IN FINESSE OF FIDDLES FOUND I ECSTACY! ‘REFLECTIONS ON VERS LIBRE’

Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”  

What was good verse? 

That was easy. 

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing. 

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple. 

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?  

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.” 

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?  

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.” 

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker. 

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway? 

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.

EZRA POUND: ANT WITH A MEGAPHONE

Doolittle: An American, a woman, but pre-Raphaelite look helped.

Billy Mills, in the U.K. Guardian Books Blog, on May 5th, tries to stir up a little excitement for H.D. with “H.D. in London: When Imagism Arrived.”

Billy—who must be a young man—wants us to know that H.D. arriving in London (London!) and Pound (Pound!) crowning her “Imagiste” (Imagiste!) was a very significant event for Imagism, for Modernism and for Letters:

I have always felt that the appearance of the first Imagist poems in the years just before the first world war was an event as significant in its way as the publication, in 1798, of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.

Note the implied significance of “the first world war,” which had not occured yet.  In these commentaries on Imagism, there is never any mention of the stunning Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, a large-scale contest, which ushered in a haiku rage in the West—which had already gone bonkers over Japanese art for years, at that point.

Billy, however, repeats the same drab, Pound-centered facts. The whole magnificent story is quickly told:

One hundred years ago this May, a young Pennsylvanian woman called Hilda Doolittle arrived in London. …She had come to meet her one-time fiancé, Ezra Pound, who had made the same journey a couple of years earlier. Before long, she was to encounter her soon-to-be husband Richard Aldington, another poet. Whatever the personal entanglements involved – and there were many – it was a voyage that helped instigate one of the most influential poetic movements of the 20th century.

Since his arrival in London, Pound had been one of a group of young poets who met regularly in the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho to discuss, among other things, their impatience with their poetic elders, vers libre, Japanese verse forms and the role of the Image in poetry. In his role as London correspondent for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. Pound was looking for poems he could recommend for publication that exemplified these discussions, but nothing, as yet, had seemed quite right.

He had also taken to meeting regularly with Aldington and Doolittle to discuss their poems. At one such meeting he surprised his two friends by announcing that they were Imagistes (the French form of the name was later dropped for Imagist) and selecting six of their poems to send to Monroe.  As a final flourish, Pound insisted that they bear the signature HD, Imagiste. All six poems eventually appeared in Monroe’s magazine, and Imagism was launched on an unsuspecting world.

“Japanese verse forms.”  Yea, about those.  That was imagism.

Mrs. Monroe publishing Mrs. Doolittle in her little magazine did not “launch Imagism on an unsuspecting world.”

Billy is gratuitously repeating p.r. first churned out by the Pound Clique, and now dutifully repeated by every Billy in London, and every Billy at Harvard University.

Billy needs to read about Yone Noguchi in one of Scarriet’s old posts.

It’s also charming the way Richard Aldington is mentioned as “another poet.” Aldington was an WW I officer and part of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist group—which Pound quickly joined on his arrival in London—that was fanatically pro-war.  If there was anything Poundian that was “launched on an unsuspecting world,” it had much more to do with fascist war-mongering.

Richard Aldington also published a major poetry anthology with Viking Press in the early 40s, which featured a great deal of his then ex-wife’s poetry, as well as a couple of poems by Pound and one rhyming poem by WC Williams.  The anthology’s introduction doesn’t mention Pound, or Imagism, and the large anthology shows no influence from it, either. If the writer who was right in the thick of the Imagiste movement is not influenced by it, one wonders how signifcant Pound’s Imagism really was.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Billy’s personal anecdote then:

I first began to suspect that things weren’t quite right in the world of bookselling one day about a decade ago. I strolled into one of Dublin’s finest long-established independent bookshops and asked the assistant who was positioned closest to the poetry section whether they had in stock, or could order, any books by the American poet HD. The response was instant and, for me at least, decisive: “How do you spell that?” I left.

Billy: things “are not quite right” in ways you only dimly understand.

It’s not enough that Americans continually exaggerate the importance of Pound—the ant with a megaphone—for the Brits are obviously doing their part, all pumped up with pride because Pound and H.D. launched their Imagism from London.

Poe kicked the Brits’ asses when they were openly smug and abusive towards American Letters, but the condescending attitude still remains (and with some justification, given how the Americans have treated Poe and grovel before the opinions of Oxford and Cambridge).

Much of American Modernism has its roots in London: Pound, T.S. Eliot, the New Critics, including Paul Engle, who all studied in Britain with their Rhodes Scholarships.  Britain helps keep the ignorance afloat, with narrow tales such as this, by young Billy, in the Guardian.

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)

WHITHER THE FEMME FATALE POET?

Elinor Wylie.  Lyrical, with a dash of madness.

Where have they all gone?  Not only does the candle no longer burn at both ends, the one end is hardly flickering.

Great power for the poem, and for the woman, resides in the femme fatale poet.  What killed her, and why has she been allowed to die?

Even if the femme fatale is not the ideal state of things, it elicits a powerful interest in poetry.  Moral objections are moot, since femme fatales will exist and all the negative associations of that genre will exist, whether we want them to or not, and poetry’s involvement can mitigate the unfortunate aspects and also give to the world a heroic and social character for poetry which today it lacks.

In the 1920s, when school chums Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, together with Harvard friends Scofield Thayer, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, bound together in their modernist ‘Little Magazine’ coterie, which gave itself Dial Magazine Awards, published in Poetry and tooted its tin manifesto horn, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were best-selling poets, continuing a tradition from the previous century–when the poetess out-sold the poet.

Before academic solipsism, women’s poetry reflected breast-heaving life: Osgood bitterly reproaching a gossip’s judgment on her friendship with Poe in the pages of the Broadway Journal, Dickinson dreaming of hot romances, Barrett thanking the wooer who snuck her out of her father’s house, Millay hotly turning a cold eye on past sexual flings.

The brittle, sexless poetry of Marianne Moore, the wan, affected imagism of H.D. put an end to the reign of Femme Fatale poetry.

The suicides of Plath and Sexton were sacrifices on the altar of  femme fatale poetry, a reminder of what had been crushed by Pound and Eliot’s modernism.

In Eliot’s wake, Bishop has emerged as the most important female poet of the 20th century, but she’s sexless in comparison to a poet like Millay.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds present a domestic, intricately examined sexuality, a far cry from the femme fatale; Jorie Graham had an early opportunity to be a femme fatale, but transformed herself into a foet instead.  Marilyn Chin embraced ethnicity. Mary Oliver has gone the ‘fatalistic love of nature’s creatures’ route.   No femme fatale there, either.

The forgotten Elinor Wylie (d. 1928) wrote wonderful poems.  In “Now Let No Charitable Hope,” one can hear distinctly the frightening yet delicate voice of both Plath and Sexton, the confident whisper of the femme fatale:

Now Let No Charitable Hope

Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom,
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length and expense of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘modern poetry’ since I started writing it at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a “peasant” in poetry when you compare me with somebody like Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because the Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and mush made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965.) And I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and now I’m writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the petit bourgeois poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “make it new” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry traditin that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think  I’m well-equipped even with just a small “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher

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