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April 1976

An Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part IV

Poetry

Riggenbach continues his series, this time exploring fiction in verse.

A poem is, as I have said, an essentially static aesthetic object—a work of art that uses words to present an imaginary world (or some portion of one) in terms of places and things, persons and processes, as these elements might be experienced at any isolated moment (or, perhaps, very brief period of a very few moments) of time. One consequence of this view is that there is no essential difference between poetry and prose—that, in fact, to ask after such a difference is to be guilty, properly, of a category mistake. There is narrative verse, like Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and narrative prose like Dickens’s Great Expectations. There is verse poetry like Poe’s “The Bells” and prose poetry like Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes.” Verse and prose are different things (though they are different in degree, not in kind), and poetry and fiction are different things (though here again, the difference is sometimes indistinct, as in the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning). But poetry and prose are no more opposed than are (as in the old joke) walking to work and carrying one’s lunch.

Another consequence of this view (when, as before, it is placed in the context of the broader theory of imaginative literature sketched in Part I of this series) is that poetry is inescapably individualist in its sympathies. A poem must formulate an abstraction in sensuous terms, terms a poet can know only through his own unique experience. Every poem, thus, is inescapably an individual utterance, a proposition whose every characteristic is symptomatic of the particular awareness which created it. And to the extent we value the proposition, it is a testimonial to the irreplaceable worth of the individual human being. If this were universally understood, every libertarian would be a literary enthusiast—specifically, an enthusiast for the avant-garde tradition (a paradox, not a contradiction) in modern literature (the best and most individualistic art of every era is usually produced by the avant-garde of that era). And every creative artist (for the above analysis applies to all art—not just to poetry) would recognize his essential commitment to freedom. The nature and rationale of that commitment are interestingly argued in two recent books, Democracy and Poetry by Robert Penn Warren and Poetry and Anarchism by Herbert Read.

Some poets (a few of the many) whose individualities I have found rewarding to contemplate:

William Shakespeare, whose sonnets are not only 154 of the most finished love poems in the language but also a kind of implied narrative, fascinatingly unresolved, in which the poet loses a sensuous “Dark Lady” to a youthful friend with whom he seems also have sustained a love affair. Anthony Burgess has expertly and beautifully made this implied narrative explicit in his novel Nothing Like the Sun.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose finest poem is probably “The Bells” and whose self-justifying essays “The Poetic Principle” and “The Rationale of Verse,” (Poems and Essays) whatever their shortcomings (and they are many) as theoretical statements, suffice admirably to explain their author’s poetic practice. Poe was among the first English-language writers to seriously investigate the musical possibilities of language. Others of interest in this tradition are Algernon Charles Swinburne (see his “The Garden of Proserpine” and the Chorus from Atalanta in Calydon), and Gertrude Stein and Edith Sit well (whose work may be experienced in conjunction with music in the former’s “Four Saints in Three Acts,” with music by Virgil Thomson, available on RCA LM 2756, and in the latter’s “Facade,” with music by William Walton, available on Angel S36837).

Robert Browning, arguably the greatest poet of the Victorian period, whose dramatic monologues stretch my conception of poetry to its utmost and exemplify its relation to my conception of fiction. In “Karshish,” a young Arab physician writes to his teacher of an unsettling interview he has had with one Lazarus, who claims to have died and been resurrected by a no-longer-living Nazarene named Jesus. Karshish reasons that this Jesus was a physician, persecuted as men of science inevitably are, but somehow skilled as few men of science ever even hope to be. So skilled as to seem miraculous, even godlike. And what emerges from this poem for the reader who is willing to penetrate Browning’s elaborate syntax, what emerges with an intensity rare even in art, is the blinding moment of symbolic insight into the half-understood and uncontrolled—the moment of the birth of religion. And nearly every one of Browning’s monologues is of the same cloth—an astonishingly compact, intensely realized moment of psychological intuition—of insight into character—presented in terms of a few pages’ conversation by the character revealed. For me the finest of these, along with “Karshish,” are “My Last Duchess,” “Caliban Upon Setebos,” and “Andrea Del Sarto.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that “Meredith is a prose Browning and so is Browning,” is, as he intended it to be, flattering to both writers. Browning’s style, while far from poetic in the usual, more-or-less musical sense of that word, is both expressive and rigorously controlled. And George Meredith was as great a poet as he was a novelist. Read his “The Lark Ascending,” which inspired a musical work of comparable beauty, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ tone poem of the same name (available on Angel S36469).

Meredith married twice. His first wife, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock (whose Nightmare Abbey remains one of the funniest novels in the language), left him and their infant son for what turned out to be a brief affair. She attempted a reconciliation with Meredith, but he refused her and she committed suicide. His sonnet sequence, “Modern Love,” is inspired by these events and is the best work of its kind since Shakespeare.

