Books: Poetry Notebook — Listening to the Flavour |
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Listening to the Flavour

Listening for the Flavour: A Notebook

Almost fifty years ago, Hart Crane was one of my starting points as a reader of modern poetry. He still is. But my admiration for him always led to a quarrel, and it still does. By now, I hope I can do a better job of framing the quarrel as an argument, instead of as one of those impatient snorts we give when we are drawn in but not convinced, put off but can’t let go. The argument starts like this. If ‘Voyages’, one of the stand-out pieces in White Buildings, had maintained its show of coherence all the way to the end, it would have been a successful abstract poem sequence. It didn’t have to make sense, but it did have to keep up its confident, even if drunkenly confident, tone: and it didn’t. Or, to put Hart Crane back into the present tense which is his due, it doesn’t. The show breaks down in section IV, where the second stanza seems to be beginning with its second line, a first line having apparently gone missing.

All fragrance irrefragably, and claim
Madly meeting logically in this hour
And region that is ours to wreathe again,
Portending eyes and lips and making told
The chancel port and portion of our June —

A textual crux that Crane might have designed specifically to help give his future scholars tenure, the phantom first line could have been a surmountable anomaly. (Plainly the narrative syntax is a put-up job throughout the poem, so any ellipsis is a hole in a mirage.) But the credibility drops to zero when we encounter ‘Madly meeting logically’. In the first three sections of the poem there have been plenty of adverbs as self-consciously fancy as ‘irrefragably’; and the main reason ‘The chancel port and portion of our June’ rings dead, apart from the exhausted wordplay of ‘port and portion’, is that we have met too many similar structures previously (‘In these poinsettia meadows of her tides’). But ‘Madly meeting logically’ is too much. We might have forgiven the stanza’s cargo of leaden echoes if the mad logical meeting had not forfeited our attention, as when a barroom war hero piles on that fatal implausible detail too many.

After this sudden and damaging loss of pressure in section IV, you don’t, for the rest of the poem — two and a half more numbered sections — hear much that doesn’t remind you of what you have heard before. The structures of phrases and sentences are made more recognizable because the content they had earlier in the poem has not been equalled, so that they stand out like ribs in a starved chest. ‘The bay estuaries fleck the hard sky limits’ is new and strangely gorgeous, but precious little else is, whereas the first two thirds of the poem, up to the point of breakdown, glitter with fragments that you can’t forget. I first read ‘Voyages’ in Sydney, a city in which you can taste the ocean in the summer air, and I can still remember the first thrilling impact of such moments as ‘The waves fold thunder on the sand’, ‘The bottom of the sea is cruel’, ‘Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings / Samite sheeted and processioned ...’ (but I thought ‘Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love’ was painfully weak), ‘... the crocus lustres of the stars’, ‘Adagios of islands, O my prodigal’ and the catchily florid, neo-‘Adonais’ lines near the end of part II:

Hasten, while they are true — sleep, death, desire
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Feeling tolerant, at the time, about preciousness if it sounded sufficiently compressed, I was much taken by that floating flower, and also, of course, by the killer line at the very end of that same section:

The seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise.

For several days I practised a wide spindrift gaze myself, until it occurred to me that I might look like a seal in search of a mate. But the embarrassment didn’t stop me writing nonsensical sequential poems on my own account. In several unfortunate instances I managed to get these published by student magazines. Not very many years later, I started having nightmares in which I featured as a fireman from Fahrenheit 451 vainly searching for any copies of those magazines that I had not yet incinerated. The nightmares stopped when I was at last able to see how unlikely it was that anyone had ever remembered a line I had written. And anyway, like abstract painting, abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself. That was the charm for its author.

But even the most dull-witted author was obliged to realize that his freely associating work of art — proudly meaningless, although really meaning everything — would have no readers unless it had its moments. Whether in a formal poem or an informal one, everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment. Formality and informality are just two different ways of joining the moments up. The question will always be about which is superior, and the ‘always’ strongly suggests that neither of them is. Whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.

