May 28, 2009

Out, Out, Alien Reason

Let's reach back into the English Renaissance for a poem from a literary era that Yvor Winters held in such high esteem (so high that many have thought that he wished to return modern literary culture to its conditions, which is a thoroughly misinformed view). Winters chose none of the sharp, short, witty, poems of George Turberville for the Winters Canon, but he did use one of Turberville's shortest ditties as the epigraph to the Quest for Reality anthology. His work is all in the Plain Style, which Winters so ably delineated during his critical career -- and I would certainly like to see more modern poetry written with this approach: dense, abstract, focused on ideas and wit. As to theme, Turberville's work is mostly conventional for the times, concerned with time passing and the challenges of love, as much of English and French lyric poetry of the time. Though I do not judge the following poem great, I find it thought-provoking and very well written:

To His Love, That Sent Him a Ring Wherein Was Graved, "Let Reason Rule"

Shall Reason rule where Reason Hath no right
Nor never had? shall Cupid lose his lands?
His claim? his crown? his kingdom? name of might?
No, Friend, thy ring doth will me thus in vain;
Reason and Love have ever yet been twain.

They are by kind of such contrary mold,
As one mislikes the other's lewd device:
What Reason wills Cupid never would;
Love never yet thought Reason to be wise.
To Cupid I my homage erst have done;
Let Reason rule the hearts that she hath won.

by kind": by nature
"lewd": common

One would have to dig deep to understand fully what Turberville intended here. Is he bucking himself up to make or keep a commitment to some babe, or his wife, with this mythology of Reason and Cupid? From what I know of him, which is quite modest, he meant what he seems to have meant by the first and last lines, that he wishes to exclude Reason from matters of love. But to what purpose he wishes to indulge himself in such a construct, as we might now put it, I do not know.

Yet despite the sharp excellence of this small poem, I find the central premise to be almost entirely untrue. Reason and Love do not hold sway over seperate realms, and Love rules no province in which Reason has no right. (The very idea of rational thought having rights of any sort within the precincts of the human soul or spirit is very strange.) Reason can, does, and should control activities in the land of Love to some degree, sometimes small, sometimes quite large -- perhaps most often as an Inner Check on the promptings and demands of Cupid.

So why, we may ask, did Turberville wish to tell himself these little myths (if myths they are, which is wide open for endless debate, of course)? He doesn't seem to be proferring these ideas insincerely or satirically, from what I know of his life and work. But it is clearly obvious, and was so in Turberville's day, I believe, that human beings often do employ reason in the business of love. So why would the poet defend his myth? We can only speculate about Turberville, while trying to survey the lands where Cupid and Reason vie in our own souls to see what application his ideas might have. For we in this age are deeply taken with this same myth, that the ways of Love cannot and should not be controlled or influenced by Reason. Indeed, so much does the poem express notions that are widespread in modern times that it feels almost romantic in its implications, though, of course, Romanticism would not come to full flower until more than two centuries later.

Many poems of the Winters Canon are concerned with issues that are central to "To His Love," which we might generally call the province of Reason. Yvor Winters's own "John Sutter" is one of the great studies of the power of desire or passion in human experience. One phrase from the poem, "grained by alchemic change," strikes to the heart of the matter. The phrase refers to the "madness" for gold that overmastered and led to destructiveness the prospectors on Sutter's land. The poem speaks to the power of the passions nearly to transform our nature, at least for periods when we give in to their sway, though Winters held that Reason can and does and often should hold sway over such passions.

But what came to mind more readily is Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, one of the great novels of all-time in the judgment of Yvor Winters (I concur), perhaps the first prominent critic to judge it so highly. The Age of Innocence concerns, in part, the ways in which Reason and other forces check Cupid. I think that novel stands above this poem as a more true and complete evaluation of the relationship between them because it more accurately portrays the psychic landscape where Reason and Cupid and moral codes and competing desires jostle for control. Also, I might add, Martin Scorsese's film of the novel is worth seeing as well. I consider this film to be one of the finest ever made, judging it apart from the novel it adapted so well and so thoroughly as I am able. Though off the subject, I note that the film uses the symbol of sumptuousness more forcefully than the novel, with insightful results. But that's a subject for another post.