Poets from the Elizabethan period to the mid-nineteenth century were largely preoccupied with the formal characteristics of verse, with rhyme and meter and with patterns of line, stanza and canto. They composed sonnets, heroic couplets, blank verse—even cryptic and popular forms like acrostics and limericks. They used words to imitate natural sounds (the work of Poe and Swinburne, aforementioned, and of Sidney Lanier). And they even composed “poetry” whose only intelligibility lay in its form—the nonsense works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. They were word-oriented. Their conception of poetry was bound up (by historical accident) in the forms of verse. Of course, this did not prevent their writing most of the finest poems in the English language (try Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and, in the later nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Ernest Dow-son’s “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae”). But toward the middle of the nineteenth century, in the work of writers like Browning and Walt Whitman, emphasis cane to be onae ginary subject-matter of the poems, on the images of imaginary reality they afforded. “Rules” of poetic form were followed in desultory fashion or not at all. “Free Verse” was proclaimed, when what had emerged was the prose poem.

“Every poem…is inescapably an individual utterance”

Much of the philosophical foundation for this shift to image oriented poetry was codified by the intellectual leaders of the Imagist movement, especially T. E. Hulme, Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. Hulme had made a more than impressive beginning as an aesthetician and literary critic when he was killed in World War I. His posthumously published Speculations includes magnificently suggestive essays on art, sense-of-life and culture, as well as his “Complete Poetical Works”—five short poems written more or less to illustrate his Imagist theories. Amy Lowell’s best poems are probably the much-anthologized “Lilacs,” and “Patterns,” an evocation of the grim, fate-infested moment when a woman learns of the death of her lover. Ezra Pound—what is there to say about Ezra Pound? It is generally known, I think, that he was forcibly incarcerated for a time about a quarter of a century ago for holding the wrong political opinions (his Washington jailers called it “treason” and “mental illness”) and that his later poems are unintelligible to all but Pound specialists. But it is perhaps not so generally known that he is the author of one of the very best works of theoretical literary criticism in English, The ABC of Reading, and that his earlier poems are among the most evocative and, at times, exquisite, in the language.

Pound’s student T.S. Eliot anticipated his master’s later abandonment of image-oriented poetry for word-oriented poetry. Outside of Joyce, and perhaps Nabokov, I know of no artistic writer whose work is so dense with allusive, elusive meaning. Among his more immediately accessible (and immediately rewarding)—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Four Preludes.”

E. e. cummings, another contemporary poet of rare excellence, has also chosen to work within an essentially word-oriented or neoclassical conception of poetry—though in a radically experimental way and with due attention to imagery. See his Collected Poems.

Among the most distinguished of contemporary image-oriented poets are Dylan Thomas, who died in 1953 at the age of 39, of alcohol-related causes, and Mervyn Peake, who died in 1968, at the age of 57, of an incurable brain disease. Thomas’ “Fern Hill” is one of the most amazing sensuous experiences it is possible to refine from a series of black marks on a sheet of paper. It is also a warming, chilling evocation of childish joy in living, at the instant it first grasps the inevitaility of death. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a rallying cry and a helpless plea in defiance of death;

If there are literary sins of omission, the failure of any American publisher to bring out an edition of Mervyn Peake’s poetry surely qualifies. One would think the confining modest commercial success of his Gormenghast novels (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone) would suggest a certain reader receptivity to Peake’s vision. And “Vision” is precisely the right word here—Peake was never able to make a living by writing so he earned his keep as a book illustrator and instructor of life-drawing, and his literary style is visual to an uncommon extent. To read Peake is to learn how much of the world can be visually vivid (even “volcanic,” as one reviewer has described his writing) and visually meaningful. The Selected Poems available in England from Faber and Faber is a fairly representative collection. A better one, no longer available except in better libraries, isGlassblowers.

Libraries is my final topic this month, by way of explanation for the relative scarcity in my text of references to particular books. Except where otherwise indicated, the poems I’ve discussed are available in hundreds of different collections and anthologies, some in hard covers, some in soft, some available, some unavailable. All of the poems I’ve discussed (except Peake’s and those for which special citations are made) are available in any library and in the poetry sections of most good-size paperback bookstores. Three easily available anthologies which contain among them most of the poems I’ve mentioned are The New Oxford Book of English Verse, The Oxford Book of American Verse, and The Pocket Book of Verse. (Next issue Neil McCaffrey returns with “Jazz: The Golden Age.” Jeff Riggenbach will be back in July with “So-Called Children’s Literature.”)