Just lately I was granted a powerful demonstration of this when I started rereading Robert Frost, something that I have done every ten years or so throughout my adult life. I would never stop reading him if there were not something talkatively smooth about him that allows me to convince myself he is not intense. Then I pick him up again and find that his easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance. Take a poem like ‘At Woodward’s Gardens’. For more than half its length, the monkeys in a cage could be characters in a prose narrative that just happened to possess an iambic lilt. But after the monkeys steal the boy’s burning-glass, suddenly you get this: ‘They bit the glass and listened to the flavour.’ The moment is so good that the way it serves the poem to perfection is only part of its appeal: once we know about the monkeys and the burning-glass, the line becomes memorable on its own. And I think we could all give examples, from our memories, of how a poetic moment can put the poem it comes from in the shade. Without going to the bookcase, I can write down one of the first lines by Empson that ever bowled me over. ‘And now she cleans her teeth into the lake.’

And it was a first line, of a poem that has always seemed dark to me after that first magnesium flash. As a diehard formalist myself, I don’t like to admit that the unity of a poem, its binding energy, might not be the most important of its energies. But there are clearly cases where this is so. Take ‘Good Friday’, Amy Clampitt’s wonders-of-the-biosphere poem that starts in the Serengeti and does a pretty good job of getting evolution into a nutshell. For its knowledgeable precision, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop would both have recognized a worthy acolyte. But the poem would hold together better if there were not an isolated burst of lyricism tearing it apart. The second stanza, the one about the cheetah, is the one you remember, and even then only for its first three lines:

Think how the hunting cheetah, from
the lope that whips the petaled garden
of her hide into a sandstorm, falters ...

After which, the narrative falters too. Rhythm doesn’t concern Clampitt very much. The syllabics of Marianne Moore are probably somewhere in the background, but not even that system for manufactured unpredictability means much to her. She is just out to avoid the iambic pulse, as Pound once advised, confident as he was that it was creatively exhausted. Clampitt writes poetry shorn of almost every formal effect. But we see the consequences when a moment stands out like the alteration of the cheetah’s coat. Not even the rest of the stanza can keep that up, let alone the rest of the poem.

Defenders of the formal poem could plausibly say that it has a better, not a worse, chance of joining the moments up, so that its ability to contain them, and intensify them with a symmetrical framework and a melodic structure, becomes a satisfaction in itself. Frost did so, many times: ‘The Silken Tent’ is not only wonderful throughout, it is especially wonderful because it is wonderful throughout. In whatever form he chose, writing a poem, not just writing poetry, was what Frost was after. (As Frost wrote to Wallace Stevens after they dined together in Key West, ‘our poetry comes choppy, in well-separated poems’.) And most of us would not have much trouble in compiling a list of well-separated poems that we keep complete, or almost complete, in our heads: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’, Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’, Dowson’s ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’, Yeats’s ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, Cummings’s ‘You shall above all things be glad and young’, Stevens’s ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, MacNeice’s ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’, Auden’s ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love’, just to name some of the poems I could at one time or other in my life recite from memory. (In the old Australian school system, you had to get poetry by heart or they wouldn’t let you go home.) There are poets who mainly write poetry but still write the odd poem that gets an extra dimension from being poised like a silken tent: Dylan Thomas’s ‘In my sullen craft or art’, for example. We don’t necessarily have to remember the whole poem. (We might not want to learn it. Even though I can recognize and place almost any line from Larkin’s collected poems, I have never set out to learn one of his poems by heart, because somehow, I find, they frown on that activity.) But we can always remember that it struck us as being all of a piece.

Frost made that his aim. Even in his longer poems, the aspiration to self-containment was always there. His often-stated ideal ‘the sound of sense’ was meant to be a unifying element. Sometimes the dialogue passages in the longer poems got too high above that unifying tonal range. In ‘Snow’, the hero, Meserve, is meant to be naturally eloquent, but anyone talking about him becomes eloquent too, so exchanges crop up that sound like nothing ever spoken since the Elizabethan theatre was in flower.

