Thursday, October 29, 2009


Updike did it all— fiction, essays, reviews, poetry—and always with wit, wisdom, learning and style.  Should you be looking for a first-rate study of his works, read W. H. Pritchard's book, Updike: America's Man of Letters (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005). No academic jargon, I promise you. I don't know if it's still in print but copies are not hard to find.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Restless Leg

A pinch of Copenhagen (long cut) stops it cold.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream, by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Impure Art

Holman Hunt's Shadow of Death (1872), as an example of impure Art—bourgeois art, needless to say (perhaps). Wouldn't cubism—or at least Impressionism—have come as a relief? You can see why the Pre-Raphaelites were not much thought of in Paris . . .

Pure Poetry & Mr. Wallace Stevens

The second edition (1931) of Harmonium was reviewed, as follows, by Percy Hutchison in the New York Times. I don't think it is a good review but it does me a service here by explicating the idea of pure poetry and by expressing his hostility—which is so intense that he can't even begin to understand the poetry, not even the one poem he chooses as his test case.

That was all a long time ago, you say; why flog a dead horse? Because Hutchison's ideas and prejudices—like those of Wallace Stevens, say—never die. Pure poetry, like the pure art of Cezanne, is of the essence of modernism—a word that has never been well-defined; yet the work of modernist artists like Cezanne fetches huge prices at auctions and is the subject of learned monographs. Stevens too has attracted learned commentary, but the same people who flock to exhibitions of Matisse, Picasso or Cezanne, will look at a poem by Stevens and yawn.

Enough.  Here is Hutchison's review.

"More than one critic and not a few poets, have toyed with the idea of what has been termed: 'pure poetry', which is to say, a poetry which should depend for its effectiveness on its rhythms and the tonal values of the words employed with as complete a dissociation from ideational content as may be humanly possible. Those who have argued for such 'pure poetry' have frequently, if not always, been obsessed with some hazy notion of an analogy between music and poetry.  In the second decade of this century . . . numerous poetic schools drove theory hard. . . there were the Imagists, and there was Vorticism and Cubism, and many more 'isms' besides. For the most part, these schools have died the death which could have been prophesied for them. Poetry is founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion. For proof, one has but to turn to the poetry that has endured. In poetry, doctrinaire composition has no permanent place.

"Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure. The verses which go to make up the volume Harmonium are as close to 'pure poetry' as one could expect to come. And so far as rhythms and vowels and consonants may be substituted for musical notes, the volume is an achievement. But the achievement is not poetry, it is a tour de force, a 'stunt' in the fantastic and the bizarre. From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead. Only when Stevens goes over to the Chinese does he score, and then not completely, for with all the virtuosity that his verse displays he fails quite to attain the lacquer finish of his Oriental masters. The following, "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores," is the piece that comes nearest to the Chinese, and this is marred by the intrusion in the last line of the critical adjective 'stupid.'

I say now, Fernando, that on that day

The mind roamed as a moth roams,

Among the blooms beyond the open sand;

And that whatever noise the motion of the waves

Made on the sea-weeds and the covered stones

Disturbed not even the most idle ear.

Then it was that the monstered moth

Which had lain folded against the blue

And the colored purple of the lazy sea,

And which had drowsed along the bony shores,

Shut to the blather that the water made,

Rose up besprent and sought the flaming red

Dabbled with yellow pollen-red as red

As the flag above the old cafe—

And roamed there all the stupid afternoon.

"For the full tonal and rhythmic effect of this it must be read aloud, chanted, as Tennyson and Swinburne chanted their verses. Then, within its limits, its very narrow limits, "Hibiscus" will be found to be a musical attainment not before guessed at. But it is not poetry in the larger meaning of the term. And it is not actually music that one has here, but an imitation of music. And if there is a mood conveyed, the mood could have been equally as well conveyed by other lines equally languid of rhythm. No doubt the theorists in poetry have enriched their craft, but at a disservice to themselves. Wallace Stevens is a martyr to a lost cause."

Hutchison despises the idea of a poetry purified of moral ideas, a poetry or an art that is, or at least gives the appearance of being, about itself—art for art's sake—it's gaze firmly averted from life and its struggles; an art (perhaps) like that proposed by the aristocratic hero of Villiers de L'isle-Adam's play, Axel's Castle (1885): "As for living, we shall leave that to our servants." That's a line that could have been used in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest,  which may be the purest work of dramatic art you will ever see.

Now go back and read the poem that Hutchison quotes without comprehending, Hibiscus On The Sleeping Shores. Look at the unpoetic words Stevens uses, 'blather' and 'stupid' but also look and listen to the way they are used, the poem begins to sound. I hear the sound of exasperation, as if the poet were exasperated by the way his mind works.

So the word "stupid" actually tells us something about the subject of the poem: boredom; and, what the exasperated poet or speaker finds most exasperating of all, the tendency of his own mind as, turning away from the "purple of the lazy sea" and its sounds which to the "idle ear" are so pleasant; but pleasant is not good enough,  he has to have more . . . until the sounds of  the sea become just so much "blather" and his monstered moth of a mind rises up in a sort of rage, in search of . . . what? A "flaming red" (like the red of ancient Chinese lacquer, perhaps?) but what does he actually find? A red like the flag on the old cafe. And there the mind roams, fixated, mindlessly moth-like, "all the stupid afternoon." 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Keats' Ode On Melancholy

I think I like this one best of all Keats' poems, though I don't know why—perhaps because I like the lines about the strenuous tongue deliberately bursting joy's grape against one's palate in order to 'taste' the deeper, gloomier, more enduring essence of Being. (I have to admit that I don't know how to do that—or, if I did, wouldn't be able to bring myself to do it.)

