May 14, 2009

Someone Dear

Who or what might this be? I suppose we're stuck with saying that it's up to each one of us to decide for himself who or what it is or might be. Some of us find comfort that it is God, as he is conceived in one of the longstanding concepts of divinity, such as one of the many Christian or Jewish concepts. But other people, especially in the last 300 years, have wandered, searching, into new conceptions of what or what this might be, such as into pluralism or a finite god or even many gods (though, of course, various polytheistic systems have found adherents among men and women for thousands of years). Especially nowadays, others have resolutely set off on new roads on which they trust, with whatever regrets, that there is no "someone dear" to be found and no "home" to go home to.

But is this sonnet about ultimate reality, as I infer? There's nothing certain in it to indicate this, except for the tone and feel and a few words (such as "majesty" and "faithless"). But to me the chilhhood events described feel as though they stand as symbols, and many readers of the poem have taken them as symbolic. But the poem could be about this world alone -- about the human experience of hoping for some kind of literal home on Earth. Do we look to the author to decide?

The Poet at Seven

And on the porch, across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread a dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
To lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a mayfly to the faithless air.
And summer evenings he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come
And whip him down the street, but gently home.

Donald Justice was once a student of Yvor Winters in the latter stages of his career at Stanford. Justice died in 2004 after a long career as a poet and teacher. I offer this poem because some quasi-Wintersians and others who have remained interested in Winters's ideas have pointed to Justice's work as exceptionally strong poetry that has roots in Winters's classicism. John Fraser has included several of Justice's poems in his quasi-Wintersian anthology, A New Book of Verse, implying that they are at least near-great. Justice wrote many poems in traditional forms, though he sometimes loosened the forms a great deal -- in many poems even to the point of losing almost all sense of an ostensible form. But he also wrote poems in a prosaic free verse (though it was consistently good prose) that barely rises above what I call prosetic musing.

In this variation on a Petrarchan sonnet, Justice maintains a strongly iambic pentameter line while varying from the underlying meter in strikingly expressive ways. The only oddities in the verse are the endings of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lines. These lines all follow the iambic pattern until the final foot, which are anapests. I don't see any point to this particular emphatic variation at these three positions in the sonnet. The 4th line in particular is made a shambles by the anapest, and the line gains nothing thematically important from the clunky variation.

I judge John Fraser's selections for his New Book of Verse to be good poems, some better than others. But I find "The Poet at Seven" to be a better poem than several Fraser selected, none of which I judge to be great or close to great. I don't consider "The Poet at Seven" a great poem, either, but it is a fine one, and it adheres to some of the principles of Wintersian classicism that Justice learned in class and toyed with during his career.

But what of the symbolism? I see Justice's look back at play when he was 7 years old as symbolic. What do you think? Justice remembers the games he played and appears to turn them into symbols of the desires and goals and work that have occupied him across his life. The hiding from the rain suggest his running from adversities. The flying of a paper airplane suggests his seeking to achieve his aspirations. The spinning until dizzy suggests a delight in the world of the senses (though this symbol is much more uncertain and probably a mild weakness). His waiting for a parent or friend to take him home suggests his desire for some greater being and some better home than this world gives us -- something like William James's "Something More."

I consider the symbol of home to border on a cliché, but I must admit that the use of home as a symbol is a prominent one in the poems of the Winters Canon, especially in poems written in the last century. Winters himself and his wife Janet Lewis both used the concept of home in their finest poetry. The symbol appears to be central in some way to human life, so vital that it cannot be dismissed as sentimental or vapid. That is something that could bear closer study.

Among other great modern classical poems that address the issue at hand in "The Poet at Seven" -- ultimate reality, we could say -- I think of Wallace Stevens's "The Course of a Particular," in which one element in the world of nature issues a cry that "concerns no one at all." The suggestion is heavy in that poem that there is no home for us to be taken to, that we wait in vain among weeds in vacant lots, if any of us are waiting at all, for a friend or lover or parent to take us there. Also, there is Stevens's "Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb," in which the poet ponders his grave, chilling description of an "abysmal night / when the host shall no more wander."

Yet another poem, a very short one, that concerns these ideas, one that Winters seems to have considered at least near-great, was written by the forgotten Adelaide Crapsey, "To Man Who Goes Seeking Immortality, Bidding Him Look Nearer Home":

Too far afield thy search. Nay, turn. Nay, turn.
At thine own elbow potent Memory stands
Thy double, and eternity is cupped
In the pale hollow of those ghostly hands.

Home is in the mind, Crapsey appears to be saying, which echoes some of Stevens's less accomplished poems, such as "The Idea of Order at Key West." (I wonder what Crapsey's reaction would have been to developments in beliefs about memory in the past 20 years or so, as more and more thinkers and writers abandon all belief -- sometimes cynically, but often blithely -- that memory delivers anything real from the past, that everything we remember is a construct of the imagination.) Crapsey appears to be saying that no one is coming to whip us, gently or not, away from the weedy lot of this material existence.

Finally, though I have merely scratched the surface on this topic, I think again of a poem I have quoted already on this blog as one of our greatest and most important poems, J.V. Cunningham's "Epigram 43":

In whose will is our peace? Thou happiness,
Thou ghostly promise, to thee I confess
Neither in thine nor love's nor in that form
Disquiet hints at have I yet been warm;
And if I rest not till I rest in thee
Cold as thy grace, whose hand shall comfort me?

In contradistinction to Justice's poem, this poem portrays a world in which the "homes" the poet has found or tried to find have given none of the comforts we believe home should bring, though he longs for that comfort still.

There is much more in this vein among the poems of the Winters Canon, as found in Yvor Winters's great anthology Quest for Reality. At this point I leave the matter for your own study, though I look forward to your comments and reflections on Donald Justice's sonnet.

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