Turberville's poem also brought to mind a passage from William James's famed speech "Remarks at the Peace Banquet," which he gave in Boston on the closing day of the World Peace Congress in October of1904:

Reason is one of the very feeblest of nature's forces, if you take it at only one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against each other without prejudice, partiality or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is, and always will be, just prejudices, partialities, cupidities and excitements.

Turberville goes beyond this. However feeble it might be, he seeks to exclude Reason, though, as I say, what he fears from Reason malingering in Cupid's supposed realm is uncertain.

Of course, the Renaissance is littered with poems on or related to the subject. One I thought of is Christopher Marlowe's famous lines from "Hero and Leander":

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight.
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

There's the expression of a myth that reigns in hearts to this day, as Hollywood shows us again and again. Lastly, I must note that William Shakespeare also had much to say on the subject of the relationship of Reason and Cupid. "Sonnet 147" from his famed series is particularly complementary to Turberville's concerns:

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve,
Desire his death, which physic did expect.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Note, however, the much different tone -- Shakespeare seeing love in this instance as a hellish disease. In contrast to this sonnet, Turberville's poem expresses no lament over Reason leaving him. Rather he insists upon Reason's departure -- to the point of denying its rights in the lands of Cupid.

Ah, well, now we have much to reflect on. In sum, George Turberville's little poem brings up a questions that I have pondered a lot in my days. For me, the principal one is why we tell ourselves -- and often deeply convince ourselves -- of little myths, like Turberville's, by which to live our lives. I believe Turberville is mostly wrong, as sharp and sure as his verse is. But, perhaps, his myth is valuable, maybe even essential, for some purposes. Perhaps we can only love truly and fully by believing that love has no truck with reason. How I wish J.V. Cunningham had studied this subject of Reason and Cupid in English Renaissance poetry.

May 21, 2009

Time Fulfilled

I hereby nominate this week's poem as a great poem, meaning that it stands among the 200 or 300 all-time best in our language. I have mentioned it before, but I haven't placed it before my readers yet. I know of no critic, poet, or scholar who has judged this poem to be great, though, as I will discuss in a moment, Helen Pinkerton, drew particular attention to it nearly 30 years ago. (The photo is a shot of a greenhouse worker discarding lily blossoms, the significance of which you will see in a moment.)

It was written by Janet Lewis, wife of Yvor Winters. Mrs. Lewis was an accomplished poet who put out relatively little poetry. She did, however write several great or near-great poems, as well as many other very fine pieces. I rate most of her work at 3 or 4 stars by my rating system. Her novels are also excellent, perhaps as fine as near-great (perhaps 4 stars by my system). She has mostly been forgotten, except among Wintersians and those with some interest in Winters. Here is the poem, from later in her career, that I judge to be one of the greats of the English language:

For the Father of Sandro Gulotta

When I called the children from play
Where the westering sun
Fell level between the leaves

. of olive and bay,
There where the day lilies stand,
I paused
. to touch with a curious hand
The single blossom, furled,
That with morning had opened wide,
The long bud tinged
. with gold of an evening sky.

All day, and only one day,
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did, and at evening precisely curled
The tender petals to shield
From wind, from dew,
The pollen-laden heart.
Sweet treasure, gathered apart
From our grief, from our longing view,
Who shall say if the day was too brief
For the flower, if time lacked?
Had it not, like the children, all Time
In their long, immortal day?

(Mrs. Lewis's note: "written for Vicenzo Gulotta of Milano whose son was dying of leukemia.")

(By the way, the lines beginning with periods are actually set over to the first tab, but Lord help me if I can discover how to set a tab in this blogger software. I wanted to indicate the original typography in some way.)

