DO WE HAVE TO PLAY THIS GAME? PHILIP LARKIN AGAINST MAURA STANTON

 

Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is a 60-line, ababccdeed, iambic pentameter (penultimate line trimeter) meditation-on-death powerhouse.

What was Hull, England’s Philip Larkin even doing in the APR, Vogelsang, and Berg, eds? 

Berg studied with Robert Lowell & attended the Iowa Workshop; Vogelsang has taught on the west coast, and they made APR into a journal of Iowa free verse, not British formalism.

But here’s Larkin and his “Aubade” in APR’s Body Electric anthology, and thus in the Scarriet 2011 Tournament, bullying his way to the top of the heap against poems without rhyme or meter. 

“I work all day and get half drunk at night” is throwing fear into all opponents. 

Is this why certain poets hang together? Among themselves, they are poets, but next to poems like Larkin’s “Aubade,” they are not?

Larkin’s poem says ‘death is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it’ and the rhymes don’t soften this message—they harden it.  Verse is soft and prose is hard, verse is ‘la la la’ and prose is pointed—at least this is what modernist aesthetics would have us believe, but Larkin proves otherwise: his verse is a cold knife, and most of these APR prose poets are waving fake magic wands, by comparison.

Maura Stanton, then, in contemplating facing Larkin’s “Aubade” with her poem, “The Veiled Lady,” must be feeling what Larkin in his poem expresses: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare” and “Unresting Larkin, a day nearer now” and “the sure extinction that I travel to” and “This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels. APR used to try” and “Courage is no good.”

Stanton’s poem features an atmosphere of 19th century seances and ends up saying our real selves are conjurer’s tricks, ending with:

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

This is lovely, but one can safely object: The woman I love does exist, and I can embrace her.

The Larkin poem, however, imprisons you with its whole self.

One can see in this interview that Maura Stanton, a Vietnam War era Iowa Workshop student, knows many of the poets in APR’s Body Electric. It’s her world.

But Philip Larkin is a poet not for Iowa City, but for the ages.

Larkin 99, Stanton 66.

PHILIP LARKIN IS IN THE FINAL FOUR.

THE MAURA STANTON INTERVIEW

RON SILLIMAN: CRITICAL COWARDICE.

The Veiled Lady

In the 19th Century, clever mediums
Would rap a table, making the dead speak.
Ghostly hands would hover in the air,
Heads would appear, Caesar, Napoleon.
Sometimes the whole immaterial body
Of someone’s beloved, dead daughter or sister
Glided through a room allowing swords
To pass though it. Once a husband rose
And tried to caress what was never there,
A veiled lady he thought was his wife,
While others in the room almost fainted
To see him step right through her crinoline.
D.D. Home could levitate out windows
And float above a busy London street.
Imagine sitting on the horsehair sofa
Almost hysterical, watching that miracle…
But it was done with thick plate glass and lights,
A conjurer’s trick, just like the accordion
Played by a ghost in front of Robert Browning
Who shuddered when a spirit hand reached out
And put a wreath of flowers on Elizabeth
Though afterwards he called it sham, imposture.
But that’s what I am, that’s what we all are
To one another, a trick of light and glass
Projected before an audience of dupes.
Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology, twitchings and snores,
Wetness, jerking muscles. Wild images
Flicker across my convoluted brain
As it constructs a person out of dreams.
That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

Maura Stanton

Now let’s go down to the floor where Marla Muse is with Maura Stanton, who is one of Scarriet’s Elite Eight, Marla?

Marla Muse (MM): Thanks, Tom. Maura, congratulations on your entry into the Elite Eight, how’s it feel?

Maura Stanton (MS): It feels great, Marla.

MM: Thanks for taking time out to talk with me, I know you’re here today at Walt Whitman Stadium to practice free-verse throws for your upcoming match to gain entry into the Scarriet Final Four.

MS: It’s no problem, I needed a break anyway.

MM: Maura, you’ve earned the nickname “The Veiled Lady” for your elusiveness and stealth out on the floor. And you have managed to conjure up almost out of thin air one of the most illustrious squads this game has ever seen. How did you attract such stellar talent?

MS: Well Marla, management has been very supportive, and we were very blessed in the draft last year.

MM: Blessed, I love it! Luck had nothing to do with it?

MS: That one’s above my pay grade, Marla.

MM: Maura, speaking of luck, you have a player who once extolled the value of luck in his generals, I’m speaking of course of Napoleon himself.

MS: Nappy is one of our starters, we get him out there at the beginning to spook the opposition.

