Making space, taking space

Parking

The round trip to the baker—one of the bakers—takes around an hour. I walk on the long back road, on the shaded side if the weather’s warm. The black and green boxes are out on the pavement, which triggers an odd memory. In 2011 there was a referendum on the alternative vote, following what one commentator termed a ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’.[1] The vote went not as I’d hoped but more or less as I’d expected. At some point, walking along a pavement crowded with recycling boxes and looking at the state of them, I remember thinking that, if so many people had such problems sorting out their rubbish, they were not that likely to explore the intricacies of competing voting systems.

Skip forward five years and you might say that the phrase ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’ was still serviceable, though barely. Skip forward two more and I’m edging my way through parts of the city, thinking of the word ‘space’, ‘the final frontier’ as the first speech of every episode of Star Trek had it, recalling too how Charles Olson begins Part One of Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’[2]

By way of contrast, space is mercilessly shrinking here as local government, starved of funding and agency, falls and fails. Private intrusion into public spaces; not only roads but pavements too now given over to cars, which block pedestrian pathways; neglected bushes and hedges jutting out onto pavements already littered with bins and boxes. No room for an Olson.

PNR

Opening the latest issue of PN Review, I see a review by Ian Brinton—reviews editor of Tears in the Fence (https://tearsinthefence.com/blog/ )—of Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door and Brinton begins by quoting precisely those words from Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America . . .’ They are, he writes, ‘central to an understanding of the wide-ranging poetry written by Chris Torrance, British poet who was born in Edinburgh, raised in Surrey and who moved to an isolated cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales nearly fifty years ago’. The names cited in the course of his review include Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Barry MacSweeney, and Brinton closes by quoting a letter from Torrance, who recalls how he ‘grabbed onto Olson mid-60s’ and concludes: ‘I’ve kept at Olson ever since. I love to take the big books outside in the summer, read those wide poems out in the open where they belong.’[3]

torrance_citrinas1

I’d quite lost track of Torrance yet, without moving from my desk, I can just reach a tall, slim volume, Citrinas, published in an edition of 300, ‘of which 15 are casebound and contain additional holograph material.’ In fact, I see it’s signed, with a personal inscription – though not to me.

the birds are lost, out of sight
though the food goes, mysteriously,
invisibly, except when the imperious jay,
flashing electric blue & snowy white,
with immense black mustachios
over his olive-smoked sheath
picks up crushed oats[4]

Remembered impressions I have are of landscape, place, the natural world, the mystery of things, prompting the thought of Pound writing—in an essay first published in Quest, edited by G. R. S. Mead, leading Theosophist and founder of the Quest Society—‘We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of wood alive, of stone alive.’[5]

In fact I have a little more Torrance in-house, a dozen pages in the anthology edited by Iain Sinclair:

straight from sleep
to chase sheep from the garden
a bloody, dead blackbird on the doormat
’mid thousands of feathers & catspew
the world jumps
from this to that
to break the ennui
of my own tense control
all goes into the melting pot of acid
over the hill kicking a dead lambskin
what to do with all this energy, lambent, unreconciled
an atmosphere almost of terror
the planet helpless with mirth
gold coins rolling in the streets
the skylark’s interminable raga
borne aloft on shivering wings[6]

These are early poems, several dated 1970-1971, at the beginning of the poet’s time in Wales. When this anthology appeared (1996), five books of The Magic Door had appeared. The recently published volume that Brinton is reviewing apparently represents eight books in all, reaching back over forty years.

A launch event for The Magic Door is announced on the Test Centre website: Wednesday 4 October, 7 pm, Swedenborg House, where Torrance will be joined by Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher. The author’s afterword to this edition, quoted on the website, includes the statement that, ‘With this collected volume, I am only halfway through.’

A life’s work, then. At least. . .

See: (https://testcentre.org.uk/magic-door/ )

 

 

References

[1] Iain McLean, ‘“England Does Not Love Coalitions”: The Most Misused Political Quotation in the Book’, Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics, 47, 1 (2012), 10.

[2] Call Me Ishmael, in Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 17. As in Moby Dick itself, this ‘beginning’ is preceded by a prologue, here ‘First Fact’.

[3] Ian Brinton. ‘Reading in the Open Air’, PN Review 243 (September-October 2018), 78, 79.

[4] Chris Torrance, Citrinas: The Magic Door, Book II (London: Albion Village Press, 1977), unpaginated: this is ‘Retreat’, from the book’s first section.

[5] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 92. The essay, ‘Psychology and Troubadours’ became Chapter V of this book.

[6] Chris Torrance, ‘Straight from Sleep’, in Iain Sinclair, editor, Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology (London: Picador, 1996), 453.

 

Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards

JW-Lord

A little late to the party but hugely glad to finally arrive, I’ve been immersed in Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens.[1] This ‘memorial festschrift’ briefly brought to mind an earlier example, Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Williams himself, which gathered prose and poetry (and illustrations and music) from almost a hundred writers and artists, published by the Jargon Society and with a cover (a pastel portrait of Bunting) by R. B. Kitaj. But none of those contributions was more than three pages long and most were less than a page, whereas this book of ‘essays, images, and shouts’ (xiv) is not only a good deal heftier, not far short of 500 pages, but also includes substantial studies of several aspects of Williams’ life and work, and is thus perhaps more reminiscent of the ‘Person and Poet’ series of often ground-breaking volumes produced by the National Poetry Foundation (https://personandpoet.wordpress.com/ ).[2]

‘Heft’ is an apposite word, in fact, with its cluster of meanings, some obsolete or archaic, some dialect, ‘weight’, ‘ability or influence’—and one alternative reading ‘a number of sheets fastened together: an instalment of a serial publication.’ Apposite for Jonathan Williams, to be sure. Polumetis—‘many-minded’, versatile—was one of the stock epithets for Odysseus, which Ezra Pound took over and lavished also upon Sigismondo Malatesta; and Williams possessed, and displayed, that versatility in spades, a versatility not only of cultural activities and poetic forms but in his range of reference, from the Greek and Latin classics to Appalachian eavesdropping.

