MAKE JOHN CROWE RANSOM GREAT AGAIN

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Helen Vendler’s review of Ben Mazer’s The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (Un-Gyve Press, 2015) in the New York Review of Books last year did not start a Ransom revival. Our nation’s humiliated pundit class has been preoccupied with other issues recently.

When clothes come off and barriers come down, it makes us feel uncomfortable. There are walls and then there are walls. Persons and nations. The law attempts to bar and unite at once. You cannot come in here but of course you can. You will show us what you have but yes you can be clandestine.

We all know a point has no density. It was da Vinci who asserted that a point in geometry is like a zero in mathematics—it is a marker which is crucial for taking up no physical space.

We can argue in abstract realms to much understanding and profit, but when it comes to physical spaces, disputation inevitably turns into a war. Physical means a fight. Abstraction is the only chance for peace. As soon as we talk of physical walls, physical barbarians will be there. Look at the unborn child and the fight over that. Things must be born. But things also must not be born.  Private property enrages the anarchist; the middle classes watched in uncomprehending horror—and still do—as anarchist rage exploded in 20th century modern art—a business run mostly by independently wealthy anarchists; vapid, sharp pieces flying in static-crackling, faux-humble, morally ambiguous terror, causing madness and poetry which goes on for too long, either in the air or in the mind, the paper-thin derangement of the 20th century avant-garde, called at one point “Futurism,” by its Italian fascist wing, but going by all kinds of names in its cult-like fervor, in its simultaneously scattered and focused Margaret Sanger rage, reflecting a world (small place!) which lost its wits (was it 1900? 1850? Who knows?)—in what might be called Britain’s Revenge Against America, the slick British Empire, with its singular, secular, modern reach. The Empire’s genocide against the Irish, India, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, the Opium Wars against the Chinese, the tacit support of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, barging gloriously into World War One to kill the Huns, appeasing the Nazis, and finally turning the United States of America into a CIA Deep State image of its self. That lawyer-clever, Ivy League, leafy-quiet Empire. That one. The one run by London. Divide to conquer. Plant bombs secretly and don’t say a word. White Boss Man Workshop subverting and subduing nations for their raw materials. “We shall write National Geographic. You shall be in it.” Write the history. Make the history. The British Empire on which the fake sun never sets.

The 20th century avant-garde began its rise during World War One, and grew along with German and Japanese militarism, haiku prose poetry, primitive painting, hideous Brutalist architecture, and atonal music in the 1920s and 30s.

As this horror successfully rose, these gradually fell: Platonist/Judeo-Christian philosophy, the glories of Greece and Rome, Renaissance art and poetry, Pope and Byron, and everything splendid which had gone before. Poe said poetry belonged to beauty, but the 20th century disagreed.

In a valuable new edition which collects all of John Crowe Ransom’s poems in one place for the first time, the editor Ben Mazer, in his restrained and sage introduction, focuses on self-conscious self-censorship and revision, of a poet’s own work, over time. The poet, in this case, Ransom, the boy from Tennessee who went off to fight in the Great War and study Greek and Latin at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, treats his poems very much as if they were written by somebody else. Ransom never included poems from his first volume, Poems About God, (Holt, 1919) in Selected editions of his poetry, even though Robert Graves asked to reproduce them, and they were full of fascinating lines and themes.

John Crowe Ransom—and we find this out from Mazer’s now definitive edition—also wrote exceptional poems never collected at all. There’s something strangely half-hidden about this placid Southerner, hyper-explaining essayist, enterprising editor, and slightly mad, gifted poet.

Ransom’s poems are not formalist in a boring way—erratic at times, but even when they are not great, they are beautiful and creepy:

The swimmer’s body is white and clean,
It is washed by a water of deepest green
The color of leaves in a starlight scene,
And it is as white as the stars between.

(from the first poem in Ransom’s first book, “The Swimmer”)

John Crowe Ransom, in his highbrow formalism, overall learning and philosophical acumen, the central place as essayist, theorist, editor and mentor of Modernism in the American mode, the leader of Middle America Modernism—not only as a New Critic, not only as one of the academic leaders of the Creative Writing Program movement, but as poet, editor, philosopher, essayist—is as vital as Pound, (and more accessible and philosophically rigorous); and it is high time, not just for the sake of American Letters, but all Letters, that we, as literary and practical Americans, end the neglect of John Crowe Ransom.

But before we resurrect Ransom, there’s something we need to get out of the way. It has to do with tribal politics—which the British Empire has always exploited and gloried in, on the way to its phenomenal divide-and-conquer success.

