Saturday, September 15, 2012

3 sonnets from the heights



Kenneth Rexroth edited a Selected Poems of D.H. Lawrence in 1947, reprint paperback editions of which can be found cheaply . . . I remember reading it as a youth, and though I can't point to any specific instance I think it had a profound influence on my writing . . . It's certainly a book that I have purchased several times over, a book I return to and read . . .

Rexroth says many interesting things in the Introduction; looking at it recently I was struck by his comments comparing Lawrence's poems to Hardy's:

"This verse [Lawrence's early rhymed verse] is supposed to be like Hardy's. It is. But there is always something a little synthetic about Hardy's rugged verse. The smooth ones seem more natural, somehow. The full dress, Matthew Arnold sort of sonnet to Leslie Stephen is probably Hardy's best poem. It is a very great poem, but Arnold learned the trick of talking like a highly idealized Anglican archbishop and passed it on to Hardy. That is something nobody could imagine Lawrence ever learning, he just wasn't that kind of animal."

Rexroth is comparing Hardy's "rugged" style poems to Lawrence's: as he points out prior to the passage I've just quoted, Lawrence began as a sort of apparently-on-the-surface Georgian poet, though he differed from them in at least one significant way: "Some of the Georgians had a favorite literary convention. They were anti-literary. Lawrence was the real thing." Thus the Lawrence mode of writing rugged was never a conscious stylistic choice; with his background it came to him naturally (Rexroth: "I don't think he went about it deliberately.") . . .

(Haven't many other poets besides the Georgians played this anti-literary charade? Taking on the Rugged Role is always very tempting.)

Rexroth: "There is a vatic quality in Lawrence that is only in Hardy rarely. . . . Hardy was a major poet. Lawrence was a minor prophet. Like Blake and Yeats, his is the greater tradition."

Well. Robert Lowell pronounced somewhere (I'm quoting from memory) that the two greatest Modern Poets were Rilke and Hardy.

Which means doesn't it that for those of us English-speakers who take Lowell's word as guide and who can read Rilke only in translation, that THE great Modern Poet to encounter in our own tongue is Hardy . . .

Hart Crane, writing to Yvor Winters in a letter dated May 29th, 1927, ventures to say that Hardy is "perhaps the greatest technician in English verse since Shakespeare."

Here's the poem Rexroth named Hardy's best . . . I've never seen it in any anthology:

The Schreckhorn

(With thoughts of Leslie Stephen)

(June 1897)

Aloof, as if a thing of mood and whim;
Now that its spare and desolate figure gleams
Upon my nearing vision, less it seems
A looming Alp-height than a guise of him
Who scaled its horn with ventured life and limb,
Drawn on by vague imaginings, maybe,
Of semblance to his personality
In its quaint glooms, keen lights, and rugged trim.

At his last change, when Life's dull coils unwind,
Will he, in old love, hitherward escape,
And the eternal essence of his mind
Enter this silent adamantine shape,
And his low voicing haunt its slipping shows
When dawn that calls the climber dyes them rose?


Quaint glooms, keen lights, and rugged trim: what semblance to the personality of Hardy's poetry!

Rexroth calls this a "full dress, Matthew Arnold sort of sonnet." So compare it to the one sonnet of Arnold's which is best known and most anthologized, whose subject like Hardy's is mountainous and nothing less than the Everest of us:

(there are no themes for old age, an Arab proverb says, but death and the mountain)


Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,

Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil'd searching of mortality;

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!

All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.

Better so! Why better so?— maybe, because everything that wishes to remain sacred must surround itself with mystery, Mallarme's commandment: the loftiest hill of Parnassus will still maintain its cloudcover 'gainst the foil'd searchings of every mortal reader (every reader is mortal, whereas those who have learned the ropes, ie poets themselves, can perhaps manage to climb or scramble over each other to a unclouded height whereon they may glimpse a little daylight's eterne) . . .

(Most of us never make it up to the Base Camp. I'm still stuck in rope-tying class: Knotting 101.)

(I don't know if Arnold was the originator of this oeuvre-as-mountain metaphor, but surely it must have been a cliche long before boring Basil Bunting trundled it out in "On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos" . . . )

Hardy's phrase "rugged trim" contains in itself the contention, the contradiction. Rugged is "anti-literary," plainspoken colloquial raw; trim means smooth, crafted, in Rexroth's phrases "highly idealized" and "full dress."

Rugged versus trim. Mayakovsky versus Mallarme. Brecht versus Benn. Enzensberger versus Celan. Prevert versus Bonnefoy. Late Neruda versus early Neruda. The Communist Quasimodo versus the Hermetic Quasimodo. Parra's Antipoem versus Stevens' metapoem.