Divided into four sections—‘Remembering’, ‘Responding’, ‘Reviewing’ and ‘Recollecting’—and concluding with two invaluable checklists, of Jargon Society titles and of Williams’s own publications, this volume explores and celebrates that many-minded Williams in a rich array of prose, poetry and, appropriately, illustration—Williams was a superb photographer. There is an extraordinary gallery of images, both of and by Williams, some truly memorable (and also offering a splendid selection of Williams’ hats). A good number of the contributors to Williams’ festschrift for Bunting are represented here too, among them Robert Kelly, Ronald Johnson, Simon Cutts, Eric Mottram, Guy Davenport, Thomas Meyer and Bunting himself.

JW-Jubilant

The last three sections include extensive, thoroughly-researched essays: on Williams and Black Mountain; on Williams’ poetic practice and, more specifically, on ‘metafours’, the form that he invented, refined and extended through several books—‘Williams proves there is always something new under the sun. And that the new is usually found in the glory of the remaindered old’ (195)—and on Williams the photographer. Tom Patterson considers Williams’ long and dynamic engagement with the visual arts: he was a significant collector of folk or vernacular art and, in a talk transcribed here, says that a lot of his poetry of the last ten or fifteen years has been ‘involved with what they call these days, I guess, “outsider art” or “self-taught art” or “naïve art” or . . . Again, it’s essentially people who live in the country who make things’ (416). Patterson’s lengthy essay on this ‘involvement’ details Williams’ discovery of the potter Lanier Meaders and the wood sculptor Edgar Tolson, listing, at one point, nearly forty other ‘self-taught artists’ from Williams’ native region from whom he’d acquired pieces for his collection, not only buying from them but meeting and talking with them too. Much of this was field work connected with the Southern Visionary Folk Art Project though the resultant manuscript, Walks to the Paradise Garden, remained unpublished (338-339).

‘The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world’, Ezra Pound wrote in 1915.[3] It’s striking just how often the word or the sense of that scope and reach arises in this book. In his introduction, Beam refers to ‘the Jonathan who collected the world and offered it to anyone willing and capable of responding’ (xiii). Guy Davenport points to ‘a long and distinguished history of poets who have balanced a love affair and a feud with the world’, and comments a little later: ‘A pattern of artists emerge—Blake, Ives, Nielsen, Samuel Palmer, Bruckner—and (if we have our eyes open) a whole world’ (118, 120). Kenneth Irby writes that Williams’ is ‘a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses’ and further comments: ‘It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, “a bathing in the visible world”’ (225).[4] The poet Thomas Meyer, Williams’ partner for forty years, remarks: ‘Here is a man for whom the world cannot be the world until it is palpable, until it can be handled. Or is itself a “handle”’ (247). ‘He has made a great motion in the world’, Vic Brand observes, ‘in his goings and comings, on foot and by car across America’ (278). And Williams himself, in the ‘Foreword’ to his beautiful collection of photographs and extended captions (or mini-essays) A Palpable Elysium, pronounced: ‘So, finally, what we have here is a “Home-Made World,” to use Hugh Kenner’s term.’[5]

The main impressions—either new or enhanced—that I take away from this remarkable collection are, firstly, the truly multifarious nature of Williams’ activities and enthusiasms. ‘His wide-ranging passions and interests were omnivorous. Literature, photography, hiking, food & wine, folk art, music were just a few of his serious preoccupations’ (Jonathan Greene, 202)—and he means serious: Williams’ knowledge of these things was deep and detailed. Jeffery Beam, friend and colleague of Williams for almost three decades, writes that ‘his work of more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other—seminal small press publisher of the Jargon Society; poet; book designer; editor; photographer; legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural anthropologist and Juvenalian critic; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker; and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand’ (xiii). That ‘resolute walker’ takes in the Appalachian Trail (close to 1500 miles, walked with poet Ronald Johnson over some four months) and later the fells and dales of Cumbria and Yorkshire, while the ‘legendary correspondent’ kept up an average of fifty letters a week for fifty years.

Secondly, I’d say, a much better grasp of Williams’ complex relationship with the Black Mountain poets (so many of whom he published and, often, launched), the subject of Ross Hair’s thirty-page essay: Williams’ strong admiration for Charles Olson coupled with his understanding that, ‘You ran a risk being a student of his of being kind of smothered’ (393). Hair is very good on the paradox of Black Mountain College’s being so liberal and advanced in many ways while still strikingly conservative in its gender politics and the prevailing view of the men as ‘shakers and makers’, while women ‘cooked the cornbread and made children and kept quiet’ (Williams, quoted, 138).

