Books: Poetry Notebook — Trumpets at Sunset |
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Trumpets at Sunset

When I was young, cartoons by James Thurber were so widely known that people would refer to them in conversation just by quoting the captions. I remember not quite understanding the reference in one caption: ‘I said the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces — but let it pass, let it pass.’ I thought the line very funny at the time but I didn’t know that Thurber was quoting Swinburne’s ‘Atalanta in Calydon’. You don’t need to get the reference to get the joke; but the joke eventually got me to Swinburne, who would gradually turn out to be the most accomplished poet that I couldn’t stand. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, would occasionally throw in an alliterative line for effect (‘Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad’) but Swinburne wanted the whole poem to be that way: a meal of popcorn. Sometimes, in his blizzard of alliteration, he failed to notice that he had written an identity rhyme instead of a rhyme:

And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten ...

Perhaps he noticed but thought we wouldn’t, intoxicated as we were bound to be by his sonic hurtle. But for a poet to be all sound is nearly as bad as for a painter to be all paint. After several attempts over the years to detect any signs of an underlying strength, I still find that a Swinburne poem affects me like a painting by John Bratby: there is so much impasto that the only tension lies in your wondering whether it will slide off the picture and fall on the floor. I have to give up on Swinburne; there is no time to go on quarrelling; and besides, there are problematic poets with whom one can quarrel to more purpose.

• • •

A dangerous point arrives when you tell yourself that you are still proud of your memory. It means that your memory is failing. Nowadays there is always Google, but that huge and dumb storage facility can’t always make up the difference. As far as I can tell, the phrase ‘trumpets at sunset’ is one I thought of, but perhaps I lifted it from someone else. Always, during my time as a writer, I made it a rule never to use unacknowledged a phrase that was not my own: but perhaps my subconscious, in its old age, has taken to making its own rules. If I did lift this phrase, I hope it was from someone serious, like Kipling. But if I had seen the phrase on the page, surely I or Google would remember that; besides, I make marks in books, and often a phrase or line that strikes me as outstanding gets copied into the endpapers, so eventually I come across the moment of treasure again. More likely, if I didn’t borrow the words, I borrowed the mood. Scott Fitzgerald called the last of his short-story collections Taps at Reveille. Though his plangent title needs translation — ‘Taps’ for ‘Last Post’ is strictly an American usage, and in America ‘Reveille’ rhymes with ‘Beverly’ — you can’t miss the threnodic complaint that the end has come too early.

Dorothy Parker, however, is the most probable victim of any urge to emulate that I might happen to have had. She called one of her little collections Sunset Gun. There is no time-twisting paradox in that title, but there is an aching beauty. Leaving aside Dorothea Mackellar (in school we all read her great hymn to Australia, ‘My Country’), Dorothy Parker was my first woman poet. But although I enjoyed the witty carpentry of her poems and even memorized a few of them, I was never touched by her use of language, except for that one title. By the phonetic coupling of those two words, ‘sunset gun’, I was bowled over, and for life. Their rhythm became for me, so early on in my writing career, a part of the tread of passing time, the grander rhythm to which I’m afraid that I now have better access when I write: afraid, because you don’t hear that music properly unless you are already on your way into the empty regions. Sunset gun. The sound of a slamming door, but it’s behind you.

• • •

As one’s time runs out, the mind is weighed down with a guilty mountain of the critical duties that won’t be attended to. There is barely time to read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems again and pay them a less stinted praise. When I first wrote about her, thirty years ago, I tried to be clever. It was a failure in judgement: she was the clever one. Still conceited enough to think that even so illustrious a reputation as hers could benefit from my recommendation, I should try to put things right. Any young student who has not yet discovered Elizabeth Bishop simply must be told about ‘The Man Moth’, ‘his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him’, or about the ‘Sandpiper’ walking along the beach, taking for granted ‘the roaring alongside’. And her famous poem ‘The Fish’ deserves more fame yet. I still hold by my original opinion that its tactics are bad: her final decision to ‘let the fish go’ is bound to elicit the wrong kind of smile when the reader considers how long she kept the fish in the boat while she was describing it. The pictures within her general picture of the fish, however, brook no belittlement. ‘I thought of the coarse white flesh / Packed in like feathers ...’ Not just an eye for texture: an ear for it.

But how many hours will I have for, say, Leonie Adams? In her time, she was America’s poet laureate. In my time, I tried a couple of her collections and found that her poems fell into the fatal category of polite but pale. Now, while shelving books, I open Louis Untermeyer’s venerable anthology The Collins Albatross Book of Living Verse (1933, updated in 1960) and find a poem by Leonie Adams near the back of the book, among the moderns. She describes how Hesperus, the wishing star, ‘Is risen only finger-far.’