In “Under the Locusts,” the 14th poem of Ransom’s first book—published when the highly respected Ransom, a World War One veteran, a school teacher, professor, a Rhodes Scholar with a Masters degree from Oxford University, was 31 years old—we have this stanza

Grinny Bob is out again
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

Perhaps this passage is why John Crowe Ransom, despite being the most important and influential poet/critic in 20th century American Letters, a Bollingen poetry prize winner in 1951 (the same controversial prize Pound won when he escaped hanging for treason), founding editor of the Kenyon Review, mentor to Jarrell and Lowell, the intellectual leader of New Criticism, author of iconic poems and essays which define Modernism better than any other—has been neglected and nearly forgotten.

Controversy has certainly not covered up Pound—who has many admirers.

“Blue Girls” by Ransom may be the only truly perfect poem in existence. (Mazer’s edition gives the two distinct versions, the 1924 original, and the great revised one from Ransom’s 1945 Selected.) Pound never wrote anything as good.

But to return to Ransom’s embarrassing stanza:

Robert Graves—editing and reprinting Ransom’s Poems About God as Grace After Meat in 1923—did not reprint all the poems in Poems About God, in Grace After Meat. Ransom sent a revised and partial copy of his first book to Graves, including “Under the Locusts.” Graves chose to reprint “Under the Locusts.” Ransom, having made a number of subtle changes to the poem, kept the “nigger” stanza intact, except for one slight alteration of the punctuation.

Grinny Bob is out again,
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

According to Ransom’s New Criticism idea, one shouldn’t or (cannot?) read poetry when one is bothering with the intent or the milieu of the author.  This prohibition certainly becomes stretched when looking at this stanza. Perhaps the poem does not reflect the poet’s feelings, but that of the “old men” in the poem. Then, perhaps, the New Criticism (and true poetry) triumphs and Ransom is off the hook? Here’s the poem in full:

What do the old men say,
Sitting out of the sun?
Many strange and common things,
And so would any one.

Locusts are sweet in spring
For trees so old and tough;
Locust trees give sorry shade,
Hardly good enough.

Dick’s a sturdy little lad
Yonder throwing stones;
Agues and rheumatic pains
Will fiddle on his bones.

Grinny Bob is out again,
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

Jenny and Will go arm in arm,
He’s a lucky fellow;
Jenny’s cheeks are pink as rose,
Her mother’s cheeks are yellow.

War is on, the paper says,
Wounds and enemies:
Now young gallivanting bucks
Will know what trouble is.

Parson’s coming up the hill,
Meaning mighty well;
Thinks he’s preached the doubters down,
And why should old men tell?

(Grace After Meat, 1923)

Auden said of Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” The same could be said of Ransom, whose poetry often matches Yeats for poignancy and beauty: the mad American South hurt Ransom into poetry. But this is a cynical view—though most love that Auden quote. Ireland isn’t mad. America isn’t mad. The British Empire is mad. Or, we’re all mad.

Ransom and the Tennessean New Critics, before they assumed the New Critic name and mantle, defended, in 1930, the pre-Civil War, agrarian, American South in their prose anthology I’ll Take My Stand.

Later, in 1937, the evolving Fugitives—the Fugitive was Ransom’s poetry club and small magazine when he was a student at Vanderbilt—as they were turning into the New Critics—championed Pound’s haiku prose modernism in their text book Understanding Poetry. 

Brooks and Warren were the New Critic editors of the influential text; the two writers were close associates of Ransom, and we’ll never know precisely how Ransom felt about their book—which, trying to look forward, perhaps, not only praised the crackpot Pound in its pages, but outright condemned the Southern formalist Poe (obviously an influence on the poet, Ransom), copying an attack by the English critic Aldous Huxley—who ridicules at some length the rhythmic magic of “Ulalume.”

This was the same decade—the 1930s—which saw Pound’s friend T.S. Eliot give his speech against Jews at the University of Virginia. After Eliot intervened to help his friend Pound in 1945, he would attack Poe in “From Poe to Valery” in 1949. Ransom’s reputation as a poet—no doubt given a boost by his Bollingen win in 1951, (and it was every poet’s desire to be published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review during the 1950s—it was practically Plath’s highest dream)—nevertheless continued to fall: either his poetry was too similar to Poe’s, or the newer, more progressive, post-1945, Modernists couldn’t face down “Under the Locusts.”

The New Critics generally revised their reactionary views, like many Modernists, after the Nazis were soundly defeated in 1945.

The Agrarians quixotically played into the hands of the old British Empire.

Ransom and the Agrarians, in their love of the bucolic, explicitly decried American industrial capitalism—the one thing which allowed the U.S  to be strong, independent, and free of the British Empire.

The reactionary politics, and the “Empire” context we are putting it in, is not meant to be definitive, and can be seen as insidious, but just as easily it can be seen as quaint; Ransom was complex, and smarter than his fellow New Critics; over the symbolic mural of both politics and modernism, social and theoretical, Ransom was subtle, sage, and adept, equally facile at discussing religion or the impressionistic poetry of Wallace Stevens.