JW-Blackbird

Thirdly, the Jargon Society’s irrefutable importance in the history of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century: look at the authors of the first twenty Jargon titles, famous now but many or most of them far from famous then. Apart from Williams (volumes of his own poetry as well as his calligraphy and photographs deployed in several others), they include Oppenheimer, Patchen, Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Duncan, Levertov, McClure – and Henry Miller, Mina Loy and Paul Metcalf are just around the corner, as are introductions by William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth. Nor are we seeing only the names of writers: here are Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Ellsworth, Dan Rice, René Laubiès, Aaron Siskind – and drawings by Miller, Patchen and Fielding Dawson.

Fourthly, the extent of Williams’ enthusiasm for the chance encounter, the overheard remark, the glimpsed roadside sign, the ready-made. One of his favourite quotations (and one cited several times by other contributors here) is from John Clare: ‘I found these poems in the fields and only wrote them down.’ Jim Cory asserts that, more than any other poet in the postmodern schools descending from the Pound–William Carlos Williams line, Jonathan Williams ‘made the found poem central to his enterprise’, believing that ‘discovery was at least half the process of creation’ (197). As far back as the Black Mountain years, Hair points to Williams sharpening his ears on local speech at Ma Peak’s Tavern, three miles from the college: ‘The beer joint in Hicksville, USA should never be underestimated’ (Williams quoted, 156). Eric Mottram quotes Williams (in the London Times, 1970) saying that, ‘Poetry to me is a kind of field—a place in which things happen’ (187-188).[6] Their happening requires a democratic openness, a quickness of response and recording, a detailed memory—but, above all, attention. ‘It is the life of attention which is life itself for the Epicurean, the panoply of detail and experience’, Thomas Meyer writes. ‘Pay attention. Close attention. Is his credo. / For attention is the highest form of delight’ (250). As Williams himself said, ‘I don’t make much distinction. I like to find things, and then I like to make things. I don’t particularly like to make up things. I just like to make things, and they’re usually things that I’ve found—either signs or conversation or words out of some stranger’s mouth, which struck me as terrific’ (383).

JW-Palpable

Fifthly, the extent of his concern to commemorate and celebrate those—poets and others—who have gone on to Elysium. Gary Carden remembers that Williams ‘was fond of addressing his dead friends, saying things like, “If there is a flight out of the Elysian Fields tonight, old friend, I’ll pick you up at the airport.”’ (49). And Guy Davenport described Williams as not only ‘the iconographer of poets in our time’ but also ‘of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium’ (111).[7] Indeed, some of the most resonant photographs in A Palpable Elysium are of the many and varied graves: Jelly Roll Morton, Kenneth Grahame (‘who passed the river on the 6th of July 1932’), Erik Satie, Wallace Stevens, Rachmaninoff, Charlie Parker, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, E. E. Cummings and H. P. Lovecraft, James Thurber, Edgar Tolson (‘the Woodcarver’) and the mausoleum of Walt Whitman.

Attention and death— they come together in Tom Meyer’s elegant and often intensely moving poem Kintsugi. Robert Kelly, in his foreword, notes that, ‘When we are that close, so close that the whole of one’s attention is given to that person who is going away, love means little more than paying attention’ (98). Meyer writes:

Walk into a room.
Not know where I am.
Once it was Love
had me so distracted.
Now it’s Death. (103)

As soon as I came across Jeffery Beam, in his introduction to this print edition, quoting a 1991 letter from Williams that starts by recommending Alan Judd’s fine biography of Ford Madox Ford, I knew that the omens were good, at least for this reader. And so it proved, to a greater extent than I’ve managed to outline here – and a sense of Williams’ real significance is brought into sharp relief by the extraordinary range and variety of the contributors gathered in The Lord of Orchards, to remember, bear witness, respond, review and celebrate the poet, the publisher, the photographer and the man.

In his 2007 interview with Beam’s co-editor, Richard Owens, Jonathan Williams remarked of Lorine Niedecker: ‘It’s hard to imagine people not being interested in her but most people do manage not to be interested and it continues on’ (367). Most people do so manage and it does continue on – but it’s at least as hard to imagine anybody with an interest in Jonathan Williams, or Charles Olson and the other Black Mountain poets, or small press publishing, or Anglo-American literature from the 1940s to now, not finding a great deal of intense and lasting interest—and enjoyment—here.

 
References

[1] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens. ISBN 978-1-63226-087-1. Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017. The title is taken from Williams’ ‘Symphony No. 2 in C Minor’, v (‘Scherzo tempo: all stops out’): ‘The Lord of Orchards/ selects his fruits/ in the Firmament’s/ breast’. See Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 61. The book is an expansion of the feature on Williams which appeared in late 2009 in the online journal Jacket: http://jacketmagazine.com/38/index.shtml#jw

[2] Sensibly amalgamated from the earlier ‘Man and Poet’ (William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Bunting, Zukofsky, Bunting) and ‘Woman and Poet’ (Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, H. D., May Sarton, Marianne Moore).

[3] Pound, ‘Hark to Sturge Moore’, Poetry, VI, 3 (June 1915), 140. The line was used as epigraph to ‘Part One’ of Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 19.

[4] Indeed he does, in The Soul of London (1905): see England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 75.

[5] Jonathan Williams, A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude, introduction by Guy Davenport (Boston: David R. Godine, 2002), 10. The Hugh Kenner book referred to is A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975).

[6] This may recall William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Poem as a Field of Action’ (1948) – ‘we here must listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make’: Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 290.

[7] In his ‘Introduction’ to A Palpable Elysium, Davenport notes of Williams: ‘It is his opinion (in conversation) that lots of people who think they are alive are actually dead’ (11).

 

Memory, photographs, life

Ginzburg-via-TLS

(Natalia Ginzburg via the TLS)

Recently, reading a novella by Natalia Ginzburg, I came across this passage, a memory of Carmine Donati, an architect, forty years old.

