Hired Man  –Frost
  25. Second Coming  –Yeats
  26. In A Dark Time  –Roethke
  27. Piazza Piece  –Ransom
  28. Nerves   –Arthur Symons
  29. Hunchback in the Park  –Dylan Thomas
  30. Suspira   –Longfellow

CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: The New Critical Habit and How I Broke It.

As someone who was trained at Yale and Cambridge in the 60s, caught the bug from W.K.Wimsatt, sipped sherry with I.A.Richards and E.M. Forster on the same couch at Kings, shared a bag lunch with F.R.Leavis in a cold brick corner of some unrecorded quadrangle at Darwin, and suffered a nervous breakdown when a close disciple of Wittgenstein played with his head and his wife somewhere down the Huntington Road toward Girton, mostly on a bicycle, I have the New Criticism in my blood — and it’s a rush, I tell you.

And that’s a major part of the problem for any New Critic, to resist the thrill of using the gift of the academic gab as if it were a divine right — and I had a lot of that sort of chutzpah too, which I’ve now partly outgrown and partly forgotten. Indeed, that gift has bedevilled me both as a teacher and a poet all my life — because I so loved being a Guardian of the Poetry Threshold, I got so high on it, so vatic and blissfully feathered, I was not to be trusted on the ground at all. And even in my twilight years here on another planet I can still hold forth for hours and hours on a text, and the few people that somehow find their way to my table in Chiang Mai and ask the wrong question, e.g. anything to do with poetry, are still in mortal danger.

The danger is the way we New Critics deliver the message that only specially trained people can get the full meaning out of poetry, and even worse, that poetry that’s good is difficult.

We New Critics have become heavy pushers of that line, and far from increasing the popularity of poetry, our critical ‘gifts’ have crippled those who would like to hear about it just as much as those who would like to write it. For just like heroin, the effects of the New Criticism are as irresistible as they are destructive, and we’ve all ended up hooked on a kind of poetry that simply can never deliver enough. Indeed, the habit gets bigger and bigger even as we get smaller and smaller and more and more isolated from the world of real people down below.

Enter American poetry today. Enter the New Critical Angel.

Angels? Well Kierkegaard can tell you just how dangerous “great moments” can be, and how disastrously misleading, but there’s another picture that works for me too. In the well-known Tibetan mandala,  ‘The Wheel of Life,’ the angels are at the very top either blissfully at ease or blissfully exerting power. At the very bottom are the ghosts in hell, thirsty, hungry, endlessly tormented, abject victims of their own ignorance. Human beings are exquisitely poised between the two extremes and, the Buddha says, that’s a better place to be than even among the angels — because humans are the only beings that have any real hope of seeing things as they are, and thus achieving freedom from self-serving prejudice. And why? Ghosts suffer, angels live in bliss, but only human beings know both at once. When at last the heavens begin to change after countless aeons, and the slightest crack appears in the firmament, which inevitably it does, says the Buddha, an angel is unable to adapt. An angel’s attachment to bliss, permanence and control is so insidious it falls headlong into the very deepest hell at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Even an animal, it is said, is better off at that moment than an angel.

Instructional, and the curse of all inflation.

What I did about the potential Angel in myself, the Poet-written-Big in my nature, was truly radical. I simply placed a moratorium upon myself as a writer, and from my teen years in the 50s until I felt at last safe enough to try again in the 90s, I just didn’t write poetry at all. I always knew I was a poet, secretly, but a poet who couldn’t be trusted to write poetry as it should be written, with restraint, patience and integrity. Like T.E.Lawrence on the road to Damascus in 1918, I realized that “all established reputations were founded, like myself, on fraud,” and in my own humble way I wanted to avoid that pitfall. Even though I was very young and not remotely anything special, just living in a special time and place, I knew I had to be careful. And in the end I did manage to stay me, and not become just another fiddling angel. I arrested my development, went into artistic hibernation, and emerged 30 years later to publish my first poem at 52 without any established reputation at all to get in the way.

Here’s a poem about all this — it’s still a ‘new critical’ type poem, for sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it better. And there is room for this type of poem in Parnassus too, it’s just a lot harder to keep your head at such a heady level and, of course, to keep your hat off.

Christopher Woodman,…………
Chiang Mai…………

…………………………SAMSON BETWEEN THE PILLARS,
…………………………SAUL AND LAWRENCE ON THE ROAD

…………………………………There was knocking but
…………………………………no door into that heroic
…………………………………world but first
……………………………………………………….bowing out of it,
…………………………………deferring gracefully to those
…………………………………small private abstentions
…………………………………that had murmured all
…………………………………along just behind the
…………………………………uncompromising hard
…………………………………………………………god’s brilliance.

…………………………………Like all things likely shorn
…………………………………undressed ears can hear
…………………………………the faintest abdication
…………………………………………………………………knocking.

…………………………………Each white petal’s fall or
…………………………………slightest finger’s white
……………………………………………………………print in soot,
…………………………………every clean track or dry
…………………………………tear knocks too against
……………………………………………………………that solitude.

…………………………………Even the infinitesimal shock
…………………………………of a single naked
………………………………………………………………snow-flake
…………………………………slipping through some
…………………………………daedalian avenue before
…………………………………all that slicked-back tar
…………………………………can even wink at such
…………………………………quick celestial skin
…………………………………………………………..is knocking—
…………………………………just as veiled eyes seeing
…………………………………too many fine things done
…………………………………for the good in Damascus
…………………………………turn toward whatever
…………………………………violence or private wailing
…………………………………………………………….wall closing
…………………………………even as the bluntest flint
…………………………………tapping, tapping opens.

……………

…………………………….