MM: Alongside Caesar.

MS: Yes, Cheezer and Nap work wonders together, which is amazing when you consider the egos at play there.

MM: Absolutely, but I notice you don’t keep them in long.

MS: That’s correct, we put them in for the first few minutes of play, let them run up the score, then cut them loose for the night.

MM: To conquer new worlds! And yet even after they’ve left, their presence somehow lingers on throughout the game.

MS: Oh yes.

MM: Maura, your offense of course has reminded many of legendary coach William Lindsay Gresham’s famous squad from the 1940s, I’m speaking of course of the famous “Nightmare Alley.”

MS: It’s an honor to be compared with them.

MM: And of course for one season Gresham’s team featured the great Tyrone Power, and many said his best work was done during his time with the “Nightmare Alley” squad.

MS: Power never phoned it in, and he dug deep during his time in the “Alley.”

MM: Maura, this spiritualism stuff, we all know it’s fake, know we’re being manipulated, but yet we’re also susceptible. Why is that?

MS: Well Marla—

MM: Could it be because humans already believe so many things that are so patently absurd?

MS: Well Marla, I—

MM: And I don’t just mean the theists and polytheists among us, I mean the deists and atheists as well. Perhaps the irrational part of the mind can only be tempered by beliefs that are irrational?

MS: Well Marla—

MM: Or is it that humans have such a powerful need to communicate with the departed, to apologize for past sins, to correct the uncorrectable?

MS: (silent)

MM: Maura, I’m very interested in how you relate our susceptibility to spiritualist claims to our need for illusion in the realms of sex and romance. Because the need for illusion in those realms is so necessary, isn’t it?

MS: I believe it is.

MM: Especially for men, I think, since I have long noted that a man’s imaginative powers are crucial to his attaining potency, especially after a certain age.

MS: And what age would that be?

MM: Oh you kid! Twelve! But seriously, Maura, I think one of the reasons Viagra is so necessary in our time is because modern man’s imagination has become so, if you pardon the term, shriveled up.

MS: Hmm.

MM: I read The Atlantic, I read the stories of couples who make over 150K a year, yet the husband hasn’t gotten an erection with his wife in over a decade.

MS : Trouble in paradise?

MM: Well put!

MS: Although I suspect husbands have always had trouble with sexual performance with only one woman over decades.

MM:The Coolidge Effect!

MS: Quite so. Even the most ancient stories tell of men who needed concubines and multiple wives to retain potency, so I don’t think it’s just a modern phenomenon.

MM: Maura, if the object of desire is just “biology, twitchings and snores,/wetness, jerking muscles”, i.e., a bare, forked creature, then how can she arouse desire in the lover?

MS: She acts upon and stimulates the imagination of the lover. It’s all in the lover’s imagination.

MM: Yes, as you say, “That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.” And yet she does—

MS: She does exist, but not as the lover perceives.

MM: I remember a woman once explaining why she loved a man, and she said, “He saw the me I didn’t.”

MS: That’s wonderful.

MM: Isn’t it?  The lover can see the beloved as she never saw herself… Maura, I am so impressed with how your star center D.D. “Double D” Home and your power forward Bobby “BB Gun” Browning have managed to bury the hatchet to get to the Elite Eight, and possibly the Final Four.

MS: Well, the will to win makes strange bedfellows, and don’t forget that both of the Brownings appear in my poem. Without them, the team wouldn’t be where it is today. You see, Marla, poets must rely on other poets; it’s not like owners of hotdog stands, who can just go it alone. When she was Elizabeth Barrett, in her rookie year, she and Edgar Poe wrote to each other, a trans-Atlantic flirtation; Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to her—but that was the year Robert came into her life.

MM: I like when you say Robert and Elizabeth “appear” in your poem.  Whatever “appears” must also “vanish”…

MS: I hadn’t thought of that…  Nice, Marla.

MM: Had you thought of including Yeats in your poem?  He was really into the occult.

MS: I had thought of Yeats, and he was a free agent available for the season, but the Brownings were more of what I was looking for. Seances were so big in the Victorian era. Yeats is either thought of as a Modern or a late Romantic.

MM: But Yeats was a Victorian in so many ways. It’s just that the Modernists were horrified at being called Victorians…OK, let’s go now to a commercial, for the Antiques Roadshow!