‘He remembered one occasion when he was very tiny, still in his mother’s arms, and they were in town, at the station. It was night time and pouring with rain. There were crowds of people with umbrellas waiting for the train, and mud was running between the tracks. Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many events, and yet preserved that moment so accurately, bringing it safely through the years, tempests and ruins, he did not know. At that point, he could not remember anything about himself, what clothes and shoes he had worn, what wonder and curiosity had woven and unwoven itself in his thoughts at the time. His memory had thrown all that out as useless. Instead, he had retained a whole pile of random detailed impressions, that were hazy, but light as a feather. He had kept the memory of voices, mud, umbrellas, people, the night.’[1]

BSMCricket794

(Rohan Kanhai, via The Cricket Monthly)

Memory, the eternal object of fascination, certainly for a reader of Ford Madox Ford and an occasional, though rather short-winded, visitor to the Marcel Proust estate. Why, years after I stopped following test cricket (and reading Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack) could I recall the exact scores made by the Guyanese batsman Rohan Kanhai in Adelaide in 1960-61? Or the first paragraph of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, not having read it for forty years? Or the exact shape and feel of the gates of our house in Gillingham, Kent, when I was two or three years old? All these against the important—sometimes crucial—information that fell out of my head the moment it arrived there. Arbitrary, unreliable, disordered, beloved memory.

Up in the loft, surrounded by books—as I would be practically anywhere else in the house save for the bathroom—and distracted by misreading the maker’s name on the iron as ‘Russell Hoban’ (literary tunnel vision) as I attempt to subdue a clean shirt, I catch sight of an old photograph of myself, unearthed by the Librarian in her recent excavations, clearing and culling.

I have a few other photographs of similar vintage but buried in boxes or an old album given to me by my mother and misplaced since, of course. This recent rediscovery would probably prompt remarks similar to those elicited by others of its kind. ‘Nice-looking chap. What happened?’ To which the standard rejoinder is: ‘Life’.

PS-c1970

Bad haircut; cigarette hanging out of mouth; good grief, thin tie tucked into trousers. I was, I think, working at a garage at the time: it was primarily a Fiat dealership but also sold used cars, specialising in Rovers. I was the accounting troubleshooter, brought in because not all the mechanics’ hours were being charged and I was to track them down. The owner—father of a close friend, who also worked there as a salesman—paid for my driving lessons until I passed my test and became more generally useful, able occasionally to collect and deliver new cars when I wasn’t hunched over an adding-machine, telling bad jokes to the foreman or flirting with the forecourt attendant.

Such recollections seem stable enough—are they also static, black and white, like my photographs of the time, because of my photographs of the time? ‘Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same.’[2] The novelist Patrick White wrote that, ‘although memory is the glacier in which the past is preserved, memory is also licensed to improve on life.’[3]

Photographs of oneself. I’m reminded of Marie Darrieussecq’s discussion of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s pregnancy in her 1907 self-portrait. Darrieussecq writes that the only photograph of herself on the walls of her home, a portrait by Kate Barry, was taken when she was six months pregnant. ‘At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: “We’d like a normal photo.”’[4]

Ah yes, the widely-known abnormality of a woman being pregnant.

With memory in mind, Eric Ormsby wrote:

‘Somehow I had assumed
That the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
And that what we had once possessed remained our possession
Forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
Hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
Did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
Aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
Our remembrance. I see that this isn’t so, that
Memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
Flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
All recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
Unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember but,
Instead, speeds away from us backward terrifically
Until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
Wall the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
And we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
If our astonished eyes had time.’[5]

Blackburn-Emperors

In a Julia Blackburn book, I came across this: ‘I recently read an article about a retired accountant who uses a metal coat-hanger as a dowsing rod with which he can locate the exact position of the walls, windows and doorways of churches that fell down long ago and are now covered by grass and earth and forgetfulness. Sometimes he might sketch out an area where stones and bricks should be lying but when the archaeologists come to dig they find nothing there. This can be simply because he has made a mistake, but often it has turned out that he was locating a part of a building that had lain there concealed and undisturbed but was then dug up and removed many years ago. This phenomenon, of finding the memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself, is called by dowsers “remanence”.’[6]

Under ‘remanent’, my dictionary offers ‘remaining’ and, for the noun, ‘a remainder, a remnant’. My other dictionary, though, suggests for the adjective, ‘(of magnetism) remaining after the magnetizing field has been removed’.

The magnetizing field of memory; and the memory of ‘something that has vanished and left no trace of itself’. Elusive, allusive, illusive stuff. As for that photograph, the script will read: ‘Who’s this?’ ‘No idea. Looks vaguely familiar but. . . can’t quite place it.’

 
References

[1] Natalia Ginzburg, Family and Borghesia: Two Novellas, translated by Beryl Stockman (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1992), 68.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 15.

[3] Patrick White, The Solid Mandala (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 192.

[4] Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, translated by Penny Hueston (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017), 131.

[5] From ‘Childhood House’ by Eric Ormsby, in For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 117. I believe I first saw this poem on the Anecdotal Evidence website years ago: http://evidenceanecdotal.blogspot.com/

[6] Julia Blackburn, The Emperor’s Last Island: A Journey to St Helena (London: Vintage, 1997), 176-177.