But that’s a bit better than polite, and not entirely pale: you can see her with her finger held up to her eye, measuring. Unfortunately she doesn’t tell you whether the distance is covered by the length of the finger, or by the width. One assumes it’s the width, but it would have been better to be told for sure: her precision is not quite precise enough. So there, I have my excuse not to chase up the rest of her work. It’s not a very good excuse, though, and at some time in the near future I can see myself breaking my recent rule of buying no more books. I’ll be leafing through a full collection of her poems, just to allay the suspicion that I might have failed to report a noble attempt, even though not one of her poems emerges that is as intense throughout as its best phrase.

Sometimes a late search can be more rewarding. Anyone whose attention has been caught by U. A. Fanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side’ will find that her Selected Poems of 2013 has many other tightly integrated things. It wasn’t that she wrote one thing that put everything else in the shade. Though she had been awarded, very quietly in 2003, the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, her whole output was in the shade, and then suddenly it all came to light at once: at the very end of her life, and partly because Carol Ann Duffy, who has a gift for fame, was an admirer of hers. Thus Fanthorpe’s gift for obscurity was overcome: until then, despite her having published several volumes with a faithful minor publishing house, she was read mainly by her devotees, and it is one of the laws of poetry and the arts in general that the instructed are an insufficient audience: one must break through to the uninstructed. One would like to see every talented female poet winning through to general favour. God knows enough talentless female poets do.

• • •

I realize that the talentless female poets are still outnumbered by the talentless male poets. Nevertheless, the business of poetry is much more equally distributed between the genders than it was even in the period after the Second World War, when women seemed to be taking up poetry as if it were a new kind of swing shift, the equivalent of putting the wiring into silver bombers. There had always been women poets, from Sappho onwards; and a few, like Juana Inés de la Cruz, defined their place and time; but in English poetry, a small eighteenth-century triumph like Anne, Countess of Winchelsea’s poem ‘The Soldier’s Death’ did little to remind the male literati of the immediate future that there could be such a thing as a poet in skirts. They might remember the poem, but they didn’t remember her. True equality really began in the nineteenth century: Christina Rossetti, for example, wrote poems of an accomplishment that no sensitive male critic could ignore, no matter how prejudiced he was. (There were insensitive male critics who ignored it, and patronized her as a cot-case: but the tin-eared reviewer is an eternal type.) Elizabeth Barrett Browning was spoken of in the same breath as her husband. He was the greater, perhaps even the greatest: but nobody except devout misogynists doubted that she was in the same game.

In the twentieth century, Marianne Moore achieved the same sort of unarguable status: she was acknowledged to be weighty even by those who thought she was fey. In Sydney in the late 1950s, the poets of my circle would make a habit of reciting by heart from Edith Sitwell’s Façade, but still we all thought that she was some kind of echolalic succubus, and that a more typical English woman poet was, say, Anne Ridler: polite but pale. I would listen to an all-poetry LP that included Marianne Moore reciting ‘Distrust of Merits’ and come away convinced that she had the strength to make seriousness sound the way it should. When she said ‘The world’s an orphans’ home’ I thought hers was the woman’s voice that took the measure of the war in which the men had just been fighting to the death. Judith Wright spoke on the same theme to a far less resonant phonetic effect: she was a big Australian name but I could find only two or three self-sustaining poems in all her body of work. Today, I find only one or two: as an environmentalist she was a tough operator who saved the Great Barrier Reef from the mining companies, but as a poet she let her language drift towards the merely conceptual, until, in her later phase, it was like fluff. Another Australian female poet in Wright’s generation was, however, a better guardian of real meaning: Gwen Harwood. I should have spotted her at the time, but I was too caught up with the Americans.

Leaving Emily Dickinson aside — after all, she never found the public, the public had to find her — Marianne Moore would have been enough on her own to make women’s poetry seem like an American thing. She was a Special Forces operative in a black tricorne hat. But there was also Edna St Vincent Millay, whose sonnets, despite their wilfully traditionalist structure and diction, looked more and more original to me as time went on, to the point where, in my mind, I was casting the movie about her love affair with Edmund Wilson. My choice for the starring role was Gwyneth Paltrow, on the basis not just of how well she had played Sylvia Plath, but of how well she recited blank verse in Shakespeare in Love. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have made the ideal Edmund Wilson: Hoffman even had the physical bulk. The Edna—Edmund double act could easily have become as famous as Ted and Sylvia, if not for one vital factor: Plath was the formative woman poet for whole generations throughout the English-speaking world, whereas Millay has never really caught on. But then, not even Marianne Moore has ever caught on like Plath. In the whole of literature’s long history, Plath must be the supreme example of a poet breaking through to masses of people who know nothing about poetry at all. The young readers who went mad for Byron had all read verse before.

