WORDSWORTH, CALL YOUR OFFICE

I gave a shout when I read the following words, yesterday:

It is the honorable characteristic of poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writing of critics, but in the poets themselves.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered experiments.  They were were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.  Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy those attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

The reason I shouted upon reading the passage above was not from its content, for none dispute “every subject which can interest the human mind” pertains to poetry, and that “middle and lower clases of society” benefit from “experiments” by “poets” in a war against “gaudiness and inane phraseology.”

No, I disturbed my neighbors at my local cafe with a surprised yawp because the passage decrying “many modern writers” was published in 1798.

It flashed upon me that two centuries later, we have come full circle.

Following the Romantic revolution in English speaking poetry heralded by Wordsworth & Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads which brought us the accessible sublimities of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Barrett, Tennyson and Millay, we now have the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of contemporary poetry which nobody reads.

The trouble began when a few modernist writers, rejecting the Romantics, and thinking themselves “Classical,” gave us this sort of bombast:

And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,/Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

This schoolboy imitation of Homer certainly fits the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers” admonished by Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The modern writer in this case is Pound.

And “gaudiness” aptly conveys the mountains of needless detail we get from poetry like this

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming/in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,/I hog a whole house on Boston’s/”hardly passionate Marlborough  Street,”

One can almost see Wordsworth wondering, ‘Why is it important that the narrator [Robert Lowell, here] only teaches on Tuesdays?’  Sheepishly we moderns must reply, It isn’t.  We’d have trouble defending anything about this sort of gaudy confessional, in fact.  If such lines were discovered in a notebook, no one would think twice about saving them.

Wordsworth, call your office.

We’ve got a problem.

6 Comments

  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    “…the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers” admonished by Coleridge and Wordsworth.” The modern writer in the following case is also Pound, and how it irritates me when the passage is held up as an example of how well, despite all the eccentricities and bombast, Pound could actually write. Classical lines by the master, I’ve heard them called, proof of the master’s talent.

    Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash,
    Sleek head, daughter of Lir,
    eyes of Picasso,
    Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean . . .

    But the lines haven’t been worked on from within, only from without. Yes, the language is “nuanced” alright, but it’s self-consciously nuanced for magisterial effect, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that. One doesn’t believe it, in other words, one doesn’t trust it. It’s either the ‘work’ of a bad actor on a good day or a good actor on a bad day–but whichever it’s simply not convincing enough, and judged in the light of eternity it’s certainly not ‘great’.

    The performance lies, as my acting teacher used to say to me. It pretends.

    So here’s what I said about the lines a little while ago in another discussion on Poets.net.

    “Seal sports” to “cliff-wash’–yes, we’re voyaging with Beowulf, and everybody knows Beowulf and the word-hoard of A.S. metaphors and kennings. On the other hand, few know those cliffs like the Beowulf poet knew them, and even fewer have gotten close enough to see the head of a seal in the cliff water back-wash. That’s a dangerous place to be, and this poet hasn’t been there for sure because the language is derivative, self-conscious and manipulative.

    It’s too beautiful (“gaudiness?” “inane phraseology?”). It’s basically written for literary friends and to hood-wink the hoipoloy.

    “Seal sports”–adjective and noun or noun and verb? Lazy language, literary stuff. And the seals don’t “sport’ in those conditions, they just look at you with ravishing disdain and then disappear.

    They sport sometimes in still water clambering on or off the rocks to sun themselves, but mostly in zoos.

    “Spray-whited?” Have you ever seen a cliff spray whited, or even spray-white? And if you haven’t but have a good imagination and ear, would you make this choice?

    “Black fur-hood?” This is a ridiculous piece of literary fluffery. Real seals in the ocean are naked–that’s why they’re lithe, that’s why they’re lovers. Seal fur is what you find in dry shops far from the sea. Fur hoods are for avenues, and not black either like the seals used to be in Life Magazine and still are in National Geographic.

    “Making choices.” That’s what my acting teacher insisted we must do, and by doing so commit ourselves to excellence.

    This passage is amateur, a cop out, pure summerstock!.