‘Now it is time’ – revisiting Rilke

rilke-clara-1906
(Rilke and Clara, 1906)
http://fondationrilke.ch/rainer-maria-rilke/

‘Where to begin? And am I the one to give the Elegies their proper explanation? They pass infinitely beyond me.’[1] Yes, I’ve been revisiting Rilke, having read a good deal of his work decades ago, and always in translation, but nothing at all recently. In that long interval, though, I often noticed his name cropping up in all sorts of contexts in other books I was reading. Here was Lewis Hyde, writing about Rilke on art as a way of life, referring to his ‘wise blindness’.[2] Then W. H. Auden explaining to Alan Ansen that he wouldn’t mind Yeats’s ‘crazy mythology if he took it more seriously’, or, conversely, tipped a wink at the end to say the whole thing was a hoax; adding: ‘I like really crazy people like Rilke, yes, and D. H. Lawrence.’[3]

There are four versions of Rilke poems in Robert Lowell’s Imitations and, in History, a poem called ‘Rilke Self-Portrait’.[4] In Vernon Watkins’s poem, ‘Discoveries’, ‘Rilke bears all, thinks like a tree, believes,/ Sinks in the hand that bears the falling leaves.’ In the early summer of 1941, Watkins stayed with Dylan Thomas in Laugharne. ‘We had read Rilke’s Duino Elegies to each other in the look-out of Laugharne Castle perched on the wall over the estuary. The poems excited Dylan deeply, though he called Rilke “a very odd boy indeed”.’[5]

Here is Ted Hughes writing to Anne Stevenson in the autumn of 1986, pointing out the very wide range of Sylvia Plath’s reading in modern poetry, particularly European poets. ‘She was saturated with Rilke, of course’, Hughes notes, ‘she was perpetually studying German and used Rilke as a text. She regarded Rilke and [Zbigniew] Herbert as much more her “fellow-countrymen” than other US poets.’[6]

There are almost twenty Rilke translations in Randall Jarrell’s published work:

‘One star in the dark pass of the houses,
Shines as if it were a sign
Set there to point the way to—
But more beautiful, somehow, than what it points to,
So that no one has ever gone on beyond
Except those who could not see it, and went on
To what it pointed to, and could not see that either.’[7]

And then—Guy Davenport. Discussing Eliot’s Four Quartets, he suggests that they are, ‘in one sense Eliot’s emulation, and rivalry, of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies [1923]. Both are the greatest poems of our century about time, mortality, and our tragic incomprehension of existence. Both negate time for an eternal present containing the past and the future.’[8]

Schloss-Duino

In his essay on Ezra Pound published a few months after the poet’s death, Davenport recalled, on a visit to Venice, learning that Pound was then reading aloud to Olga Rudge Jean Paul Sartre’s recently published Les Mots. ‘A book less likely to interest Pound cannot be imagined’, Davenport observes, ‘and yet he was always capable of surprising our notions of what he did and didn’t like. His last journey was by yacht to the Schloss Duino. Rilke! Who could have foreseen that act of homage?’[9]

This finds its echo or enlargement in an August 1972 letter from Davenport to Hugh Kenner, in the wonderful edition of their correspondence forthcoming from Counterpoint Press next month: ‘Last report is that Ezra, Olga, and some well-heeled friend with a yacht are off to the Schloss Duino to inspect the ramparts from which Rilke, gazing into the storm, heard the angel cry, or shriek, or whistle. It is news to me that Ezra Pound ever looked into a copy of the Duineser Elegien.’ Edward Burns’ note informs us that Davenport is thinking of ‘the opening of the first elegy’, which Davenport translates as ‘“What eye among the rungs and hordes / of angelkind would turn and find / my long call through the storm of time?”’[10]

J. B. Leishman begins his translation of that first elegy like this:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.[11]

I think, though, that what really jolted me back to Rilke was happening across this translation by Michael Hamburger of a poem, dated ‘October, 1925’, that begins, ‘Jetzt wär es Zeit, daß Götter träten aus / bewohnten Dingen…’

Now it is time that gods came walking out
of things inhabited. . .
And then demolished every wall inside
my house. New page. For nothing but the wind
that would be raised by such a wind in turning
could turn the air as shovel turns a sod:
a brand-new field of air. O gods, you gods,
the often come, who are asleep in things,
cheerfully rise, at wells that we conjecture
wash wide awake their faces and their necks
and add their restedness to that which seems
full as it is, our lives already full.
Another morning make your morning, gods!
We’re the repeaters, only you the source.
Your rising is the world’s, beginning shines
from every crack within our patched-up failure. . . .[12]

An extraordinary poem, an extraordinary translation and, surely, both. All those gods! And angels! Yet, referring to the scepticism of Nietzsche, Charles Tomlinson remarks that it was ‘a disbelief that found its most lasting poetic embodiments in the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke’.[13] And Rilke himself wrote, in the letter first quoted, ‘The angel of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam. . . .) The angel of the Elegies is that Being in whom the transmutation of the Visible into the Invisible, which we seek to achieve, is consummated.’

PMB-Rilke

(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906)

Drusilla Modjeska Stravinsky’s Lunch, largely devoted to the study of two Australian women painters— Grace Cossington-Smith and Stella Bowen, one of the most important people in the life of Ford Madox Ford—briefly traces in the early pages the life and career of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who painted most of her significant pictures, and eighty in all, in one year, 1906-1907, the year in which she died at the early age of thirty-one. Modjeska mentions that Modersohn-Becker sold only one painting in her lifetime (in fact, it seems to have been three) and that one to her friend Rilke. She was a close friend of the artist Clara Westhoff, who did in fact marry Rilke.[14] After Modersohn-Becker’s death, Rilke wrote a long, remarkable ‘Requiem for a Friend’, though without naming her.

