Jul 23, 2009

Searching Reason

Ah, summer is here. I have found it difficult to find the energy and passion needed to write for this blog. But I want to continue reflecting on many poems I have been thinking about over the past few months. As some may remember, I live in summer in Copper Harbor, Michigan (the state's northernmost town), to run, with my brothers, a passenger ferry across Lake Superior to Isle Royale National Park. Any family business can be time-consuming, of course, and the business takes time away from my work on this blog.

With that in mind, I offer a poem this week from John Finlay, who was an exceptionally fine poet who died young. Though almost entirely unknown in American literary culture, a number of poets have taken and keep taking note of his achievement, including the late Donald Stanford during his days as editor of the Southern Review, Second Series. Finlay was deeply interested in Yvor Winters and wrote a dissertation on his work and a couple essays on Winters as well. You will have a lot of trouble finding his poetry and essays, though David Middleton edited a small edition of Finlay's collected poems in the 1990s. I own that book, but I do not know whether it is still in print (it can be purchased as a used book at various web sites). There is plenty of excellent poetry in Finlay's body of work to choose from, but here is one that I admire a great deal:

The Case of Holmes

The scientific searcher scans the blood,
The objects in the room, the tracks of mud,
Thickest around the pathos of the corpse.
He doesn't let instinctual grief that warps
The vision cause him not to find that fact
Which later hangs the murderer. Abstract
And lean, he seems emotionless cold thought,
Almost at times as sexless, always taut.
He has to drug a mind that will not cease
Once a case is solved -- cocaine's release,
Or trance before the chemical blue flame.
And there are states of mind he cannot name,
As skulking in the fog, urban night-wood,
He feels compressed, erotic brotherhood
And for the hardest criminal. But these
Are freakish states and disappear. He sees
Himself as whole in this: revulsion for
The great malignant brain who wages war
On those who break an ego's brutal dream.
He matches brain to brain in the extreme
Of hot collected nerves and cold reserve.
Fear also makes him whole; he must preserve
One being in the conflict with that brain
Or else, at one mistake, he will be slain.

This is dense stuff, poetry crammed with ideas. Written in expertly managed heroic couplets, Finlay's iambic line is nicely controlled. The themes are pertinent to much in our present society: the fascination with the killer and the mass killer; the interest in deviancy; the trust in science; our frustration with a lack of answers on crucial questions about the mind; the risks of studying the mind closely. The poem's approach to these themes is similar to much in modern free-verse and experimental poetry, such as one might fnd regularly in The New Yorker. Many poets nowadays write in Finlay's manner in this poem: take a subject or object from popular culture and then treat it seriously, though with wryness and wit. The technique often becomes cloying and leads to bathos and prosetic musing of the worst sort. But some poets are skilled enough to handle the technique well, as I believe this poem does. I know I really should explain what's good and bad in the use of the technique, but I do not think I have the time now for an extended discussion of the matter.

I should note that "The Case of Holmes" does not stand in close line with Finlay's usual style or approach. He was a much more serious poet than is suggested here with the wit he put on display in "The Case of Holmes." Nor is this a great poem -- though I do believe that John Finlay, as obscure as he is (certainly more obscure than even Yvor Winters and nearly all the poets of the Winters Canon), wrote a few great or near-great poems (4- or 5-star poems, in my system). But this poem is a striking example of what top-knotch verse focused on ideas can still accomplish, even at this late stage in the decay of poetry.

As I noted concerning the George Turberville poem I discussed in May, many of the poems in the Winters Canon directly concern this matter of the power of the mind and the province of reason. Much in Winters's own writings concern this matter, and I believe that Finlay was deeply influenced by Winters in his own poetry and criticism. One Winters poem I think of is the very fine poem "John Sutter," Winters's equally dense and ideational poem about the power of emotion to derail the processes and powers of reason. That poem was chosen by Ken Fields as part of the anthology Quest for Reality, the book that I call, somewhat loosely, the Winters Canon. (Fields chose Winters's poems for the anthology after Winters died in early 1968 before the anthology was finished.