Nov 9, 2006

Literary Structure: Mix up the Lines and What Do You Get?

In a recent interview with Brit writer John Humphrys (the article is entitled “We will soon be lost for words”) in the Telegraph (UK) regarding Humphrys’s new book on language (which laments the death of social decorum and the humorous dumbing-down of classic texts), there came up a suggestive little story about modern art:

Whether or not we still have a firm grasp on the meaning of the word art was a question raised recently by the sculptor David Hensel. He made a piece, called “One Day Closer to Paradise,” of a human head frozen in laughter and balancing precariously on a slate plinth. He submitted it to the Royal Academy for its 2006 exhibition, but somehow the head and the plinth were separated in transit. Nonetheless, the academy accepted his submission and displayed it. The strange thing was, though, that they thought the plinth was the work of art, not the head, which was nowhere to be seen. As he put it ruefully: "I've seen the funny side but I've also seen the philosophical side."
Ain’t that just like so much modern art, poetry and novels inclusive? It doesn’t seem strange to me that the curators of the exhibit were confused, if confusion correctly describes their mental state. Rather, their decision seems almost inevitable in the modern age of haphazard art (which may be characterized as what the poet Joan Houlihan who writes for Boston Comment calls “post-avant, spat-up-by-a-spam-filter poems”). This story reflects a similar complaint that Winters made about modern poetry and fiction from time to time, even about older poetry, such as from what he thought of as the breakdown of English verse technique after, roughly, the time of Milton. He cringed over poems that were so written that the poets could put their elements in just about any order and come up with pretty much the same thing. Of course, Winters excoriated Ezra Pound repeatedly for a similar structural principle, which Winters called that of association, or, earlier in his career, qualitative progression.

One of Winters’s examples of this sort of structural failure or defect, an affair nowadays almost entirely forgotten, concerns a mix up in a famous Henry James novel, which Winters discussed in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature”, originally published in the Hudson Review in 1951. The problem was the transposition of two chapters of James’s The Ambassadors, which a student of Winters’s had discovered and wrote about (I heard from this fellow via email recently, by the by). Because of the “diffuseness and obscurity of the prose”, as Winters described James’s writing in that late novel, the transposition was not discovered for many years and the error repeated in a number of editions of the novel, which, so it is said, James considered his finest work. Winters concludes his consideration of the matter with an incisive summary of what the case of this unintended and long unnoticed transposition reveals: “[The] point [is] that the error should not have occurred, that, once it had occurred, it should have been not so hard to detect, and, if it was so hard to detect, that there was a flaw in the author’s method.” We could distill a rough Wintersian principle from this: if the parts of a work can be put in many different orders then something is seriously wrong.

Much of modern writing, of course, is written much like that head-on-slate sculpture was made, a jumble of impressions, which can usually be put in just about any order or configuration. Parts of modern poems and novels and short stories can almost always be left out or switched around, accidentally or not, without anyone even noticing -- which, I might add, works with Ezra Pound’s Cantos quite well. You can read Pound’s lines or groups of lines in any of dozens of orders. In general, Winters believed that the finest poetry and literature should be structurally sound, in the sense of the New Criticism (with various qualifications that apply to Winters’s criticism alone) -- that not a word could be changed, moved, or cut without some loss or damage to the work. Yet further, in Winters’s mind, the finest works of literature were those structured according to principles of Reason, or "rational progression," as we might call it, as defined and discussed throughout his critical career.

Hey, just for fun, I decided to try mixing up one of Pound’s Cantos, followed by a link to the actual Canto (I’ll admit that I changed a few punctuation marks to keep some kind of sense):

Canto XLIX: For the Seven Lakes

Behind hill the monk's bell
borne on the wind.
Sail passed here in April; may
return in October,
Sun blaze alone on the river;
Boat fades in silver; slowly.

Autumn moon; hills rise about lakes
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon, against sunset

Evening is like a curtain of cloud.
A cold tune amid reeds,
Where wine flag catches the sunset
Sparse chimneys smoke in the cross light

Comes then snow scur on the river,
Small boat floats like a lanthorn,
And a world is covered with jade
The flowing water closets as with cold. And at San Yin
The reeds are heavy; bent;
they are a people of leisure.