(Now it occurs to me that Keats may have 'said' in this poem all that needs to be said in response to Moneta's lecture on the "misery of the world" (cf. Keats' late, fragmentary, Fall of Hyperion.))

NO, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist 

Wolfs-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine; 

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d 

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine; 

Make not your rosary of yew-berries, 

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be 

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl 

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries; 

For shade to shade will come too drowsily, 

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul. 

But when the melancholy fit shall fall 

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud, 

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all, 

And hides the green hill in an April shroud; 

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, 

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave, 

Or on the wealth of globed peonies; 

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, 

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, 

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. 

She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die; 

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips 

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, 

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: 

Ay, in the very temple of Delight 

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine, 

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue 

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; 

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, 

And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 

About a hundred years later, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published at the age of 44, Harmonium, one of the most remarkable collections of pure and semi-pure poems ever written. It was his first book. It contains a number of poems which can be thought of as odes to or on melancholy. Here is one of them:

The Snowman  

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Keats, Modernity, Pure Poetry

The movie, Bright Star, is worth seeing as a plausible portrait of the woman, Fanny Brawne, who had the honor of being loved for a short time by a very great poet. Such a portrait is worth having; unfortunately, that is about all the makers of this movie have seen fit to give us:  you would never know, from this movie, that Keats had transformed himself into a thoroughly professional poet by force of will as well as talent by the time he met Miss Brawne (November 1818); or that he had been thinking through the process as well as the theory of this extraordinary make-over in wonderfully fluent, witty, playful, brilliant letters—lots of them. If you really want to know something about Keats himself and the modernity of his mind, you can begin by reading his letters—a resource that this movie makes little use of, not surprisingly, perhaps, since none of Fanny Brawne's letters to Keats survive, and his to her were written near the end of his short life.  

The most striking characteristic of Keats as a letter-writer is the direct, lucid, unpretentious simplicity of his style—the style of man who never stops thinking for himself, and never falls back on ready-made or conventional ideas; a man who has no religious or political opinions to defend, a man without side, or party, or dogma and knows it. Such a style requires a certain kind of intellectual and moral stability, or patience, or virtue: a negative capability he calls it in a famous letter to his brother George (12-28-1817). In the midst of some sort of dispute or disquisition with a friend of his (Dilke), he says, "several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . ." 

A little less than a year later (10-27-1818), he shows that he understands very well what it means to be a negatively capable poet:

“As to the poetical character itself (I mean that sort of thing which, if I am any thing, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A poet is the most unpoetical thing of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other body—the sun, the moon, the sea and men and women who are creature of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a poet, where is the wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with people if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among men; it would be the same in a nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no despondence[dependence?] is to be placed on what I said that day.”

But what kind of poetry might we expect a negatively capable poet without a fixed identity to write? That was a question that no one, including Keats, had ever asked and yet by the spring, summer and fall of 1819 Keats had practically answered it with the pure poetry of the great odes, and in particular the Ode to Autumn, which I print here not because it is necessarily the greatest of Keats' odes but because it so perfectly demonstrates its own perfection and purity:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What is 'pure poetry'? Poetry without moral or religious or political content, poetry in which the poet virtually disappears, poetry which like music is essentially about itself:  modern poetry, or rather the poetry of a few modern poets, like Eliot and Stevens and Frost, in a few poems; the poetry that Baudelaire was searching for in 1852 (and not finding) in his reading of Edgar Allen Poe. (See my posting of 7-11-08, "Baudelaire and E. A. Poe")

Coleridge may have written one of the great pure poems in English when, it seems, he accidently composed 
Kubla Kahn— and was so dumfounded by what he had done that he concocted a really stupid story to account for it, about an opium dream and some fellow from Porlock who had interrupted it. Here's the poem which, it seems to me, is about nothing but itself.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree :

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round :

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !

A savage place ! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover !

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty founrtain momently was forced :

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :

And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war !

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves ;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer.

In a vision once I saw :

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

That with music loud and long

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !

His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

So much for pure poetry. But we can't be true to the modern, myriad minded genius of Keats if we leave it at that; Keats himself refused to do so. 

Keats had begun writing an epic poem about one of the ancient pre-Homeric gods, Hyperion, after he had finished with Endymion; it hadn't gone well and he put it aside. Sometime during the fall of 1819, he took a look at his Hyperion fragments and made something radically new out of them. This too he finally abandoned but not before he had taken a new look at what it means to be a poet in the modern world. The poem is in the form of a dream vision, in which the poet-dreamer enters a strange temple and begins to climb the stairs leading to the altar; only to be told, in no uncertain terms by the priestess who is also the goddess of memory, that he is nothing but a dreamer, and therefore worthless: "none can usurp this height," she says, "but those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest.  All else who find a haven in the world, where they may thoughtless sleep away their days, if by chance into this fane [temple] they come, rot on the pavement" before this altar. 

So there, says Keats (in effect) is the choice that the modern artist faces: perfection of the life or perfection of the work. One or the other, you can't have both. By that time, he had already chosen the latter and despite his short life and meagre opportunities, made (as W. B. Yeats says) "luxuriant song."