As I have discussed briefly a couple years back, Janet Lewis did not appear to share the bracing, brave, yet sorrowful stoicism of her husband. This poem offers no explicitly religious theme, though we might not have to dig far into Lewis's writings and biography to reach the conclusion that in this poem she was expressing some kind of Christian hope. But on its face, the poem does not give us a hope that is specifically, explicitly Christian. Indeed, the final lines are so indefinite as to leave us rather bewildered. We can interpret them, or assent to them, in myriad ways as assertions about "the world to come" (or "worlds" to come, I might add). But is that the central purpose of the poem, to express some view of an afterlife? Religious pluralist as she seems to have been, Lewis appears in this poem not to have wanted to hold out some kind of hope in an afterlife, but to explore the meaning of "Time" in our lives and deaths, even in very short lives, such as that of day lilies. This poem offers no identifiable hope in a separate supernatural existence, though it is probably true that Lewis believed that there is one. But the poem as it stands only expresses a vague, uncertain feeling of hope -- and as a poem, not as a set of philosophical propositions. But as such, the poem is a beautiful explication of its themes.

By the way, I have spent too much time writing the paragraphs below to offer much now on the structure and language of the poem. Let me quickly say that the diction is flawless and the lines are wonderfully made. In particular, I would like you to note the movement in and out of rhyme, which I consider a superb model for future work in contemplative verse. It reminds me of another old device that has found few poets to give it to a try, Shakespeare's use of a couplet to end a section of blank verse. Lewis herself offers several couplets here and there with expert control. The meter, too, is skillfully managed throughout the poem and deserves close study.

Turning back to themes, the great modern classical poet Helen Pinkerton, who is still living, wrote some years back that this poem expresses a belief that Time (with that capital "T") is "fulfilled" through living, however short the life is as measured by time (with the small "t"). As much I respect Ms. Pinkerton's work, she does not elaborate on this idea in a way that makes more sense than the poem itself, I must confess. I don't see how "Time" is fulfilled in living within time as a measure. I cannot see what such a concept would mean for my life if it were true, nor what it might mean for anyone else's life as a whole, ended in death, to be a fulfillment of Time. The concept sounds like blather, as much as I have pondered it. Sometimes, I get the sense that it is a Buddhist idea of some sort -- one of those supremely vague notions of a person's life being like a drop of water that falls into an eternal ocean of pure and exalted being. Pinkerton's is an interesting, though brief, meditation on the poem, though I will leave it for you to discover yourself. It can be found in the "Introduction" to Lewis's Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 (Swallow Press, 1982).

"For the Father of Sandro Gulotta" expresses ideas that are similar to Yvor Winters's in some ways, but it holds out something different. As is clear from her body of work, Lewis wrestled with some of the same notions of time and Time as her husband (though let me be clear that he never wrote of a difference between small-t-time and captital-t-Time). There are at least a dozen poems in Lewis's oeuvre that directly address the matter. One of the most interesting for our purposes here is an earlier and fine sonnet entitled "Time and Music." This poem, which I will not quote in full, was adressed to Winters, who had written a poem about that mentioned being "trapped in time." In reply, Lewis expressed the idea in "Time and Music" that just as a piece of music is experienced in and through time passing but has a wholeness beyond time, so human beings live life within time but can see their lives whole as part of Time. This appears to be vaguely related to Lewis's notion in "For the Father" that one day is immortal. As a melody rides time in a piece of music, wrote Lewis in "Time and Music," so we "from life as well as death are freed...." As I say, I cannot fathom how it could be that the passing of our lives inside time, like the passing of a piece of music, has a more complete and even immortal existence (or something like that) outside or above or beyond Time. That string of words I just laid out sounds perilously close to nonsense when I think about them for long, though they might summarize what Pinkerton was talking about in her comments about Time's being fulfilled in living, however short the life.