But if we look only for a big impact, we are treating women’s poetry as a commodity. And what should please us is that women’s poetry has joined men’s poetry in the harsh realm of art, where nothing except quality can survive the perpetual bushfire of time. Elinor Wylie’s finely fashioned poem ‘Wild Peaches’ glitters among the ashes, and some of the ashes are the remains of her other work: there is quite a lot of it, but it won’t be coming back. The main reason that the bulk of her poetic achievement will stay absent is the intensity of ‘Wild Peaches’ in its role as an outlier, a strange attractor: packed with fully observed and realized images, it is so well organized that the organization becomes part of its texture, and not just part of its driving force.

Donne, in one of his regrettably few statements about how ‘Metricall compositions’ are made, referred to the putting together of a poem as ‘the shutting up’. An unfortunate term, and we could use a better one; because there can’t be much doubt that the shaping of a poem is also a pressure, in which the binding energy of the poem brings everything inside its perimeter to incandescence. If that were not the prize, then the great women poets of our time might not have worked so hard to join the men.

• • •

By now it’s quite possible to look forward to a time when women will dominate the art. But in my time, men still did. Throughout my career as a critic, I did my best to say that women had contributed vitally to the heritage, but here at the final reckoning it bothers me that I might not have done enough, and that my critical work, if any of it is still consulted after I am gone, will make me look like a chauvinist. I sincerely believe that I was not, but in these matters it is not enough to believe, you have to behave. Will I get myself off the hook just by saying that I ended up with almost as many lines by Elizabeth Bishop in my head as by Robert Lowell? What one feels bound to acknowledge fully is her artistic stature. Of her moral stature there can be no question. The big book of her letters, One Art, is a mind-expanding picture of a difficult yet dedicated life, and a smaller book of letters, Words in Air, by collecting her correspondence with Lowell, defines the ethics of an historic moment: a moment when poetry, queen of the humanities, took a step towards the opportunistic privileges of totalitarianism. Lowell wanted her endorsement for his bizarre temerity in stealing Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters to use unchanged in his poetry. Bishop refused to approve, and surely she was right. She didn’t much like the idea of confessional poetry anyway — if she had, she would probably have written some — but clearly she thought that if it had to be done, it should be done within the bounds of civilization. Students in the future who are set the task of writing an essay about the limits of art could start right there, at the moment when one great poet told another to quit fooling himself.

• • •

Look into Chapman’s Homer and you can see what alliteration once did, long before Swinburne arrived to overdo it. Agamemnon kits himself out before going into battle:

Then took he up his weighty shield, that round about him cast
Defensive shadows; ten bright zones of gold-affecting brass
Were driven about it, and of tin, as full of gloss as glass,
Swelled twenty bosses out of it ...

While the ‘defensive shadows’ are good, ‘as full of gloss as glass’ is beyond good: it’s brilliant. Just don’t let Swinburne hear about it. But you can’t stop poets finding inspiration in the heritage; and no doubt to be as learned as possible is not just a duty, but a good thing. Still, you can’t help wishing that some of the learned poets since Shakespeare had been blessed with the knack of forgetting what they had read. For much of his life, Milton needed his memory because he couldn’t see. When he considered how his light was spent, he didn’t complain about being too often driven back into his remembered books. Perhaps he didn’t see the problem. But my quarrel with Paradise Lost — man against mountain! — begins with how Milton’s beaver-dams of learning turn streams of invention into stagnant ponds. One of the several Miltonians among my friends kindly goes on telling me that the displays of learning were part of the invention. Milton obviously believed that to be true. But here I am, once more submitting myself to Paradise Lost in the hope of being caught up; and once more realizing that the famous clash between T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis on the subject of Milton (Leavis did most of the clashing) was not a quarrel about nothing. It was really about a monumental example of poetic genius defeating itself; because the question of the possible insufficiency of his single most important work would never have arisen if it did not seem to pride itself on undoing things that Milton well knew how to do. A consummate lyricist faced with his biggest opportunity, he strained every muscle to be bad. Let one illustration serve, from Book Ninth, line 385 onwards. Eve has just spoken, and now she is described:

Thus saying, from her Husbands hand her hand
Soft she withdrew, and, like a Wood-Nymph light,
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia’s Traine,
Betook her to the groves, but Delia’s self
In gait surpassed and Goddess-like deport,
Though not as shee with Bow and Quiver armed,
But with such Gardning Tools as Art, yet rude,
Guiltless of fire had formed, or Angels brought.
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorned,
Likest she seemed — Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus — or to Ceres in her prime,
Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove ...

