WHY I WROTE HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL

Rebecca's CW
…………………..

I was born the year Yeats died. He was 73 and I’m now 76.

That’s important for me as the reward for the effort I put in everyday. It’s the strength to go on even with so little encouragement, a strength which is also a certain softness that inspires and protects me.

My wife Homprang often asks me how someone with so many degrees can be so stupid, and I always reply the same way, that unlike me she’s a genius. Which she really is — because reading and writing so little has given her a distinct advantage over me when it comes to sharpness and sanity. Because of course she can see ghosts and things like that which is a great advantage because they terrify her and make her refrain from doing or saying anything stupid or risky.

And I’m just the opposite, of course — I’m a bit soft in the head from reading and writing too much. It’s my rarefied education that has made me so fearless as well as foolish, a fact that makes Homprang even more impatient — because just imagine what she might have done had she had an education like mine instead of leaving school at eleven? I mean, she could have made up ghosts and spirits like I do instead of being careful never to look in their direction what is more to mention their names.

On the other hand, isn’t it also a certain softness in the head which makes us love and admire a great poet like William Butler Yeats so much, that he could have worshiped Maud Gunn like that for so long, for example, and then proposed to Iseult? Or sat up and read what his very young wife George wrote down restless beside him on their honeymoon, as if she were Ishtar or the Angel Gabriel descended on the Ashdown Forest Hotel? And never even to have suspected — as in a sense she didn’t either, both of them being in the softness way over their heads? And to have actually believed in “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” too even when he was always so nicely put up in Anglo-Irish country houses right to the end, an emperor with a mechanical bird for eternity in a gilded cage?

Or Eliot in his own foul rag and bone shop of the heart down-and-out in Harvard and Paris?

…………………………………Between the conception
…………………………………And the creation
…………………………………Between the emotion
…………………………………And the response
…………………………………Falls the Shadow.

And how we love the really great ones for being soft in the head like that, neurasthenic even, connecting nothing with nothing. How they expose us and redeem us, and make us whole.…………………………………<…………………………………In an Emergency.

~

I lived for 10 years in Coleman’s Hatch on the Ashdown Forest just down the road from the Pooh Bridge in one direction and the cottage where Pound wintered with Yeats in 1913 in the other, and I walked by the Ashdown Forest Hotel everyday on my way to teach school with my children, and drank at the Hatch in the evening. That was back in the ’70s.

~

What’s important is something way out there, that’s the point, and I mean having the courage to do whatever it is all by yourself regardless and always in a sense upstairs alone in your room late at night. Because there’s no other activity that counts one iota but being alone with a loaded gun and a delicate body.

…………………..Much Madness is divinest Sense —
…………………..To a discerning Eye —
…………………..Much sense — the starkest Madness —
…………………..’Tis the Majority
…………………..In this, as all, prevail –
…………………..Assent – and you are sane –
…………………..Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
…………………..And handled with a Chain –

And that’s how bad the devil is, not knowing your place in the grown-up world, not just lying down and being quiet like the big dog Sam. Being soft in the head is like being Eve in God’s grown-up Garden, I’d say, like not only rejecting Heaven but being in cahoots with the Devil in a serious effort to rewrite Paradise. “Unless we become as Rogues we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend at age 50, and I’d say courage like that coupled with a delicate body and a diamond mind is heroic!

Speaking as a poet I say that, because in fact I know almost nothing about “diamond minds” or “heroic” but just what I write.

Which is why I write as well, as if my desk were underground in Lascaux — as if the hunt depended on my depiction of the beauty and grace of the animals as well as my reverence for them. And even the sun rising.

~

Emily Dickinson’s named her huge black and white Newfoundland ‘Carlo’ after St John River’s old pointer and not after Mr Rochester’s huge black and white Newfoundland called ‘Pilot.’

With that in mind, can you imagine Emily Dickinson out for a walk on the treacherous, ice-bound cart-road to Hay being rescued and steadied by Jane Eyre as if she were the one who was mounted? The clatter of the hooves and the crash? The neat little boots and the hot breath of the gytrash on your neck? And is that why you name your dog ‘Carlo’ instead, to reject the tall, perfect, god-like ‘Master’ on the straight and narrow path? For the Rogue himself do you name him, tumbling on the causeway at your feet?

And can you see then how the truth is more important than the facts? Can you imagine what ‘Pilot’ was like before the Wright brothers put that neat blue-serge suit on him and made him a captain at 35,000 feet? Can you rather hear the crash of the sea as the earlier ‘Pilot’ guides you over the bar to land-locked Florence and on up the hillside to La Gioiella? Can you go somewhere you can never be but you have to arrive at — where everything that has ever happened happens to you for the first time alone in your room upstairs?