    The absurd affectation of it, the lyrical intensity of the homero-celtic bard who just can’t help it because the gods are pressing in so hard from every direction and what can you do but name them? You hear voices and the voices must be named so the gods will leave you alone. It’s their poem–they love you so much they won’t leave you alone!

    What a joke, what pretension. And let’s not even think about “eyes of Picasso,” about what sort of demon might have been possessing Pound there, and I don’t mean Pablo Picasso!

    And Lir… lithe daughter of Ocean? You’d have to be Ezra Pound to think you could get away with that, or a disciple or a graduate student. We’re not Greeks or Romans or Irish Republicans or even English Public School boys out of Eton or Harrow fighting Victoria’s little wars all over the Empire with the Latin gods in our pockets. We’re just American Masterpiece Theatre intellectuals, that’s all, and we talk about Yeats, Pound and Eliot because they’re our gods. And if we admitted we weren’t always convinced by them or that sometimes they were bad? I mean, what better way to look, perish the thought, uninformed, uncritical?

    Which was a major part of the ploy of the one of these three who was the least gifted, the most self-absorbed, and the most influential!

    Wordsworth and Coleridge would have thrown up their hands in despair, or collapsed in giggles.

    Christopher

  2. thomasbrady said,

    January 12, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    What some intellectuals don’t seem to get is that poetry exists to combat pedantry; it is one of poetry’s major uses.

    What is poetry good for? –We ask. I’ll tell you what poetry is good for. It’s good for telling the Ezra Pounds of the world to stuff it. Poetry uses language, feeling, etc in such a manner that it puts off pedantry, tramples on it, shows it up for what it is. UNLESS of course, the pedants take control of poetry and put it to their OWN insidious use.

    That’s the battle. Ezra Pound-ism must be called out. It’s good for poetry–and everything else.

  3. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 13, 2010 at 4:52 am

    One of the most pernicious effects of Modernism is it’s self-conscious reliance on the past while at the same time insisting it’s making poetry completely new. What an irony, like names dropping to prove the legitimacy of your own name, or the integrity of your independence by trotting out your pedigree!

    The Pound passage from Canto II is a beautiful case in point, as its antique veneer, Olde English setting, and clubby in-house references (whose eyes did you say, whose daughters?) are used to legitimize the self-absorbed hodge-podge that comes later.

    The discussion of this passage on the Poets.net Forum is an interesting one, and offers a striking contrast with the type of discussion that The Poetry Foundation seems to prefer on Blog:Harriet or The Academy of American Poetry on Poets.org. Imagine having the freedom and space to be able to write like Monday Love does in the passage that follows (I couldn’t disagree with you more about Emily Dickinson, Tom, but what you say doesn’t make me angry. Indeed, it gives me a new perspective on what I value most about her — and a statement like “Some poets couldn’t do manifesto-ism if they tried” makes me fly!):

    Christopher,

    Pound was a victim of manifesto-ism. Eliot said all a poet needed was intelligence, there are no rules, and Henry James (a child of Emerson, like Eliot) said the same thing of fiction. The great mind (inscrutable!) finds a way to get it done. But manifesto-ism is obsessed with how it gets done, and thus blows up in the face of the fanatic–as Pound’s worse than bad lines illustrate.

    As for Emily–as I stay to keep this thread on track–what she was doing was quite simple; she was not writing like Milton or Pope or Keats or Shelley; she was too humble to attempt that. But what became the rage in the 19th century? Orientalism. Translating fragments and small poems of the Ancients, of the East, where small, glittering sentiments are made manifest in a few passionate, bone-simple, jade-pure lines. Emily takes this pagan art and adds her Western twist; unlike the translators, she is free to pour forth her own words and sentiments, but in the same vein, and that’s all she is, really. We try to make her into a special case, because she was a spinster recluse living in Massachuessets in the mid to late 19th century and discovered/published in the heyday of Modernism when great women poets were scarce (Edna Millay was too mainstream, like Frost, and Modernists like Hugh Kenner sorely resented Millay for this, so she was kicked, like Poe) and together with Whitman (the Modernists had no gay poets, either) these two, Dickinson/Whitman, invited late to the party, but invited, shut the door on Poe for good; the ‘First American Poets’ were now considered Dickinson/Whitman and the triumph of Poe could be pushed aside and forgotten forever. Critics like Van Wyk Brooks (winner of “Dial” Prize in the 1920s) and F.O. Matthiessen of Harvard saw to that. Poe became a footnote in the American Literature of the New England Renaissance (How ironic that Griswold was from VT, a New Englander, like Greeley, also from VT, like Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Channing (friend of Greenleaf Eliot, TS Eliot’s grandfather) Henry and William James (who will teach Stein & Wallace Stevens at Harvard) and Whitman, a slavish follower of Emerson, (except for the sexual rebellion.)

