Apr 30, 2009

Drifting Vagrants

Catherine Davis (1924–2002) was another of Yvor Winters's students at Stanford back in the 1940s, a student whose work he regarded very highly. Indeed, Winters chose six of her poems, which are epigrams, for the Winters Canon, a decision which has received no second that I know of, even among Wintersians. This is not to say, nevertheless, that Davis's poetry has been thought poorly of in the Stanford School. John Fraser chose three of her poems for his quasi-Wintersian anthology The New Book of Verse, even though, without comment, he discarded Winters's choices.

One or two of Catherine Davis's poems have remained in circulation, which is heartening. You can find them on the web with a search engine. Further, just last year, after her work's long rest in near complete oblivion, Stanford University put on a reading of her poetry in her honor at some anniversary or another. But I wonder how many non-academics, or even academics, have been reading her work, besides me, during the past 40 years? It can't have been many. Any readers of this blog?

This week I reach back and offer a poem that has enriched my life over three decades. It was first published in the first issue of the Southern Review, Second Series, January 1965, that year's Winter issue, Volume 1, Number 1, though I read the poem some 15 years after its first publication. (The photo is of Pastor Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran leading a prayer service at the Chapel of Restoration in the Bronx, the pertinence of which you will see in the poem.) As I have discussed a number of times on this blog, Donald Stanford, classicist and former student of Winters, restarted the Southern Review at LSU and turned part of his editorial work toward the development of a Wintersian or Stanford School enclave from 1965 to 1982. Here's the poem, a forgotten near-great of modern classicism:

The First Step

The last step is the first.
And so I have descended
(Being of single mind)
Through fifteen narrow years,
And knew what I intended
But not what I should find.
The downward flight, reversed,
As I look back in dread,
Ascends and disappears
In shadow overhead.

What will the next step be?
It should have been the climb,
The ardent foot and hand
Seeking the laurel rood.
But I have come in time
To know that where I stand
Is not the place where he,
Bernard, or some lost guide,
Who led me here, had stood,
Stripped of his lusts and pride.

This figure of the stair,
Being a monk's design,
Having a monk's intent
Of purging self-regard,
I must at last resign
(God knows, some monks repent!)
As neither here not there.
The self unsatified
Is what I find, Bernard,
Not God; nothing but pride.

How does it help, sweet saint,
To know our wretchedness,
When there's no going back?
How does it help to know
By heart how comfortless
We are, how much we lack,
And what we fear? The taint
Of death, of broken meat
I've tasted, too, and oh
How cold the food I eat!

How does it help to see
How sick at heart we are,
Or find out where we erred?
I see both whence I came
And where I am, how far
I've drifted who preferred
My own fool vagrancy:
If, knowing this, I go
My own way all the same,
How does it help to know?

Boy, I gotta step out on the limb here and say that, if not great, this is pretty close to a great poem, even though Winters might have considered it too personal to be worth much. Though he never wrote specifically about this poem, he didn't think it even came close to reaching greatness, as is clear from his endnote in Forms of Discovery on the seven poems from Davis that Donald Stanford published in the 1965 Southern Review: Winters wrote, rather brusquely, that they are "of little interest." (By differing from Winters on this poem, as you see, I play my oligatory modern cultural role, as all writers must, in showing that I am an independent thinker beholden to or enthralled by no woman or man -- even though I have been called Winters's "epigone" [oh, what a shameful tag to be labeled with, even if irrational].) I guess I'm still willing to hold off and wait for some sort of confirmation of my judgment that this poem is great, not being as strong-willed or as sure as Yvor Winters about my judgments. So far as I know, I stand alone in my high judgment of this poem. Anyone want to join me? Or must all, as is irrationally required by the aforementioned cultural rule, differ from me? Was Winters wrong about it? Did he miss its achievement -- and, perhaps, badly?

The poem is the work of a person with a certain sensibility, going through a certain kind of experience. But it's delineation of moral resignation and weariness, of the dangers of acedia, is deeply powerful and searching. The structure is elegant and strongly rational. The meter and phrasing are downright superb. They deserve careful study, which I might get to some time, if I find the energy. The end of the fourth stanza, in particular, is strikingly meaningful, especially as the stanza moves to its chilling, insightful final line. I've been talking with this poem, answering it, letting it reply to me, for most of my adult life. I believe it to be worthy of attention across the American readership. I'd say that it's better than 80% of the poems in William Harmon's Top 500 Poems. In other words, it should, as I provisionally opine, be a touchstone. But whether it achieved greatness or not, it is a terrible shame that it has been forgotten for so long.

A couple additional notes: As I mention, John Fraser chose three of Davis's poems for his New Book of Verse. Fraser has been adding some new poems from living poets to his online anthology lately, and I encourage you to visit his site. He does not include this poem.

Finally, I want to point out that "The First Step" complements a number of extraordinary poems that Yvor Winters judged to be among our finest works of literary art. I think of George Gascoinge's "Woodmanship," which is also about spiritual or psychic weariness and frustration, though that early Renaissance poem has a very different emotional bearing. (That's the poem I have been stuck on in my review of the Winters Canon, on which I'll get restarted, I hope, by the fall.) Also, the poem has certain resonances with George Herbert's "Church Monuments," which concerns in an oblique but incisive way the earnest search for what to do with life. Further, it can be profitably considered with Robert Bridges's great poem "The Afflication of Richard," which is about the inability of a believer to quit a faith that frustrates him. Lastly, there is Baudelaire. My, there is a vast subject, which I do not have the time to go into now (who has?). But Baudelaire's trenchant examinations of "spiritual torpor" (as Winters called the condition in his discussion of acedia in his essay on T.S. Eliot from the early 1940s) is unquestionably resonant with Davis's poem in many ways. A sonnet to start with might be "Le Mort Joyeux" ("The Joyful Dead"), which Winters considered one of our greatest French poems (the rough translation of the first stanza is my own):

Dans une terre grasse et pleine d'escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde,
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l'oubli comme un requin dans l'onde.

(In a fatty plot of ground, full of snails,
I'd like to dig myself a deep, dark grave,
Where, at leisure, I'd spread my old bones
And sleep in oblivion, like a shark in a wave.)

1 comment:

Robert McLean said...

Dear Ben,

Till I read this poem, all I’d known of CD’s work were the ones in Quest; as you write, it is a hell of a good one – further readings will ensue! And as far as it being ‘personal,’ "At the San Francisco Airport" has always meant the most to me of Winters’ poems, especially as my daughter grows older, and that’s an incredibly naked number, wouldn’t you say?

Do you rate Bowers’ late poems, such as “John”, written as an elegy to John Finlay?

Glad to see you’re pumping out the posts, stepping off to some relevant tangents, and writing rather well, too.

Best wishes,

Robert McLean