ESCAPE THE DARK IN THE DARK

Alice Cary: a world of American Letters that’s forgotten.

When T.S. Eliot wrote that poetry is “an escape from emotion” and an “escape from personality” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he was defining art under advice from Socrates—who banned from his Republic “poetry that feeds and waters the passions.”  Escape is the key word.  The Socratic hero has emotions, but keeps them under control.  The human-centered world of Shakespeare’s Renaissance—another inheritance of the urban Socrates—lives anew in Eliot’s formula: poetry, more than anything else, seeks original expression—in the context of all that has come before, and as Eliot points out, his human formula is not just “historical,” but “aesthetic.”  Eliot was the product of cousins marrying cousins on his father’s side—perhaps this aided “Tradition’s” insight: the ‘short-wired’ prophecy gathering vital threads into one. 

Poetry is not revolutionary, then, but an heroic demonstration of how human emotion is conquered, and so it earns its place in Plato’s Republic.  Plato and the poets are reconciled, as art is defined by T.S. Eliot—an American with roots in New England transendentalism: poetry as the natural impulse of raw and honest emotion, but converted momentarily to Poe’s cold science.

Just as the Republic’s “guardians” escape emotion, just as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter escapes the homely passions of prose, just as Poe’s narrator calmly escapes “the pit and the “pendulum” in his famous story, so the following poem from a forgotten American woman poet of the 19th century, picked out for high praise by Edgar Poe, demonstrates that high art which Eliot in his most glorious essay was at pains to show—for just beneath the surface of this poem cries sorrow which is escaped.

Here emotion is not indulged; beauty is, even though the journey that is made is to the hades of emotion.

Pictures of Memory

Among the beautiful pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
Is one of a dim old forest,
That seems the best of all:
Not for its gnarled oaks olden,
Dark with the mistletoe;
Nor for the violets golden
That sprinkle the vale below;
Nor for the great white lilies,
That lead from the fragrant hedge,
Whispering all day with the sunbeams,
And stealing their golden edge;
Not for the vines on the upland
Where the bright red berries rest,
Nor the pinks, nor the pale, sweet cowslip,
It seems to me the best.
I once had a little brother,
With eyes that were dark and deep—
In the lap of the old dim forest
He lies in peace asleep;
Light as the down of the thistle,
Free as the winds that blow,
We roved there the beautiful summers,
The summers of long ago;
But his feet on the hills grew weary,
And, one of the autumn eves,
I made for my little brother
A bed of the yellow leaves.
Sweetly his pale arms folded
My neck in a meek embrace,
As the light of immortal beauty
Silently covered his face:
And when the arrows of sunset
Lodged in the tree-tops bright,
He fell, in his saint-like beauty,
Asleep by the gates of light.
Therefore, of all the pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
The one of the dim old forest
Seems the best of all.

Alice Cary (1820-1871)

The following poems, one by Guiterman, two by Teasdale, and one by Parker escape emotion as well, but they all succeed more superficially and self-consciously than Cary’s somber and beautiful masterpiece.

On the Vanity of Earthly Creatures

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s dead on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself!

Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943)

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead an over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.

The Look

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

—Sarah Teasdale  (1884-1933)

Bric-a-Brac

Little things that no one needs—
Little things to joke about—
Little landscapes, done in beads,
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore—little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

—Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

T.S. Eliot, before he became famous with his “Waste Land,” hit a homerun with perhaps his most important piece of writing: “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  In poetry one must escape emotion, but one must have real emotion to escape from, first.  This has been the test of art since Plato made the rules over two milennia ago. T.S. Eliot, no matter what other ‘modernist’ credentials he may have, reminded us of this ancient truth once again.

Edna Millay sought this formula, too; read those harrowing sonnets of hers that strive for beauty and cold emotion.  Her poetry is practically “Tradition and the Individual Talent” personified.  As Plato writes in The Republic, Book X, “when we listen to a passage from Homer…he represents some pitiful hero who is drawing out his sorrows…but when any sorrow happens to us, you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality…”

IF I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Robert Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as herself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

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