THE BOMBER AND THE LADY: SWEET SIXTEEN’S NEMEROV, STANTON RUMBLE

I wonder if it’s significant that so many notable poems in the APR March Madness Tournament reference famous people: Dugan: Anne Sexton, Corso: Shelley, Ginsberg: Salman Rushdie, Edward Field: Freud, O’Hara: Ashbery, etc

In this contest to advance to the Elite Eight, Nemerov’s WW II bomber poem, “IFF,” mentions Hitler, and Stanton’s “The Veiled Lady” makes a passing reference to Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

Nemerov’s sister was a famous New York photographer.

Stanton’s husband is also in this APR competition.

So many APR poems are addressed to, or revolve around the famous, or near-famous; reading these poems is almost to be immersed in a gossipy, celebrity party. It is a late-night, decadent, educated, boozy, party where if Freud, Hitler, or Sexton are not being discussed, a good fuck or a good hug is.

It must have been exciting sometime in the 20th century when poetry became grown-ups discussing Freud and affairs and smut openly.  But the problem with boozy, adult-themed poetry is that it isn’t for children; it isn’t for students.  That’s why, I think, APR poetry, and so much of 20th century poetry, is doomed to fade away.  Smutty, wise-cracking Freud isn’t going to be taught to students, because, frankly, it’s smutty, and without that market, forget it;  this type of poetry is only going to be interesting to used-bookstore-grubbing malcontents and perhaps a few social historians.  Oh, and, the few non-university poets who are left.

There’s not much to teach in these poems, anyway; it’s delicious late-night conversation, but we all know what happens when the boozy party is over.  You go home, wake up the next morning and fret about your life, and what some guy said last night about Freud, or the blow-job described in detail, are forgotten.

This may be wrong, and even mean—but it’s just one of those things we like to say around here.

I had an undergraduate (state school) college professor who was very influential on me because I was unformed and she really loved to teach, who used to say, somewhat regretfully: “We (moderns) can’t escape Romanticism.”

Maura Stanton and her poet husband can’t escape Elizabeth and Robert Browning.  No poet couple can, or would try.

But the Moderns set out trying to escape Romanticism.

Only later, after I lost touch with my professor, and after much reading, did I realize how cowardly and excessive the Moderns’ attack on Romanticism was.

Romanticism was already modern was the problem. 

Byron, for instance, was as chatty and frank as any Beat—and metrical and rhyming, to boot.

And this celebrity name-dropping which the APR poets indulge in was already done by Byron (Southey) and Shelley (George III).

The only way around Romanticism was to pretend one was “Classical,’ which the High Modernists did, but Pound wasn’t classical—that was another one of his cons.  If we want to be perfectly honest about the whole thing, Modernism was two things: more prosey and more smutty. We didn’t need Pound to pompously assert that poetry needed to be written as well as good prose—to every good writer in history this is a given, and Pound himself didn’t follow it very well.  Pound, classical?  Bah.

Billy Collins won last year’s BAP March Madness with a parody of a William Wordsworth poem, but Billy wasn’t just name-dropping; he embraced Wordsworth—or what Wordsworth means, and didn’t let go for the entirety of his poem.

Wordsworth wasn’t smutty.  And neither is Billy Collins.  Take note, you who want poetic fame, and you who understand the secret that fame, love, and poetry are the same thing.

What is it about famous names, or almost the same thing: names of beloveds, who become famous in poems: Beatrice, Laura, Stella, Lenore, Cynara, Joan Hunter Dunn?

I have a theory: the name of one’s first obsessive, chaste, exquisitely beautiful love will determine if one becomes a lover of poetry, or not.

Had my first love been Meghan Smith, I doubt I would have gone on to desire the Muse.

Mine was alliterative and suggestive: Karen Cummins.

The interest of the name, combined with the loveliness of the person, combined with the unrequited nature of ‘the crush,’ was all-encompassing, accidental (the combination of the beauty and the name) and it hurt me into poetry, but not consciously—this was money saved, not spent.

I didn’t write the name, Karen Cummins, in any of my poems.

Fanny Brawn was not in any of Keats’ best poems.

Nemerov’s description of Hitler in his poem “IFF” is audacious:

Hitler a moustache and a little curl
In the middle of his forehead, whereas these
Bastards were bastards in your daily life

How much more powerful this than W.D. Snodgrass’s documentary-like poem’s attempt in the APR anthology to capture Hitler.

The ending of Stanton’s poem completely wins me over:

Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology…

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

MARLA MUSE: This reminds me of last year’s Scarriet BAP March Madness Final Four poem, “The Year,” by Janet Bowdan.  Remember?  It had the same haunting quality.

But Stanton’s poem has an entirely different p.o.v.

Plus she has Elizabeth and Robert Browning.