‘Are you still there? Still hiding in some corner? —
You knew so much of all that I’ve been saying,
and could so much too, for you passed through life
open to all things, like a breaking day.
Women suffer: loving means being lonely,
and artists feel at times within their work
the need, where most they love, for transmutation.’[15]

B opener Moderson-BeckerSelfPortrait.jpg

(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on the 6th Wedding Day, 1906)

Naturally, I became interested in Modersohn-Becker: the recent fine biography of her by Marie Darrieussecq—‘And, through all these gaps, I in turn am writing this story, which is not Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace’—was largely responsible for the major retrospective of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2016, for which Darrieussecq wrote the catalogue texts.[16]

Rilke arrives in Worpswede in Northern Germany in September 1900, initially to visit his friend, the painter Heinrich Vogeler. ‘Rilke thinks that painters know how to live, always. They depict anxiety. In hospital, Van Gogh paints his hospital room. The bodies of painters and sculptors are active. Their work is given over to this movement. He, the poet, doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He doesn’t know how to be alive.’ Then: a painter and a sculptor. Rilke ‘is in two minds. Paula, Clara. His heart is torn. He has a preference for threesomes, which will continue his whole life’ (Being Here 27, 28). In 1901, in preparation for her marriage to Otto Modersohn, Paula Becker is sent to Berlin, to take a cookery course. Rilke is also there and they meet. ‘As soon as she leaves, he writes to her again. It is midnight under his green lamp; he doesn’t touch a thing, in order to retain her presence’ (Being Here 49). They have dinner together for the last time in Paris, 27 July 1906. She dies of an embolism in November 1907: she is thirty-one years old. A year after her death, Rilke will write the ‘Requiem for a Friend’ over ‘three haunted nights in Paris’, at the Hotel Biron, 77 rue de Varenne, ‘a building Clara located for him and which will become the Musée Rodin.’ (Being Here 136).

‘Do not return. If you can bear it, stay
dead with the dead. The dead are occupied.
But help me, as you may without distraction,
as the most distant sometimes helps: in me.’[17]

So yes—intrigued, baffled, astonished, bemused, exhilarated—I am reading Rilke.

 

References

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902-1926, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London: Macmillan, 1946), 392.

[2] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage, 1983), 150.

[3] Alan Ansen, The Table Talk of W. H Auden, edited by Nicholas Jenkins (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 72.

[4] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 273-279, 497.

[5] Vernon Watkins, ‘Discoveries’. Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 8; Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.

[6] Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 516-517.

[7] Randall Jarrell, ‘The Evening Star’, The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 485.

[8] Guy Davenport, ‘Civilization and its Opposite in the 1940s’, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 80: Davenport had the date as 1921 but appears to have been two years out.

[9] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 171.

[10] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1413; 1447, n.105.

[11] Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Works. Volume II: Poetry, translated by J. B. Leishman (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 225.

[12] German Poetry, 1910-1975, an Anthology translated and edited by Michael Hamburger (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1977), 22-23.

[13] Charles Tomlinson, American Essays: Making It New (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001), 59.

[14] Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 6-13.

[15] Rilke, Poetry, 204.

[16] Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, translated by Penny Hueston (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017), 44, 154, n.34.

[17] Rilke, Poetry, 205.

 

Turning left to Poets’ Walk

Lookout

In recovery mode, so short a time after our hasty retreat from a yurt in the border country, we remember Clevedon. When were we last there? That we can’t remember. But it’s close, barely a dozen miles away; we don’t have to return the car until tomorrow; and there will be sea. We drive. Turn left, the Librarian murmurs, left. When? I ask. Back there. Ah. But there will be other turnings, surely. And there are.

Clevedon: seaside town with a fine pier overlooking the Bristol Channel (you can have coffee overlooking the pier). You can gaze across to Wales: on your extreme right the Second Severn Crossing. Ahead of you, the guide to the vista notes, among other allurements, ‘Swansea, 48 miles, not visible.’

There’s a bandstand, a marine lake and, apparently, the oldest purpose-built cinema in the world—the Curzon—which is still in working order. Arthur Hallam, subject of Alfred Tennyson’s immense poem, In Memoriam, is buried here. Tuppence Middleton, whom I’ve been watching lately in Sense8—and previously saw in the BBC’s War and Peace—grew up here. But the most famous cultural association is probably with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived here with his wife, Sara Fricker, after their marriage in St Mary Redcliffe in October 1795. ‘After all the upheavals of life with Southey’, Richard Holmes comments—Coleridge and Robert Southey had ‘quarrelled irrevocably’—‘these first few weeks of domestic calm and intimacy were poetically very rich for Coleridge.’[1]

Coleridge-Cottage-Clevedon

Coleridge cottage on Old Church Road
Via http://discovernorthsomerset.co.uk/

It was ‘probably not the cottage now bearing a commemorative tablet’, Tom Mayberry remarks, adding that Coleridge and Sara, ‘in further disregard of the proprieties’, first stayed there over a month before their marriage.[2]

The headnote to Coleridge’s ‘Effusion XXXV’ does indeed read ‘Composed August 20th, 1795, at Clevedon, Somersetshire’. It was revised as ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of what came to be known as the ‘Conversation Poems’.

