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 is 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 YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest

Christopher Woodman

THIS THREAD IS CONTINUED IN THE COMMENTS THAT FOLLOW.
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A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


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

Dear Tom,
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 at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

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” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I 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 literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “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 Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last 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 a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

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 Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother 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 I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I 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 now I’m 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 petit bourgeois 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 traditin 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 “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher