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Defeating the poem.

For many years, I have taught in the Department of English at New York University a course called "Modern British and American Poetry." "Modern" is deemed to mean, approximately, Whitman and after. "British" is deemed for administrative purposes, but for no other purpose in my hearing, to include W. B. Yeats and any other modern Irish poet who wrote or writes in English. I doubt that anyone would protest if I stretched the word "British" to include the Santa Lucian Derek Walcott and the Australian A. D. Hope.

When I first offered this course, many years ago, I divided it into two approximately chronological parts. The first part ran from Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) to Eliot's Waste Land (1922). The other poets I read here were Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. The second part started with Hart Crane's The Bridge (1930) and ended with John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1974). Here, the other poets I read were Marianne Moore, John Crowe Ransom, William Empson, W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. I brought the course to an end with Ashbery's poem because I felt that any more recent choices I would make would be somewhat arbitrary and polemical. If I chose Ashbery, why not J. V. Cunningham, A. R. Ammons, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Charles Olson, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Tomlinson, Walcott, Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney Derek Mahon, or Paul Muldoon, some of whom I had written about but none of whom I assigned to students in that class? I have felt, since about 1974-, that I could not keep up with the plethora of new poems, new books of poetry, slim volumes, and small presses. There are poems I like and poems I'm indifferent to, but I don't feel that I know the score of contemporary poetry any longer. I'm not sure that there is such a score, as distinct from many schools or affiliations of poetry trying to make spaces for themselves.

I recognize a number of problems in the teaching of literature, and especially in the teaching of poetry. The list of those I'll mention is not complete. These problems are not found in all students, but in enough to sustain a few general reflections. The main one is that there is now a large gap between the daily interests of students and the interests that are embodied in literature. Several years ago teachers discovered, often with dismay, that films and T.V. programs provided the only ground of reference and allusion between teacher and student. Now we find that such common ground has been removed by the formidable privacies and exclusive gregariousness of e-mail, text-messaging, and the Internet. Last semester, the students in one of my undergraduate classes estimated that each of them spent about ninety minutes a day on the Internet. Ninety minutes not reading Shakespeare.

When I started teaching, at University College, Dublin many years ago, I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that appeal, still cogent to me, seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. They report that reading literature is mainly a burden. Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in "creative writing" to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the notion that one learns to write by reading good writers.

In class, many students are ready to talk, but they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading. They are happy to denounce imperialism and colonialism rather than read "Heart of Darkness" Kim, and A Passage to India in which imperialism and colonialism are held up to complex judgment. They are voluble in giving you their opinions on race and its injustices, but nearly tongue-tied when it is a question of submitting themselves to the languages of The Sound and the Fury, Things Fall Apart, and A Bend in the River. They find it arduous to engage with the styles of Hard Times and The Wings of the Dove, but easy to say what they think about industrialism, adultery, and greed. They prefer fiction to poetry because the language of fiction is normally--there are exceptions, as in The Portrait of a Lady, A la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses, Nightwood, The Waves, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, Lolita, Blood Meridian, and Last Night--more coarse-grained than that of poetry: it does not impose much delay if a reader wants to come to themes and issues directly, without the hesitation enforced by considerations of form, structure, and style. These factors make for slow progress.

An unembarrassed transit from the work of literature to its ostensible themes depends on a simple theory of literature as communication. Students assume that writers have something to say and should say it as quickly as possible. A writer a) has a message b) to deliver to someone in particular or c) to more than one recipient. When the message has been delivered, the episode is over. So students typically report of a story or a poem: "In the first chapter or stanza, the writer says such-and-such. In the second, he or she goes on to say such and such. In the final chapter or stanza, the writer brings these statements together in a summary or conclusion." The students are evidently not troubled by the fact that they have deleted the words of the particular story or poem and replaced them with their own. They assume that literary criticism is merely a paraphrase, a "content analysis" offering a rough translation of the "text" into one's own words, as proof that one has indeed read it.

Suppose--it is supposition, it has not happened--I am reading Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern (1987) and come to "Clearances" a sequence of nine short poems numbered i to 8 with an unnumbered one in italics to start it off. The sequence makes an elegy in memory of Heaney's mother, "M. K. H. 1911-1984." The last poem in the sequence refers to its predecessor and "the space we stood around" where the woman died in her bed, a space "emptied/Into us to keep." The poet recalls the chestnut tree he grew from a bulb and planted in the domestic garden. Here is the poem, complete:
 I thought of walking round and round a space
 Utterly erupty; utterly, a source
 Where the decked chesmut tree had lost its
 place

 In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
 The white chips jumped and jumped and
 skited high.

 I heard the hatchet's differentiated
 Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
 And collapse of what luxuriated
 Through the shocked tips and wreckage of
 it all.

 Deep planted and long gone, my coeval
 Chesnut from a jam jar in a hole,
 Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
 A soul ramifying and forever
 Silent, beyond silence listened for.


The space left by the dead woman is at once "utterly empty" and yet, because it can't be accepted in that penury, it must be imagined as a place of further possibility, a source. The woman, like the chestnut tree, is gone, but not absolutely gone: there must be something remaining, corresponding to the speaker's desire to walk round and round this space. It is permissible, in an elegy, that the "pathetic fallacy" be indulged, according to the poetic convention by which Nature, too, mourns, like the bereaved one: the "sigh" is a breath in common, the shock of the "shocked tips" is first the speaker's shock, then an apparition of shock transferred to the tree. The feeling is well measured, but not so definitively measured that it may be packed up and left to fend for itself: "Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere" the noun and the adjective in that last phrase pulling against each other while staying, each of them, in place. The chestnut tree becomes the mother's soul and gains eternal life, again according to a convention of elegy and an article of faith in Catholicism.

I would expect--and hope, I suppose--that one of the students would raise a hand and ask what precisely the last two lines mean; what they are "saying" what their message is. It would be a disappointment, of a kind, to find the students abandoning their theory of communication, however wan the theory is, and offering to give it up or transcend it. If I were asked the question, I would be inclined to postpone an answer and instead to place beside those lines the first lines of the second stanza of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" which likewise seem to say a lot while forbearing to specify anything in particular:
 Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
 Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
 Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:


The pipes come from the first stanza, "What pipes and timbrels?" The relation between the sensual ear and the spirit, as Kenneth Burke interpreted it, corresponds to that between sound in existence and absolute sound, the latter the essence of sound "which would be soundless as the prime mover is motionless, or as the 'principle' of sweetness would not be sweet, having transcended sweetness." We are dealing with motives-behind-motives, passing from existence to essence, as the "heft and hush" of Heaney's chestnut tree are essentialized into "a bright nowhere" the essence of space, while he retains the sensory images of their long-ago existence. The past participle--"Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere"--is extended into a continuous present participle--"ramifying" without limit--while body is refined to soul, and ever), remembered sound of the mother becomes, like Keats's "ditties of no tone" silent in a silence-beyond-silence, beyond the silence we merely listen for. The phrase "... and forever/Silent ..." invokes the motive-behind-the-given-motive without further specification.

It is not self-evident that my commentary on Heaney's last lines has escaped the fate I ascribed to the students' normal elucidations, that of deleting the poem's words in favor of their own domestications: "In the first stanza the poet says ..." Or that my comparison of Heaney's lines with Keats's hasn't merely postponed the sad moment when I, in effect, defeat Heaney's poem or deflect it with my gloss. The best self-defense I can think of would be to claim that at least I haven't relied on a theory of communication or talked of a message and the sender and recipient of that message. Instead of communication I would propose a theory of invention, according to which the poet discovers possibilities within the verbal medium and seizes them, provided only that they are not at variance with the other duties he has undertaken, notably here in Heaney's case the duties of an elegist. By "within the verbal medium" I mean, in the two final fines
 A soul ramifying and forever
 Silent, beyond silence listened for


the slant rhyme of "forever" and "listened for," both syllables rhyming--though differently--with the last syllable of "nowhere" in the preceding line; and the progression from the adjective "Silent" to the abstract noun "silence," the noun enabled by the motif-word "beyond," marking the action of the entire poem. I am not claiming that the whole poem is discovered within the verbal medium--there are mothers, gardens, hawthorns, jam jars, and dyings that don't wait upon the words before happening--but that a theory of communication is not enough to comprehend the poem. It is assumed that a painter, having taken canvas, paints, and brushes into his hand, may discover internal possibilities of expression far beyond his or her intention in advance. Something seems necessary or at least good--a gesture of paint and form--and is therefore assented to.

I have sometimes wished that I could--just occasionally--teach a class in Modern British and American Poetry by bringing forward the choice poems and reading them aloud without a word of commentary or elucidation. Filling the two hours with eloquence, unimpeded. It would also be an acute pleasure to read poems that make it impossible for a student to decant them into paraphrases. In fact, there are many modern poems that thwart a paraphrasist's zeal: we are often inclined to think that that is what makes them modern or modernist.

It would be hard to paraphrase the first section of "The Waste Land" But it would be a rare concession to allow a teacher to sit before a class for two hours, reciting rather than explicating.

In default of such felicities, I resort to a moment in fiction. In James Salters story "My lord You" a poet, Michael Brennan, arrives at a dinner party, very late and very drunk, demanding more drink. He finds a chair beside Ardis, one of the guests, and offers to tell her how he met his wife:
 She was walking by on the beach. I was unprepared.
 I saw the ventral, then the dorsal, I
 imagined the rest. Bang! We came together
 like planets. Endless fornication. Sometimes I
 just lie silent and observe her. The black panther
 lies under his rose-tree, he recited. J'ai eu
 pitie des autres ...

 He stared at her.

 --What is that, she asked tentatively.

 --... but that the child walk in peace in her
 basilica, he intoned.

 --Is it Wilde?

 --You can't guess? Pound. The sole genius
 of the century. No, not the sole. I am another:
 a drunk, a failure, and a great genius.


Drunk or sober, Brennan could not have justified his calling Pound a genius on the strength of two lines from Canto XCIII of Section: Rock-Drill de los Cantares (1955). Even a few more lines would leave the claim exposed:
 The black panther lies under his rose-tree.
 J'ai eu pitie des autres.
 Pas assez! Pas assez!
 For me nothing. But that the child
 Walk in peace in her basilica,
 The light there almost solid.


But Brennan was under no obligation to justify the claim. He may have been recalling an earlier moment, in Canto LXXVI, when Pound, writing of Paradise and Hell--"Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel"--worked toward repentance, however belatedly--
 J'ai eu pitie des autres
 Probablement pas assez, and at moments that
 suited my own convenience


--and toward a conviction that the first song to sing is the song of the earth, despite the crimes of that entity and the rival claims of Heaven and Hell. The panther is still the "caged panther" of Canto LXXXIII, but the tone is now compassionate, and the purpose of the informal lines in French is to hold the two lines in English apart for inspection.

There are two contexts; first, these magnificent lines in Pound's Canto; second, their bearing on Michael Brennan. He may be reciting them to show off to Ardis, or to claim kinship with an even greater genius than himself--by speaking in Pound's voice to speak more eloquently than he could in his own. Salter does not indicate which of these alternatives is to be preferred. A few days later Irene, one of the guests who has witnessed the drunken episode, goes to the local library and flicks through a book of poems until she happens upon "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" "a poem some lines of which had been underlined, with penciled notes in the margin" She reads from it:
 At fourteen I married My Lord you.
 I never laughed, being bashful ...
 The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
 The paired butterflies are already yellow with
 August

 Over the grass in the West garden,
 They hurt me. I grow older ...
 If you are coming down through the narrows
 of the river Kiang,

 Please let me know beforehand,
 And I will come out to meet you,
 As far as Cho-fu-Sa.


But Irene is not a good reader: in no time, she meanders from this to her own bye-gone life and another "My Lord you":
 She had read poems and perhaps marked
 them like this, but that was in school. Of the
 things she had been taught she remembered
 only a few. There had been one My Lord
 though she did not marry him. She'd been
 twenty-one, her first year in the city ...


With Irene in view, I should revise my rudimentary aesthetic theory somewhat along these lines: "The merit of reading a work of literature is that it enables you to gain access to lives other than your own, and it discourages you from thinking that those lives are functions of your own."
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Author:Donoghue, Dennis
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:2824
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