                                       ‘He had the gift
Of words, or is it tongues I ought to say?’
‘Was ever such a man for seeing likeness?’

It isn’t that Frost’s dialogue isn’t good. It’s too good: too good for the otherwise well-separated poem. But you’d hardly call the fault characteristic. It comes from a high, indeed hieratic, ambition; and his more usual ambition, the more demanding ambition, was the genuinely humble one of ‘lodging a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’. There is no need to think that he was poor-mouthing himself when he talked like that. He knew very well that the poem that could be remembered as a whole, and not just read through, was the hardest target to aim at. And he hit it dozens of times. If some nervous graduate recites ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ at a commencement ceremony, that isn’t a sign of how Frost played the grizzled wiseacre, although he sometimes did: it’s a proof that he attained his object as a poet.

When they knew each other back in England before the First World War, Ezra Pound — excellent critic that he was, when not in the grip of mania — could see the essential strength of the early Frost’s diction. For one thing, it was so classically schooled. (Even today, when so much biographical and critical work on Frost has accumulated, it is often forgotten that it was Frost, and not Pound or Eliot, who really knew Greek and Latin.) But Pound wanted modern poetry to go in a less formal direction, in which a poem could be sustained by its moments — a direction in which a long poem made of fragments might be possible. (In fulfilling that plan some of Pound’s later imitators were to be more convincing than he was: Galway Kinnell with The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World, Christopher Logue with his War Music.) We have to make our own minds up whether the evidence of the short poems in Personae proves that Pound was really such a master of set forms he could afford to abandon them, but what matters is that he did so, and was prepared to back those who did the same. One of them was Eliot, who really was a formal master: but his informal poems, especially Prufrock and The Waste Land, changed everything, and deserved to, because the moments were many and unforgettable. Alas, one of the side effects was to create the impression that anyone could do it, and that everything could be said by saying anything.

Frost had a keen and worried eye for trends. He was never as nastily jealous of his turf as his most influential later biographer, Lawrance Thompson, made out. But Frost did have a roost to rule, and he felt it threatened by the runaway vogue for poetry that made a virtue of lacking discipline. How could his concealed discipline be a merit in a field where discipline itself was held to be an inhibition? By the late 1930s, lecturing at Amherst or at Harvard or just dropping funny remarks at any whistle-stop in his endless tour through the poetry-reading circuit that he invented, he was ready to trash Pound’s name: politely, but decisively. But Frost the patriarch was all too aware that his lifelong emphasis on craft had become an anachronism, if poetry were to be measured by the sheer number of people writing it. A great Frost poem like ‘The Axe-Helve’ (even Baptiste’s ethnically flavoured dialogue fits it exactly) was a metaphor for the poet’s pride in skilled work. Pride in unfettered expression was a different kind of pride, and looked, to him, awfully like unfounded self-approval.

At this distance, Frost’s celebrated gibe about formless poetry — tennis without a net — rings hollow, and not just because it has been repeated too often by solemn traditionalists. Too many poems without rhyme, without strict shape, without ascertainable rhythm — without almost everything — have been unarguably successful. But within an informal poet’s work, I think, even those successful poems mainly add up to poetry. Few of them are the choppily well-separated thing. Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie passes every test for the brilliant moment. It is a universe of brilliant moments. But are its constituent individual poems really self-contained? He might answer that they aren’t trying to be, and indeed there is no compulsion any more to try any such thing. (There is still an inner, instinctive compulsion, perhaps: take the way that someone as modest as U. A. Fanthorpe, whose poems are usually shaped by nothing but her unspectacular powers of argument, suddenly writes a lulu like ‘Not My Best Side’ — still formless, but vital in every line.) But if the scope has opened further for the highly talented, it has not done so without making far too much room for the talentless, who are no longer easily recognizable. Apart from the encouragement offered the poetaster to become more productive than he has ever been in history, there is the even more reprehensible encouragement offered such a gifted poet as John Ashbery, in his later career as an arts factory, to turn out a continuous emission of isotropic mincemeat. Still, you can always say that about hamburger: it’s as American as apple pie.