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

The harp is a stringed instrument with a sound box: placed in a window or at a point where the wind can play over it, it emits ‘a natural music’. Coleridge shaped it as ‘an image of inspiration in which the poet was a harp over whom the winds of inspiration blow.’[3]

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?[4]

Idyllic, perhaps, but the cottage, myrtle and jasmine notwithstanding, would not do for long. Clevedon proved to be too far from Bristol—the library, literary contacts, not least friend and publisher Joseph Cottle—for Coleridge to walk there and back in a day.[5] What milksops these Romantic poets were: a snivelling twenty-seven miles round trip. Today, most people can walk almost as far as the car park without complaint.

Lookout-plaque

Poets’ Walk (Coleridge! Thackeray! Tennyson!) is a popular footpath which runs along the coast and around Wain’s Hill and Church Hill at the southern end of Clevedon. Along the way is the Lookout, with its plaque detailing the watched-for arrival of sugar ships from the West Indies in the nineteenth century. The slave trade was formally abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but slavery was not finally abolished until 1833. Notoriously, the colonial slave owners were handed millions of pounds in compensation by the government: the former slaves were offered nothing.

Poets-Walk

That sloping path under the trees is blessedly cool on those days, quite frequent lately, when the English summer has become a little unhinged.

We make a marginal note: Clevedon again. Soon. Turn left there.

 
References

[1] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 100, 103.

[2] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 45.

[3] Paul Magnuson, ‘The “Conversation” Poems’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp’, in The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 87, 88.

[5] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 78.

 

Milady Millay: or, Edna, come over here.

Sorting-Poetry-Bks

(Sorting out poetry books on the mistaken assumption that they can be fitted into the space available in such a way that the ones I want will always be at the front. . .but no Millay in any case)

‘I have just finished two volumes of letters—’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Kit and Ilse Barker in the autumn of 1953, ‘Hart Crane’s and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humour, at least.’[1] A couple of months later, writing to Robert Lowell, Bishop agreed with Elizabeth Hardwick about ‘poor E St. V Millay’, in Hardwick’s review of letters by Millay, Hart Crane and Sherwood Anderson in the Partisan Review, ‘Heavens she suffered. But I also suffered reading Hart Crane’.[2]

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). I suspect that, while her name may be widely familiar to readers of poetry, she’s not actually read all that much now; maybe more so in the United States, where she used to be extremely popular. Perhaps the name conjures up a particular kind of poetry; or appeals to a particular kind of reader.

Millay

(That name: seven syllables, with a saint thrown in. I thought at one point I remembered her name being shoehorned into the lyrics of a song I’d heard but now suspect that I’m thinking of an old song lyric of my own, which managed to incorporate the name of blues and boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree, the nickname derived from his boxing days when he fought more than a hundred bouts.)

In her long letter to Lowell of 4-5 April 1962, Bishop wrote: ‘I remember reciting that parody on E St. V Millay to you—“I want to be drowned in the deep sea water (?) I want my body to bump the pier. / Neptune is calling his wayward daughter: / ‘Edna, come over here!’” I asked Dwight Macdonald [Parodies, 1960] why he hadn’t put it in his parody book and he thought it was “dated”, I think he said.’[3]

The question mark is justified since Bishop was quoting from memory and didn’t have the first and last lines of Samuel Hoffenstein’s ‘Miss Millay Says Something Too’ exactly right:

I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying ‘Edna, come over here!’

(See http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-love-song-of-samuel-hoffenstein.html )

A good many histories and surveys of the period bypass Millay altogether, though Cary Nelson sets her beside Claude McKay when claiming that the ‘centrality of revolutionary change in traditional forms’ is ‘especially clear in the transformation’ that the two poets ‘worked in the sonnet.’[4]

Millay-2

The sonnet, yes. Here’s ‘Sonnet xlii’:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Millay has eight poems in F. O. Matthiessen’s The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950); in David Lehman’s 2006 The Oxford Book of American Poetry, she has six. In Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of American Verse (revised edition, 1983), she’s down to just two, the 1923 sonnet just quoted and ‘Sonnet cv’ (1931):

Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

No marked modernist experimentation or pioneering divergences; but real skill and an ear well-tuned to that subtle boundary where the effective, well-spaced deployment of alliteration and assonance tips or slips into droning or hammering. The wind is truly driving in from the sea in this poem and not simply in the words that explicitly tell you so.

Millay—or the generally accepted valuation of Millay—seems to have made a later generation of women poets a little uneasy, especially those wanting to explore their own lives and histories in a franker, less inhibited way. Of course, there were—are?—large and lazy assumptions about what ‘women’s poetry’ was and was not. Robert Lowell, in conversation with Ian Hamilton, would name only four women who ‘stand with our best men’: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.[5]

lowell-bishop-1962

Lowell is, of course, often cited—and almost as often damned—for initiating, to a large extent, the ‘confessional’ mode. When Bishop wrote to him in March 1972, expressing her deep concerns about Lowell having used and, crucially, changed letters from Elizabeth Hardwick, she added, ‘In general, I deplore the “confessional”—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.’[6]

Lowell himself was not always comfortable with the work of poets said to be influenced by him, including Anne Sexton—and Sylvia Plath, who readily acknowledged the importance of Lowell’s Life Studies in what she viewed as a ‘breakthrough into very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo.’[7] Plath wrote to her mother in 1956, ‘Ted [Hughes] says he never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich—not quailing and whining like [Sara] Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay’.[8]

In that same conversation with Ian Hamilton, asked about Anne Sexton, Lowell answered carefully that he knew Sexton well: ‘It would be a test to say what I thought of her.’ But he added, ‘She is Edna Millay after Snodgrass’. ‘After Snodgrass’ meant after—perhaps chronologically but also in the style of—that poet’s 1959 collection, Heart’s Needle: Snodgrass was an acknowledged influence on Lowell’s own move towards a freer and more personal poetry.[9] But ‘Edna Millay’ – alas, alas. Sexton specifically expressed a ‘secret fear’ of being ‘a reincarnation’ of Millay, a poet she considered ‘soggily sentimental’.[10]

‘Soggily sentimental’, though? Some of it may well be, I’ve not ventured that far; best to tread carefully and be selective. Still, you could say that of a great many others, more often than not.