    But back to Dickinson, who must be seen, with Whitman, as a very minor figure; just as Whitman copied the prose of Emerson into poetry, Dickinson copied the little poems of the classical and post-classical world coming to America in translation.

    Here’s a poem by Tu Mu (803-853)

    Egrets

    Snowy coats and snowy crests and beaks of blue jade
    Flock above the fish in the brook and dart at their own shadows.
    In startled flight show up far back against the green hills,
    The blossoms of a whole pear-tree shed by the evening wind.

    (translated by A.C. Graham)

    Dickinson adds her protestant God, which is half ‘fantasy male seducer’ to the mix and therefore you’ve got something pretty potent. It doesn’t matter what Emily’s ‘beliefs’ were; this is the cultural sensibility she was working in; she could write the short Eastern lyric without the burden of ‘translating’ and she could add her passionate mono-theistic tendency.

    Wild Nights! …. Rowing in Eden!/ Ah, the sea! / Might I but moor/Tonight in thee!

    It’s interesting to note that the French 19th century poets who influenced Eliot, Pound, Winters, Ransom, and thus Modernism, were doing the same thing:

    Paul Verlaine (1844-1869)

    Green

    Here you have fruits and flowers and boughs with leaves,
    And then my heart, which beats for you alone–
    May your white hands not tear it–humble sheaves!
    May they seem sweet to you when they are shown!

    I come again all covered with the dew
    That morning wind has frozen on my brow.
    Suffer my weariness, at rest near you,
    To dream of quiet that I come to now.

    Upon this young breast, let my dull head fall,
    Ringing with your last kisses; this, and best,
    Let it grow quiet there from storm and all
    In a brief sleep, since you too are at rest.

    (translated by Yvor Winters)

    Dickinson is clumsy, often, working in this tradition. She moves us by her homeliness. So I don’t know but that Dickinson, the myth aside, is perhaps somewhat overrated. But she at least manages to avoid manifesto-ism. Some poets couldn’t do manifesto-ism if they tried, and this is usually good.

    Yvor Winters mentored Donald Justice who mentored Jorie Graham. You could probably fit the ‘significant poets’ of American poetry, all connected, into a single large room. Graham was just clobbered by a review in the latest “Poetry” magazine (October). And published in the latest Best American Poetry 2008. She gets attention. Donald Justice knows you, and then you are known. The root knows the flower. The life of ‘the family tree.’

    Monday
    Re: What if Emily Dickinson Belonged to a Workshop Group?
    « Reply #114 on: September 27, 2008, 02:10:55 PM »

    Well, that’s how we wrote six months ago on Blog:Harriet as well, and presumably why we got so harrassed by the management and eventually banned altogether. Clearly, the powers that be have a vested interest in keeping American poetry in quarantine, and want to protect it from such free-wheeling enquiry. Yes, there are lots of archival arcana and network nuances being batted back and forth by Kent Johnson, Henry Gould, Nick, Noah Freed and the other pukka regulars, but the kind of writing that transcends what is already known to them seems to be off-limits!

    Their pedantry is o.k. but not our love of poetry!

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 13, 2010 at 7:05 am

    When one Blog:Harriet regular called this sort of writing “inane bloviation,” Don Share replied:

    All these various characterizations notwithstanding… as Stefan Collini so nicely put it a while ago, “good criticism makes us wary of underestimating writing with which we thought ourselves familiar.” So I figure this a good thread if it gets a few folks to think twice about Jeffers. Hokay?

    Posted By: Don Share on July 6, 2009 at 10:53 pm
    Report this comment

    Hokay, but what about overestimating writing with which we thought ourselves familiar too? Doesn’t good criticism also serve that function, to re-examine our literary assumptions and fashions?