Here’s how I say that upstairs alone in my own delicate body.

…………………..“Yet still it moves!” the old beard raves,
…………………..The moon girdling a softer quarter —
…………………..The impossible return,
…………………..Ocean fins quickening the landlocked water.

………………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades
………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest

Christopher Woodman

THIS THREAD IS CONTINUED IN THE COMMENTS THAT FOLLOW.

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom……………………………………………………[November 22nd, 2009]
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length and expense of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘Modern Poetry’ since I started writing it in 1990, and I was already 50 by then. I’ve never sat in a Modern Poetry lecture, for example, never participated in a Writing Workshop, and only rarely attended a Poetry Reading. I’ve got Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Chaucer, The Faerie Queene, George Herbert, Christopher Smart and John Clare on my shelves here in Chiang Mai, but very few literary-critical texts written after Wimsatt & Brooks, and I know Helen Vendler, William Logan, and Charles Simic only through my NYRB subscription.

The fact is I only came up against ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 10 precious packets I had sent to a much-respected University Poetry Series between 1994 and 2006 were probably never even opened, and that my 8 packets to yet another up-and-coming Press hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter purporting to be a personal critique of my work. The letter, almost identical copies of which have subsequently emerged, suggested that for a certain sum the editor would help me to improve my book and that I could then resubmit it to his/her competition. I remember that moment very well —  I was at my desk with my cheque book in hand when I was first alerted to the existence of Foetry.com which had already started to investigate the letters. When I then complained about my own letter on Poets & Writers (Nov 2006), I was scolded by a well-known critic  for my limited understanding of publishing poetry in America today, while in the same issue the very same judges who had abused me were praised for their hard work and integrity.

That was hard for me — and still is.

But the critic who attacked me on P & W was partly right, of course — even at 66 I was uppity and ignorant, and was certainly nowhere near ready to concede that the situation I found myself in  was ‘normal’ what is more ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry in me or anyone else in America. And the next thing I knew I was banned on-line for challenging those assumptions, first by the P&W blog, then by the AoAP blog, and finally by the Poetry Foundation’s new and wonderful Blog Harriet. Not a very promising start to my new career, and particularly not at 69!

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a “peasant” in poetry when you compare me with somebody like Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed a lot of people who knew a whole lot more than I did about the poetry business, and wanted me to be more practical, respectful, and compliant. Because after all, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? And my cow pat hammer, that was the last straw [open the Comments and then scroll down to July 6th, 2009, “Footnote for Posterity”]. And I was fired a few days later.

What I do have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in the History of  Literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [after Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz but before David Lehman], C.S.Lewis & G.G.Hough (Supervisors for my work on Edmund Spenser), George Steiner (Senior Tutor at Churchill), Research Fellow at Christs) yet I never got formally educated in Modern Poetry, not once. So I go straight from the ’30s in which I was born and jump straight to the ’90s in which I got published by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise! Indeed, I will be forever grateful to Marilyn Hacker — and to the likes of James Laughlin (in pencil!), Theodore & Renee Weiss (I was one of the last QR Finalists ), Joseph Parisi ( who read my long poem, Works & Days,  3 times!), and Alice Quinn (who suggested Marilyn Hacker for my Connemara Trousers). They made not just my day but my life!

Yes, a “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on that P & W critic’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” perhaps.   Because the irony is that in the end my publishing credits have turned out to be not bad at all, considering my age and when I started.

So back to  “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of Modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because the Edgar Guest/Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the side of the verse they specifically despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which went along with the satisfaction you got when you at last sat down to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for some time to come. On the other hand,  in 1916 “A Heap O’Livin” sold over a million copies — which opens up a huge social and educational grey area in the History of American Poetry, one which is not yet quite out of the bag like what actually happened when my ancestors put in to Plymouth.

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and “mush” made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the so-called “Gold Coast,” and in my American childhood I never sat down with a worker, or a so-called ‘person of color,’ or a Catholic who wasn’t a descendant of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 20s didn’t socialize with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter “Delia Hilary Orlando Woodman,” (Irish plus a name which could be mistaken for someone of Italian descent!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my two brothers and I — my younger brother, Loring, westward to the Gros Ventre in Wyoming, myself eastward across the Atlantic to Cambridge and then on up to remote Eskdalemuir, and Tony just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965.) And how I ran, and kept bees, and fiddled around with Trungpa Rimpoche, and sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and here I am now writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the upper working-class poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “Make it New” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry tradition that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think I’m well-equipped even with just a small cow pat as a hammer in my hand.

Christopher
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