Paz in his great book "Children of the Mire" sums up the history of Modern Poetry as an "oscillation" between "political temptation" and "religious temptation." In other words, Democratic versus Fascist.

The conflict ensues. Pages 320-4, Poetry Magazine, January 05, Danielle Chapman reviews Reginald Shepherd's olio of Post-Avants, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries [sic].

(By American, they mean U.S. By Poetries, they mean in the Arnoldian sense, that each poet is his or her own peakdom; like mountains each stands far enough apart from all others that borders are called for: in this theoretical distance every poet constitutes a separate realm with its own unique language and heritage, its own tradition of "poetry." So an anthology that brings together works from these loftitudinally-disparate states is per se a transnational one, a gathering of alien poetries . . . )

(by Poetries they mean Oxygen Required. Watch out for falling rocks. No climbers past this point unless accompanied by a guide.)

Chapman characterizes many of the poems here as masturbatory ("jerking off"), "narcissistic," "self-pleasuring," "enamored with [their] own sound" . . . she forgot solipsistic, apolitical, autotelic, reader-unfriendly, elitist, etcet.

Chapman gives more attention to Karen Volkman than anyone else, maybe because she senses that Volkman is so gifted that she damn well ought to be writing better than most of the others in this anthology, much of whose work, Chapman writes, "seems to have been constructed from a book of Mad Libs, where poetry-speak is randomly inserted into a poetic structure and the poem pops out like a product. Even the work of a skilled practitioner like Karen Volkman adopts such gimmickry."

What's the problem, essentially? The same enigma which ModPo since Baudelaire has faced us with, namely, WHAT is this poem about?— (Even more confusing for many readers is that some Modern poems which seem to offer a clearly ostensible subject—Williams' red wheelbarrow is a par example—still present problems in understanding what their "real subject" is . . . )

Chapman: "[P]art of the problem with the poems in the Iowa Anthology—that of obscurity and incomprehensibility—is similar to that which has always beset Language Poetry," not to mention Symbolism, Surrealism, Imagism, and so many other temptologies.—

"[T]he question of what [Volkman's] poems are about is persistent. Eventually it becomes clear that they are in fact about themselves." They disallow us to judge them, Chapman adds: "because the subject of the poem is the poet's own evasive thought process, our [potential] objections are overruled by the mind of the poet, which, by its own definition, moves faster than ours." Didn't Ashbery asset that poets should try to make their poems "critic-proof"?


But making it critic-proof sometimes makes it reader-proof as well. Most readers are, to use Arnold's figure, mortal and don't want to be "foil'd" by a poem, no matter how Shakespeare its author is. They want to know what a poem is about, and they want to know what it's saying about that subject.

So what IS the poem about? What's it all about, Orpheus?

Samuel French Morse in his introduction to Opus Posthumous by Wallace Stevens, hands this injunction down from the bench: "From the very beginning his poems were 'about' poetry; it is the one real subject of Harmonium and all the later work."

Morse then quotes from a 1940 letter by Stevens, who hands it down from his throne:

'The subject-matter of poetry is the thing to be ascertained. Offhand, the subject-matter is what says of the month of August . . . 'Thou art not August, unless I make thee so.'

I think by saying "one real subject" Morse means: as opposed to the ostensible or surface subject.

. . . Either I don't understand the Stevens quote or I'm wrong to see a contradiction where he says the subject-matter has to be ascertained:

in other words, it's not a given, it has to be found and proved;

that's confusing, because he immediately follows that by the "offhand" suggestion that essentially a poem's subject-matter is always the same:

its apparent subject may be August (or whatever), but its real, its eternal subject is the poet's interminably flowing assertion of power and priority. 

So evenings die, in their green going, a wave, interminably flowing. In the beginning is the Word, and you, phenomena, are non until I utter it.

Per Mallarme, everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book; for Stevens, onhand as it were, the book exists prior to its content. What is subject, and what is the subject.

Here's an Arnoldian sonnet on the subject, by Stevens:


There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

Complete in an unexplained completion. That's right: never explain. Harold Bloom's book on Stevens is almost as intimidating and daunting as Stevens himself. Early on he quotes from Emerson:

"[W]e cannot say too little of our constitutional necessity of seeing things under private aspects, or saturated with our humours. And yet is the God the native of these bleak rocks."

Private aspects, private sights, visible only from the poet's eagle-eyrie outlook: so edgy-exact this precipice of bleak rocks where the I alone is native; where no reader dare venture.  

—Whose "God" is the only native, the sole inhabitant, of those bleak rocks?


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