Death devours all lovely things:
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness,—presently
Every bed is narrow.

 
References

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 272.

[2] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 148.

[3] Words in Air , 402.

[4] Cary Nelson, ‘Modern American Poetry’, in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, edited by Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78.

[5] ‘A Conversation with Ian Hamilton’ (1971), in Robert Lowell, Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 287.

[6] Words in Air, 708-709.

[7] Sylvia Plath to a British Council interviewer, quoted by A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 38.

[8] Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, selected and edited with a commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 244.

[9] Steven Gould Axelrod, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 97-99.

[10] Quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 206.

 

Larking about

Henry, George, 1858-1943; The Lark
(George Henry, The Lark: Newport Museum and Art Gallery)

After last week, when the rain drenched and draggled so doggedly that I was reminded of Louis MacNeice’s comment on ‘those April showers which in Ireland persist for twelve months’,[1] we are back to more settled unsettled weather, veering from sunshine to rain in the merest jiffy. We’re even promised a heat wave soon.

In a cool room, anyway, inching my eyes down the page, I encounter this:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
De joi sas alas contral ray,
Que s · oblida e · s layssa cazer
Per la doussor qu · al cor li vai
,
O my!’

Hmm. Yet it seems faintly familiar. The next lines are: ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’.[2] I recalled Guy Davenport outlining his initial version of Ezra Pound, ‘first of all a man who had written a rich, barely comprehensible poem, a man whose portrait bust had been chiselled by Gaudier. My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education is such unconscious seduction.’[3]

henri gaudier-brzeska hieratic head of ezra pound 1914
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914: Tate)

I myself have signally failed to learn Provençal and must blunder along as best I can. Perhaps not Arnaut Daniel, and not Bertran de Born. I rummage in teetering piles. In Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, I find, ah yes, Bernard de Ventadour’s poem, translated there as prose: ‘When I see the lark beating with joy its wings against the ray of the sun until, oblivious, it swoons and drops for the sweetness which enters its heart’.[4] Ah, ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’ – so larks, like swifts, mate on the wing? Elsewhere, the poet W. D. Snodgrass offers rhymes:

‘Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay’.[5]

And, of course, the path snakes back to Pound: ‘When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart’.[6] That must be where I first saw it, thirty years back, probably more. So early in Pound’s career; but, very late in that career, in one of the last scraps of Cantos, the fragment ending ‘To be men not destroyers’, we find this:

“es laissa cader”
so high toward the sun and then falling,
“de joi sas alas”
to set here the roads of France.

In fact, the third line of Bernard’s verse has appeared in the first of the Pisan Cantos; the line about the roads of France, two cantos later.[7] And, apart from the sources of a Bible and an anthology of poetry, the Pisan Cantos are, of course, primarily memories—fragmentary, often imperfect, no doubt, adhering in odd patterns and permutations—mixed with observation of the day-to-day life of the camp. In retrospect, among Pound’s glimpses of paradise were life in pre-war London and his great ventures into Provence, in 1912, 1919 and 1924, but particularly the first. ‘Or, again, a man may walk the hill roads and river roads from Limoges and Charente to Dordogne and Narbonne and learn a little, or more than a little, of what the country meant to the wandering singers, he may learn, or think he learns, why so many canzos open with speech of the weather; or why such a man made war on such and such castles.’[8]

Layng, Mabel Frances, 1881-1937; The Gypsy
(Mabyl Frances Lang, The Gypsy: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Or a man might write ‘The Gypsy’ or ‘Provincia Deserta’—or ‘Near Perigord’:

Take the whole man and ravel out the story.
He loved this lady in castle Montaignac?
The castle flanked him—he had need of it.
You read to-day, how long the overlords of Perigord,
The Talleyrands, have held the place, it was no transient fiction.
And Maent failed him? Or saw through the scheme?[9]

The lark is, I gather, ‘one of the most popular birds in post-classical Europeans poetry.’ I am directed to Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton. Tennyson, Dante, Goethe, Shelley and Blake, among others.[10] It was George Meredith’s poem that gave Vaughan Williams the title of his ‘tone poem’, The Lark Ascending. It sometimes seems that this piece has been damned by its widespread popularity, though I don’t tire of it any more than I tire of, say, the several points on Somerset and Dorset roads where you breast a rise between trees and the world suddenly opens up, with great sweeps of country on either side and the clear sky fled endlessly away—or, in bookish vein, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or yes (I’ve just confirmed) Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. A sweetness entering the heart – more or less.

References

[1] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 216.

[2] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 56.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound, 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174.

[4] Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Alan R. Press (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1971), 77.

[5] W. D. Snodgrass, ‘The Skylark’, in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.

[6] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 41.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802, 431, 455. In fact, Bernard’s poem crops up in Canto VI (22) as well.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions’ (1913), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 95.

[9] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 304.

[10] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 104, 105.