Stanton beats Nemerov, 90-80, advancing to the North Finals.

ROUND TWO, NORTH: MAURA STANTON, THE VEILED LADY V. MICHAEL PALMER, WHO DOES NOT SPEAK ENGLISH

 The 20th century, for all its ‘modernism,’ was 19th century-besotted, and we have yet to confront all our 19th century demons.

Both poems competing today confront absence.

How many types of absence are there?  There is metaphysical nothing, mathematical zero, subatomic nothing, and linguistic nothing.  Then there is just nothing.  So at least five.

Palmer:

“I do not know English. Therefore I have no way of communicating that I prefer this painting of nothing to that one of something.”

Palmer’s voice throughout his poem “I  Do Not” is detached, academic, but “does not know English.” The Language experiment in a nutshell.

Stanton’s poem is also about nothing: the ghosts at 19th century seances.

Palmer:

“Nor can I utter the words science, seance,  silence, language, and languish.”

Stanton has Robert Browning reject the seance trick, and then her poem does a remarkable thing:

“But it was done with thick plate glass and lights,
A conjurer’s trick, just like the accordian
Played by a ghost in front of Robert Browning
Who shuddered when a spirit hand reached out
And put a wreath of flowers on Elizabeth
Though afterwards he called it sham, imposture.
But that’s what I am, that’s what we all are
To one another, a trick of light and glass
Projected before an audience of dupes.”

Stanton embraces the illusion of the 19th century and her poem dramatically realizes what Palmer only speaks of.

Stanton Moves Into the Sweet Sixteen With A 59-57 victory.

OFF THE GLASS: ANNE CARSON V. MAURA STANTON

Maura Stanton: both her parents fought in WW II; she was admitted to Iowa’s MFA program in poetry and fiction.

Anne Carson, the whizz from Canada, tries to advance out of the first round as a no. 5 seed against 12th seed Maura Stanton of Illinois, Yale Younger winner, and wife to Richard Cecil, also in this tourney, and winner in his first round play.

Both use the glass in fascinating ways.

My Religion

My religion makes no sense
and does not help me
therefore I pursue it.

When we see
how simple it would have been
we will thrash ourselves.

I had a vision
of all the people in the world
who are searching for God

massed in a room
on one side
of a petition

that looks
from the other side
(God’s side)

transparent
but we are blind.
Our gestures are blind.

Our blind gestures continue
for some time until finally
from somewhere

on the other side of the partition there we are
looking back at them.
it is far too late.

We see how brokenly
how warily
how ill

our blind gestures
parodied
what God really wanted

(some simple thing).
The thought of it
(this simple thing)

is like a creature
let loose in a room
and battering

to get out.
It batters my soul
with its rifle butt.

–Anne Carson

MARLA MUSE: Rifle butt? Ouch!

A little anti-war commentary thrown in from Carson at the last minute? It can’t hurt, I suppose.  I’m sure all our readers recognized Carson’s style.  Now let’s look at Stanton’s:

The Veiled Lady

In the 19th Century, clever mediums
Would rap a table, making the dead speak.
Ghostly hands would hover in the air,
Heads would appear, Caesar, Napolean.
Sometimes the whole immaterial body
Of someone’s beloved, dead daughter or sister
Glided through a room allowing swords
To pass though it. Once a husband rose
And tried to caress what was never there,
A Veiled lady he thought was his wife,
While others in the room almost fainted
To see him step right through her crinoline.
D.D. Home could levitate out windows
And float above a busy London street.
Imagine sitting on the horsehair sofa
Almost hysterical, watching that miracle…
But it was done with thick plate glass and lights,
A conjuror’s trick, just like the accordian
Played by a ghost in front of Robert Browing
Who shuddered when a spirit hand reached out
And put a wreath of flowers on Elizabeth
Though afterwards he called it sham, imposture.
But that’s what I am, that’s what we all are
To one another, a trick of light and glass
Projected before an audience of dupes.
Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology, twitchings and snores,
Wetness, jerking muscles. Wild images
Flicker across my convoluted brain
As it constructs a person out of dreams.
That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

–Maura Stanton

MARLA MUSE: Wow. That’s glorious.  Carson’s was good, but this poem…

You’re right, Marla. Stanton went Carson one better, I think, in using the glass. 

The game was tied, until, in the second half, with “But that’s what I am…” Stanton went on a 12-2 run and pulled away to win it, 78-63.

Maura Stanton, like her husband, Richard Cecil, advances to the second round in APR March Madness: Scarriet 2011.

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