It would be unfair to see Ransom as only a “Southern” writer, as Poe is often cheaply and unfairly characterized. Critics too quick to make geography in literature paramount betray themselves as the most shallow kind.

Ben Mazer wisely avoids all controversial speculation; like the good scholar he is, Mazer sticks to the facts before him, and provides a bountiful treasure of a book in his Collected Ransom, replete with wonderful appendixes.

Speaking of Wallace Stevens (d. 1955), whose fame rose as Ransom’s fizzled, (Helen Vendler held aloft the Stevens torch; nothing equivalent was done for Ransom), there is a poem in Ransom’s second collection (Chills and Fever, 1924) which bears comparison to Stevens’ well-known “Peter Quince,” published in Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, in 1923.

“Peter Quince” debuted in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others magazine in 1915; not a free-verse poem, as it should have been, in those early revolutionary days, but it passed muster with Pound and Williams’ Kreymborg’s clique, evidently, because of its risqué sexual nature. Stevens was never a popular poet—too abstract and professorial, the “lecture” often spoiling the music; Stevens never quite succeeded the way Frost did, in being “wise” in a relaxed, “contemporary” manner, and, exactly like Ransom, there was in Stevens’ poetry often that hint of the old-fashioned, which condemns the poet to artificially-clever-and-imitative purgatory—even if the beauty of the poems slaughters the meager prose rantings of everyone else. After the passage of much time, we realize: this isn’t old-fashioned, it’s good. The poetry becomes safe to like. This should happen to Ransom—at least, if not more, interesting than his contemporaries.

John Crowe Ransom’s “Judith of Bethulia” owns passages which remind one of “Peter Quince,” and in its precise stanzaic structure, lacks the trembling, insouciant, and exquisite music Stevens brings—and yet, Ransom’s poem has a more focused, coherent, and haunting narrative. Ransom, unlike Stevens, provides no lesson on “beauty;” instead Ransom’s “Bethulia” is immersed in a number of factual things, of which beautiful pathos is the unspoken and shimmering crown.

Judith of Bethulia

Beautiful as the flying legend of some leopard
She had not yet chosen her great captain or prince
Depositary to her flesh, and our defense;
And a wandering beauty is a blade out of its scabbard.
You know how dangerous, gentlemen of threescore?
May you know it yet ten more.

Nor by process of veiling she grew the less fabulous.
Grey or blue veils, we were desperate to study
The invisible emanations of her white body,
And the winds at her ordered raiment were ominous.
Might she walk in the market, sit in the council of soldiers?
Only of the extreme elders.

But a rare chance was the girl’s then, when the Invader
Trumpeted from the south, rumbled from the north,
Beleagured the city from four quarters of the earth,
Our soldiery too craven and sick to aid her—
Where were the arms could countervail this horde?
Her beauty was the sword.

She sat with the elders, and proved on their bleak visage
How bright was the weapon unrusted in her keeping,
While he lay surfeiting on their harvest heaping,
Wasting the husbandry of their rarest vintage—
And dreaming of the broad-breasted dames for concubine?
These floated on his wine.

He was lapped with bay-leaves, and grass and fumiter weed,
And from under the wine-film encountered his moral vision,
For even within his tent she accomplished his derision;
She loosed one veil and another, standing unafraid;
And he perished. Nor brushed her with even so much as a daisy?
She found his destruction easy.

The heathen are all perished. The victory was furnished,
We smote them hiding in our vineyards, barns, annexes,
And now their white bones clutter the holes of foxes,
And the chieftain’s head, with grinning sockets, and varnished—
Is it hung on the sky with a hideous epitaphy?
No, the woman keeps the trophy.

May God send unto our virtuous lady her prince.
It is stated she went reluctant to that orgy,
Yet a madness fevers our young men, and not the clergy
Nor the elders have turned them unto modesty since.
Inflamed by the thought of her naked beauty with desire?
Yes, and chilled with fear and despair.

For our money, this is better than Pound, and rivals Stevens.  What’s not to love here?

Buy Mazer’s book. Read Ransom’s poetry. And Ransom’s prose, too. Ransom doesn’t just write about New Criticism, or the South.  To begin, we suggest two of Ransom’s great Modernist essays in Garrick Davis’ Praising It New.

If Ransom is to be revived, Ben Mazer, with his wonderful, scholarly, edition of the collected poems, has done something very important.

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2 Comments

  1. Vivian said,

    May 30, 2017 at 11:50 pm

    She loosed one veil and another, standing unafraid;
    And he perished. Nor brushed her with even so much as a daisy?
    She found his destruction easy.

    Damn.

    Unafraid. Daisy. Easy.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 31, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Yes. A feast of sounds.

      I like “Where were the arms could countervail this horde?”

      Ransom’s poetry is exceeding good.


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