In another instalment, if I don’t get lynched for this one, I would want to mention the famous 1960 Grove Press anthology The New American Poetry (edited by Donald M. Allen), which was instrumental in spreading the American abstract poem across the Atlantic to Britain, and indeed across the Pacific to Australia. Pound (along with William Carlos Williams) gave Charles Olson’s poetry the courage to be born, and Olson did the same for a generation of freedom-loving bards not just in America but in the entire English-speaking world. Pound had argued — and Eliot had helped him prove — that a poem could be sustained by memorable moments. Olson proved that it could be sustained by unmemorable ones, provided that the texture of the accumulated jottings avoided the sound of failed poetry, which it could do if the pentameter were rigorously eschewed. Buttressed by the widely shared opinion that his ungovernable output had to be poetry because it wasn’t prose, Olson acquired imitators wherever in the world English was haltingly spoken. If Hart Crane had lived to see the day, he would have looked for another ship and thrown himself off the back of that.

As for Frost, he had already foresuffered all, like Tiresias: his streak of paranoia was actually a perception. In post-war America, there would be hold-outs against temptation: Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht. In Britain, the dazzling example of Auden’s formal virtuosity was to hold the advancing blob at bay for a long time, all the way to Larkin and beyond. By now, however, the game has irreversibly lost its net: you have to pretend the net is still there. But let there be no doubt that Olson’s influence was liberating. The question is about what it liberated. I quote from The New American Poetry. Here is the entirety of the sixth of ‘The Songs of Maximus’:

you sing, you
who also

That’s all, folks. I can’t believe it was very hard to do. No wonder so many young poets of the future felt inspired. Perhaps that was a kind of freedom, but I still think I might have chosen a better course in emulating Hart Crane, who at least required that his epigones should plausibly echo the slurred volubility of dipsomania.


When I wrote ‘Listening to the Flavour’ for Poetry (Chicago) and thus inaugurated my Poetry Notebook, I was gripped by the notion that I might use this approach to sum up my own lifetime of poetry reading, which I had begun by working my way through the constantly varying stack of slim volumes on my cafe table at Sydney University. But it also occurred to me that the world had changed, and that young beginners of today might think differently about those slim volumes. They might not even have seen any. Even with such a literary subject as poetry, you can nowadays get a long way without taking your eyes off the computer screen. Hart Crane’s mysteriously lovely poem ‘North Labrador’, for example, is available at a single click on the PoemHunter site, if you don’t mind dodging a preliminary advertisement on video. But for the young literary enthusiasts that I personally know, the book is not yet dead. I hope that stays true, for their sake; because I remember too well the thrill of buying those slim volumes second-hand. When the Wall Street Journal asked me to nominate my five favourite modern poetry books, my first reaction was to ask myself why a serious newspaper was behaving like a blog. (Five Favourite Modern Poetry Books; Five New Teenage Celebrities Forgotten Since Last Week.) But I soon saw an opportunity beckoning: to transmit, for a new generation, my gratitude for the neatness and the concentration of the slight volume densely packed with memorable meaning. A big ‘collected’ volume can overwhelm you: you might bounce off. The slim volume allows you to feel straight away that you might be getting somewhere. Having reached that conclusion, I had to admit that it didn’t apply to Robert Frost, whose slim volumes had always appealed to me less than the big collected volume, getting bigger all the time as he grew older. Nor did it apply to Yeats, whose work, in my beginning days, was available only in the forbiddingly chubby Macmillan collected edition. So really I had two opinions on the matter, even after so long a time. Anyway, I did my list, and tried to enjoy the tacit contract that anything I said had to fit into a tiny space, like one of the microdots of old-fashioned espionage.