    Or are we too well-trained and liberated to make mistakes in our assessments? Is our poetry for the first time in human history free from linguistic, geographical and cultural prejudices?

    Give me a break.

    Never in human history has poetry been less universal, more parochial, more provincial than it is today. Indeed, it’s so local it can’t be read by anybody living more than a few yards outside the quadrangle in which it was written!

  5. thomasbrady said,

    January 13, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Don Share, within his status quo position, warns against “underestimating” poetry; and that’s all these guys are: blind cheerleaders. Exactly, Christopher, “overestimating” is not in Share’s vocabulary, because he’s so busy shilling for the art, which is great, I suppose, someone’s got to do it, but don’t look for philosophical depth in that quarter…

    Speaking of Dickinson…she also must have read her Tennyson.

    Two of Dickinson’s most famous tropes come right out of one poem: Tennyson’s “Mariana,” published when Alfred was 20.

    I can’t help but think Dickinson would have been drawn to a poem like this which bespeaks her situation.

    All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
    The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
    Or from the crevice peered about.
    Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
    Old voices called her from without.
    She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
    He cometh not,’ she said;
    She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
    I would that I were dead!’

    And in this stanza we find image no. 2:

    The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound,
    Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
    Her sense;but most she loathed the hour
    When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
    Was sloping toward his western bower
    .
    Then said she, ‘I am very dreary,
    He will not come,’ she said;
    She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
    O God, that I were dead!’

    Here you have ‘a fly buzzed when I died’ and ‘there’s a certain slant of light’

    Thomas

  6. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 14, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Whether or not Emily Dickinson knew these lines, or was echoing them, and hey, why not, her lines are uniquely hers — as are his, his.

    What is unique about the first Tennyson line, which is indeed the best line in the excerpt, is the choice of the past participle as opposed to the simple past indicative, “sung” instead of “sang.” To my ear, the vowel range of “sung” and “pane” makes the buzzing even more intrusive and annoying, and will become even more unbearable after the mouse behind the wainscot has “shriek’d.” A very odd effect indeed, and it does get on your nerves if you’re having a breakdown or, like the disappointed woman waiting for her lover in the poem, stretched by unfulfilled hope to the breaking point.

    There’s none of that in the Dickinson, as the fly is fulfilling an entirely different function in the discourse as well as the rhythm — but don’t ask what, just read it.

    Which is Emily Dickinson, and why her poems are so great and why, even though they’re so tiny, they take so much time.

    As to the other possible echo, there’s a minimalist austerity in “a certain slant of light” which is entirely different from the deliberate excess of Tennyson’s “thick-moted” image. Emily Dickinson is evoking the thinness of time, where the gap between being in this world and not being at all hardly exists. Tennyson is thickening light, making it cloying, clotted almost. Like a bad dream when the body can’t move at all but has to, this sort of light obstructs any sort of movement. You can’t even die when the fading light gets that thick!

    Tom’s technique here is to try out a most unusual thought, that perhaps Emily Dickinson wasn’t as much of an original as we thought. That’s good, because we shouldn’t take an assumption like that as a given, or any assumption for that matter. Like that almost universal American academic assumption — that Ezra Pound proved in those Canto II lines above that he was a great poet, and could have “written well” like that if he had wanted to at any time. Well, most of the time he didn’t write well, whatever, and those lines don’t provide any evidence to the contrary.

    Then we are free to go on and say, perhaps with Pound it doesn’t really matter whether he wrote well or not. It’s about his assumptions about poetry, and not about how he wrote it. That’s what matters, and why we have to keep our eye on the ball all the time, whatever he says!

    Blurring that distinction has been disastrous for American poetry.

    Tom’s exposés need to be shocking because we’ve become so attached to the guru in the gown we have no minds left of our own!

    Cowpat hammers,” I once called them, but you all know that story. To me the oddest part of the whole Harriet saga is that even Travis Nichols assumed I was Tom, or vise versa, when we don’t sound alike at all, or pretty much share any taste or opinion. Or methods.

    I lecture, he rants. I’m a failed mystic, he’s a budding moralist!

    Christopher