TWO MODERNS, LARKIN, ASHBERY, IN MADNESS TANGLED

Can Ashbery go further in Scarriet’s 2013 Romanticism tourney?
Is the ancient quarrel—who is better?—between ‘ancients and moderns’ a conceit of those ancients who are gone, or a conceit of we moderns who, deluded, live?
Which is real?  Learned authority which comforts and excites the ambitious school boy who desires poetic fame?
Or, that pregnant subjectivity which rejects all ‘authority’ in its ambition for fame without sweetness, pretention or glory?
Is the historian the judge of ‘great poetry?’
Or is there such a thing as ‘timeless good?’
These questions weigh upon every shot, every rebound, every fast-break, every dunk, every steal, in March Madness.
In more Round One action, no. 4 Seed Larkin (“The Whitsun Weddings”) battles no. 13 Seed Thomas Traherne (“Eden”).
Larkin’s poem, some say, is the best poem of the 20th century; it doesn’t preach; it is immersed in experience, and yet one gets the feeling that the poet is surveying human reality in sum.  The poem is formal, though not heavy-handed in its formality.  It almost feels like this is the holy grail of a modern poem, and it doesn’t matter that a reclusive, grumpy librarian from Hull, England, wrote it.  Is it Romantic?  Surely it is.  It feels like Keats reincarnated in the 20th century.
The Whitsun Weddings
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles island,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displace the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed abroad: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots. and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
-An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl -and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The amazing thing about this 17th century poem by Thomas Traherne, “Eden,” is how much it anticipates Wordsworth, how it is all Rousseau, even though it glows with Christian purity.
Wordsworth merely filled in Traherne’s philosophy with buds and birds and trees.
Meanwhile, Larkin did the same to Wordsworth, adding even more realism (a train ride) and chucking philosophy entirely for Keatsian silent wonder.
So we see the progress of poetry, flying in the air with philosophy, and letting it go, as more and more sights appear.
Eden
A learned and a happy ignorance
          Divided me
      From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
      The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
   
I knew not that there was a serpent’s sting,
          Whose poison shed
      On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
      As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.
   
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
          Sleep, day, life, light,
      Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
      All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
   
Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
          Vain costly toys,
      Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
      So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
   
Only what Adam in his first estate,
          Did I behold;
      Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
      Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.
   
Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
          My infancy
      Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
      Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;
   
And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
          So fair and sweet,
      So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
      And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity.
 John Ashbery’s Syringa is pure meditation, closer, actually to Traherne than to the more modern Larkin; Ashbery eschews art for talk, chucking both Traherne’s philosophy and Larkin’s experience for pure, flowing ephemera—the poem itself questioned, everything is questioned, Ashbery the 100 foot child (Rousseau’s revenge?) crushing all.  Ashbery is a burbling, inarticulate, child-like questioner, afflicted with grown-up melancholy and book-learning, a Faust who never made that bargain and yet regrets it and now cannot shut up.  Ashbery is Romantic because he is always on the verge of Romanticism–even as he wades past it.
We love in the end how Ashbery gives up his meditation to settle in that “small town…one indifferent summer.”
The favorite here is Sir John Suckling, the No. 5 Seed, against Ashbery’s 12th Seed.
Suckling’s poem is memorable in a way that no Ashbery poem could be.
The difference is startling: the Suckling of so few words compared to the Ashbery!
Can Suckling’s annoyance be Romantic?
More so than Ashbery’s meditative dream?
We should pause merely to record our amazement as these two very different Romantic poems meet.

WHY SO PALE AND WAN  FOND LOVER

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when looking well can’t win her
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

Larkin, the favorite, defeats Traherne 91-72.

Suckling, the favorite, defeats Ashbery in a close one, 61-60.

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