This leads us to the question whether Lewis's indefinite ideas about immortal days and lives, whether true in any sense, provide any comfort, as they appear to have been intended to do? Though I consider the poem a great one, a classical one, I find the idea of an immortal day, as well as I can understand it, rather cold, like Greek warriors giving their lives to violent death for longlasting fame. Nonetheless, I remain open to conceptions of time and Time that can help us and comfort us at the prospect of death.

Another point to make is that many poems in the Winters Canon are deeply concerned with time, especially with the sorrows of its relentless, unstoppable passing. I have done no systematic study of the diction in the 185 poems of Quest for Reality, but a rough run-through showed me that the word "time" is probably the most oft-used word in the anthology. If you are one of those who look to word counts for insight into ideas, this is surely an important finding. One ringing example is Shakespeare's Sonnet 77, especially these lines:

Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.

This is something very different from what Janet Lewis had in mind, as you no doubt see (she knew this sonnet well). Time as a thief does not mesh well with the idea of death fulfilling time. My general point, though, is that there is much to study, many differing views of time, across the Winters Canon. Someone really should take up a study of the matter.

And this leads us, at the last, to a reconsideration of the poem's achievement. Is it possible for a great poem to be rationally obscure -- or rather significantly obscure -- at the point that it reaches its fullest evaluation of its material? For, as I have said, I find the idea of fulfilled Time to be obscure to a great degree. Yet I am holding out hope that I will someday see that this concept of Time is rational, or at least not significantly, ruinously obscure. Perhaps I will see the matter otherwise in the years ahead, one way or another. For now, I judge "For the Father Sandro Gulotta" one of our greatest poems.

Your sundry reflections, as always, are welcome.

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.

May 7, 2009

Now We Have to Decide What to Do with Them

I thought of Bernie Madoff's crimes when I recently ran across a short poem by Raymond Oliver, once a student of Yvor Winters and now a retired professor of English and all but forgotten in the literary world. Oliver has specialized in the epigram, the very short poem, and translations of late Medieval and Renaissance verse. A few of his poems and translations are superb; others are well struck but minor; yet others are light verse, though good stuff nonetheless. Here's one for our times from his 1982 chapbook Entries that amounts to acerbic light verse:

The Last Judgment

Medieval scuptors knew,
Better than marxists, what to do
With the exploiting upper classes:
You carve them naked into stone,
With fiends that strip them to the bone
While shoving skewers up their asses.
Torture them richly and with skill.
And then let them pay the bill.

More than venting one's frustration, this sharp, short poem is about shame. No longer fearing death much -- what with hell and even the afterlife mostly denied or ignored nowadays -- wouldn't many an exploiter like to hang on to his so-called earthly "legacy," as we see, for example, in the opening efforts of the Dubya team in recent months. Maybe the thought of lasting infamy is part of what keeps exploiters in line as well as they can be kept in line. That's worth some thought. Though I am a political liberal in the current parlance, I know a few erudite conservative commentators who have argued forcefully and persuasively of late for a renewal of shame in our culture. In that vein, this poem from Raymond Oliver gives rise to some valuable reflection.

On another matter, I noticed that the late Thom Gunn, a semi-Wintersian, blurbed a couple years back for Oliver's latest book of poems (which I have not seen and cannot find), His Book of Hours, “Ray Oliver's poems are like none others I have read.” I think I know what Gunn meant, but the blurb is unintentionally funny because it actually says nothing at all -- not unlike many an advertising tagline (such as Pizza Hut's latest vapid pitch: "Now, that's eating"). Oliver has written mostly in traditional forms, but he has published a few free verse poems that come close to prosetic musing. If you are inclined to try, it will be hard to track his work down, of course, but a few poems are available online here and there. He is not a great poet, in my judgment, but he has done some skillful and thoughtful work that deserves attention in a Wintersian classicist enclave, as Donald Stanford gave him in the Southern Review more than 20 years back. Oliver wrote an essay for and published more than dozen poems in the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review. (That rich issue, by the way, is an important one that deserves attention among modern classicists.)

At some point I will come back to one or two of Oliver's translations.