But enough. Such passages, and there are scores of them, are impoverished by their riches: erudition distorts the picture, whose effect divides into the poetic and the encyclopaedic. Johnson, though he despised Lycidas, was keen to find virtues in Paradise Lost, and a grand sweep of intertextual didacticism was high among the virtues that he found. But Johnson, who was also keen to tell the unadorned truth, said of Milton’s great masterpiece: ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’ The burden of learning helps to make it long. In mitigation, we should note that this element of Miltonics can be called uniquely Milton’s only because he did the most of it: in fact, it’s a hardy perennial. In the previous century, Spenser had been often at it, as when he loaded a library on top of his two swans in ‘Prothalamion’:

Two fairer birds I yet did never see:
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew,
Did never whiter shew,
Nor Jove himself when he a Swan would be
For love of Leda ...

Even those among his readers who knew nothing about Greece might possibly have known that Pindus was its principal mountain range, and everybody knew about shape-changing Jove and his priapic attentions to Leda. Similarly, readers of Marvell’s ‘Bermudas’ probably knew that Ormus — still in business at the time, although soon to decline and vanish — was a kingdom notable for wealth:

He hangs in shades the Orange bright
Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
And does in the Pomegranates close,
Jewels more rich than Ormus show’s.

But here we see where the trouble with this aspect of Miltonics really starts: when an encyclopaedic reference is outclassed by its poetic surroundings, like a fake jewel in a fine setting. The line about the lamps in the green night is one of Marvell’s best things, and poor old Ormus pales beside it. (Milton, too, dragged Ormus in, and to even less effect.) One hesitates to rhapsodize about the pure spring of inspiration, but there is such a thing as clogging the pipes. The awful thing about the apparent success of Milton’s unyielding stretches of leaden erudition was that the plumbing of English poetry was affected far into the future. Without Milton’s example, would Matthew Arnold have taken such pains to burden his ‘Philomela’ with this lumbering mention of a naiad nymph and her habitat?

Lone Daulis, and the high Cephissian vale?
Listen, Eugenia ...

But surely Eugenia has stopped listening, and is checking the menu for room service. At least we can say, however, that Arnold, by perpetrating such a blunder, helped to define what makes ‘Dover Beach’ so wonderful: in its clear cascade of distilled but unstrained speech, nobody from classical times except Sophocles makes a credited appearance, and even his bit is part of the argument, not just a classical adjunct parked on top of the edifice like a misplaced metope or triglyph. Milton, of course, schooled himself well in the trick of pulling a learned reference into the narrative texture, but all too often, no matter how smoothly the job is done, the most you can say of it is that it sounds good.

• • •

But sounding good can’t even be called a requirement. It’s a description. A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start. Hence the shortage of real poems amongst the global planktonic field of duds. In the countries of the Anglosphere, the poet’s first relationship is with the English language even when the poet is indigenous. There is therefore no mystery, although there is some sadness, about the shortage of Australian Aboriginal poets: the pseudo-progressive idea dies hard that there is something imperialistic about making it compulsory for Aboriginal youngsters to study the language of the white invader. Until the corrective opinion of such inspired Aboriginal leaders as Noel Pearson prevails, it will go on being true that too few people of Aboriginal origin are masters of the country’s principal language. Published in 2009, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature attempted to compensate for this imbalance artificially by including anything in English from an Aboriginal writer that might conceivably be construed as a poem, even if it was a political manifesto. It wasn’t the first attempt in Australian literary history to give Aboriginal culture a boost into the mainstream. Back in the 1930s to 1950s, the Jindyworobak movement did the same, with whitefella poets rendering themselves unreadable by using as many of the blackfella’s totemic terms as possible. New Zealand might have been in the same position with regard to the Maoris (nowadays known as the Maori, for purposes of confusion), had it not been for the advent of Hone Tuwhare (1922–2008), in whose poem ‘To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze Outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland’ the bronze figure speaks thus:

I hate being stuck up here, glaciated, hard all over
and with my guts removed: my old lady is not going
to like it ...

After twenty-five lines of brilliantly articulated bitching, the statue signs off:

Somebody give me a drink; I can’t stand it.

Tuwhare was himself a Maori, so the argument was over. Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything, and this hard fact becomes adamantine as one’s own vitality ebbs. Nevertheless, I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them. For instance, who needs a smooth technique after hearing Hopkins praise ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’? Well, everyone does, because what Hopkins does with the language depends on the mastery of mastery, and first you must have the mastery. And how can we write as innocently now as Shakespeare did when he gave Mercutio the speech about Queen Mab, or as Herrick did when he wrote ‘Oberon’s Feast’, or even as Pope did, for all his show of craft, when he summoned the denizens of the air to attend Belinda in Canto II of The Rape of the Lock? Well, we certainly can’t do it through ignorance, so there goes the idea of starting from nowhere. Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

TLS, 16 May 2014