The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.
Wild geese swoop to the sand-bar,
Clouds gather about the hole of the window and the
bamboos speak as if weeping.
Broad water; geese line out with the autumn
Heavy rain in the twilight, fire from frozen cloud.

Rain; empty river; a voyage,
Rooks clatter over the fishermen's lanthorns,
For the seven lakes, and by no man these verses:
Under the cabin roof was one lantern.

In seventeen hundred came Tsing to these hill lakes.
A light moves on the South sky line,
where the young boys prod stones for shrimp.
A light moves on the north sky line;
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?

State by creating riches should thereby get into debt?
Sun up; worksundown; to rest;
dig well and drink of the water.
This is infamy; this is Geryon.

This canal goes still to TenShi.
Though the old king built it for pleasure,
dig field; eat of the grain.

Here’s where you can read the actual Canto:

In a response to a previous blog entry, a fellow with the blogger handle Shawn R offered some sound insights into why narrative literature is often more readable than poetry nowadays (and throughout the last century or so):

I wonder if literature, by nature, is forced to be less obscurantist because most often it is telling a story that must be intelligible for the reader. Readers of prose are a bit hard nosed in their demand to comprehend the tale. On the other hand, it does seem to me that people in general have accepted the vision of the romantic poet who pours out his self-expression in words and allusions only the poet himself clearly understands.
It is obvious that we have become gradually more accepting of obscurity in poetry to an inordinate degree. There’s an understatement for you! Actually, it has become a common expectation that the poet be obscure. This is a leading reason, I think, poetry has receded so far as an influential form of literature in our time. People just don’t have time to figure out what purpose modern poems have, and if and when they do figure one out, it seldom adds up to much beyond a vague, disordered expression of the poet’s state of mind. That’s usually how I find much contemporary poetry, too, someone who loves poetry. Many of the poets Winters considered great are certainly difficult, but for other reasons than their obscurantist, associative style.

I keep knocking Pound, but he could write some moving lines, as Winters believed as well. Here’s a selection from the Pisan Cantos that is one of the few famous passages from that woolly work and has stayed in my mind a long time:

From Pisan Canto LXXXI

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well
shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is
thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

This fragment from a generally messy Canto is a sweet, comforting sentiment, an exploration of one consolation for the “hellish” aspects of life, though it’s quite sentimental in its way, as well as a bit flabbily and loosely expressed -- and even trades, as is common with Pound, in a few unneeded obscurities and quizzical turns of phrase. It’s not even quite poetry, as I define it, but rather a lyrical, cadenced prose. But this “prosetry” sticks with me, rings true as an expression of a simple human hope. There’s not a whole lot to it, but there’s something. The Canto as a whole is a turgid, insufferably narcissistic, rambling, and aimless meditation on Pound’s ideas about his art (which the passage I have cited apparently refers to in specific), a subject I, frankly, have almost no interest in even if it might be worth the time and effort it could take to figure out what Pound is saying about it.

Compare that snippet from Pound with Robert Bridges’s deeply moving and highly intellectual poem, “The Affliction of Richard,” which contemplates one specific kind of consolation, the solace of religious belief, which has a long, vital, and important history in Western culture. Winters drew our attention to this poem many decades ago, and the poem is part of the Winters Canon (though I judge it to be greater than even Winters allowed). Also, I should pause here to note, John Fraser chose it for his New Book of Verse:

“The Affliction of Richard”

Love not too much. But how,
When thou hast made me such,
And dost thy gifts bestow,
How can I love too much?

Though I must fear to lose,
And drown my joy in care,
With all its thorns I choose
The path of love and prayer.

Though thou, I know not why,
Didst kill my childish trust,
That breach with toil did I
Repair, because I must:

And spite of frighting schemes,
With which the fiends of Hell
Blaspheme thee in my dreams,
So far I have hoped well.

But what the heavenly key,
What marvel in me wrought
Shall quite exculpate thee,
I have no shadow of thought.

What am I that complain?
The love, from which began
My question sad and vain,
Justifies thee to man.

Bridge’s depth of insight and the power of his exploration of the theme is highly meaningful and deeply moving. This poem, to be blunt, has so much more to offer than Pound’s flabby, foggy lines. Bridge’s is a poem to ponder with all one’s faculties for a lifetime, whether one stands in belief or unbelief or doubt. Pound’s lines are a vaguely moving, quickly passing nicety.


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