Sunday, June 7, 2009
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT IF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS STOOD UP AT YOUR POETRY READING TO INFORM YOU YOUR OLD WORK IS BETTER THAN YOUR NEW?
Looking through the forgotten 1949 anthology, New British Poets,
edited by Kenneth Rexroth, published by New Directions in hardcover and never reprinted, or put out in paperback—
The pages of my copy are turning brown and flaky, and contain a review torn from the January 1950 issue of Poetry (Chicago) (not to be confused with that other magazine, Poetry London/New York),
by Paul Goodman, headlined The "New Romanticism" ——
Goodman begins his generally dismissive piece thus:
This is a collection of poems . . . roughly grouped as neo-Romantic . . . . [M]ost of the poems are not vitally interesting."
This period or trend in British poetry has not been much appreciated: the Movement (Larkin et al) put the quietus to its shade, and it seems to have instantly faded into oblivion with the death of its greatest exponent, Dylan Thomas—
Will this anthology ever be reprinted? Maybe on Google someday . . . though I suspect they (New Directions) might like to like to forget its existence, and would perhaps be ashamed to allow its digital appearance anywhere . . .
But I have to quote more of the Goodman piece:
Rexroth [in his introduction, which Goodman concentrates on to the virtual exclusion of the anthology itself: not a single poem is quoted, nor a single poet named] is much concerned about communication and the avoidance of obscure, "mechanical," constructions. Let me mention an incident. He gave a reading in New York last year, commencing with an old poem of his from the time when he was an Objectivist, a tendency characterized in this present essay as influenced by "Williams, Pound, Stein . . . Apollonaire, Cocteau, Tzara, Eluard, etc. It could be called the last gasp of literary cubism. It depended on an entranced sense of hyper-reality, a sort of hallucination of fact." Now that kind of thing, he said at the reading, did not communicate, he no longer liked it, and he went on to read recent poems in a more "direct" style. William Carlos Williams was in the gathering and he rose and pointed out (what was evident) that the earlier piece communicated both much more directly and more subtilely the underlying feeling and character; and that by trying to speak to the audience the poet created a fictitious "I" between his feelings and the audience rather less interesting than Kenneth Rexroth himself struggling with rhythms and warping the syntax. . . .
This anecdote is still relevant because the debate is not over and is still waged on mag-pages and blogs, although the disputants keep declaring their "evident" victory——
And by the way, how would YOU like to have William Carlos Williams stand up at your reading to inform you your old poetry was better than your new?
In the last paragraph of Goodman's faux review, he asserts that in this anthology
[T]he depths of insight opened by the Revolution of the Word are closed again, and we get the pleasant suburban earnestness of much of this collection.
Or as the SONs say about the SOQs, their pleasant suburban earnestness fails to equal the depths of insight opened by the Revolution of the Word.
It's a permanent Revolution of course, despite their endless campaigns and harangues, whose sole purpose is to perpetuate their rebellion in a chaos of stasis—
as Paul Valery put it, "Everything changes, except the Avantgarde."
Herbert addresses them at the end of "The Elegy of Fortinbras" thus: "you believe in crystal notions / not in human clay."
And as Cavafy lampoon-laments in "Waiting for the Barbarians," they would have been "a kind of solution" if only, if only . . .
One of my faves from the anthol:
COCKLEY MOOR, DOCKRAY, PENRITH
Outside, the cubist fells are drawn again
Beneath the light that speaks ex tempore;
The fur of bracken thickens in the rain
And wrinkles shift upon the scurfy scree.
Inside, like tiles the poet's pleasures lie,
Squares laid on circle, circle laid on square,
And pencilled angles of eternity
Are calculated on the doubled stair.
Outside, the curlew gargles through the mist,
The mountain pansies shut up shop and fade,
The wheatear chisels with his crystal fist,
And day on day like stone on stone is laid.
Inside, are cows on canvas, painted bloom
Fresh as a girl's thin fingers burst to flower,
Bright leaves that do not fall, but fence the room
With the arrested growth of a June hour.
The curving cloud embellishes the sky,
The geometric rain slants to the corn;
Inside, a man remembers he must die,
Outside, a stone forgets that it was born.
It's interesting that Rexroth uses the phrase, "the last gasp of literary cubism," and Nicholson begins his poem by describing the moorland fells as "cubist."