Friday, December 19, 2008

Inchoate, Without Scraps

Tree With a Cloud Behind It

A dedication, print’d George Herbert-style, shaped like a chalice:
the Red-Headed Cerberus, regardant between the Pont Royal and
the Petit-Pont; to the Frothing Vorticist; to the Harpy behind
the Little Grille; to the Bilious but Gaitered Platonic; to
the Surgical, Hairy, yet invisible Troll of the Dieppois; to
the Stout Love-Child of the Pierides who Believes Aquinas
to be a Mineral-Water; to the Bouncing Benthamite of
Bloomsbury who is Unaware of the Medieval; to That
Other, the Cramoisy One; to the Dodging Lutheran
of the Rue de Grenelle; to the Pythoness of Bays-
water; to the Commandant of Infantry who Babbled
of the Grand-Orient; to the Lady with the Hard
Grey Eyes; to the Levantine of London who Did
Not Think Poetry Would Do; to the Military
Character who Sacked the Lot; and to all pratt-
ling Gablers, sycophant Varlets, forlorn Snakes,
blockish Grutnols, fondling Fops, doddi-
pol Joltheads, slutch Calf-Lollies, cods-
head Loobies, jobernol Goosecaps,
grout-head Gnat-Snappers, noddie-
peak Simpletons, Lob-Dotterels,
and ninniehammer
And ending with a musical strain, unh: “Fleurs de gaicté, donez moy joye et hoye! Et my donez allegement.” That, out of Wyndham Lewis’s 1928 François Villon: A Documented Survey. Not that Wyndham Lewis (Percy), but Dominic Bevan, he who is, too, behind The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. I assume, though, the “frothing Vorticist” is our asshole Percy (somebody call’d him “asshole” some months back when I attempt’d to read the works of the weak-kneed bombardier, and fail’d, presumably not my most egregious rout at the cruel hands of literature.) D. B. Wyndham Lewis (whatever the relationship to Percy) apparently hung with Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Belloc writes the airy (“I am putting these few words introductory to a work of great scholarship and research wherein the author has discovered all that Villon was, within and without. I myself pretend to no such scholarship.”) “Preface” here to the Villon “survey,” pointing particularly and repeatedly to the “quality of hardness” in Villon’s work:
Mr. Wyndham Lewis says it in this book . . . in three words: “clarity: relief: vigour:”—and these are the marks of hardness: of the hard-edged stuff: the surviving.
      They say that when men find diamonds in primitive fashion, they scrouch and grope in thick greasy clay till they come upon something hard, quite different in material from its surroundings; that is the stone. In the monuments of Europe, when they fall into ruin, there survive here and there what seem almost imperishable things; it is marble, it is granite which survives.
      Now in letters the simile applies. I heard it well said by a great critic weighing one of the best of our modern versifiers (and “the best” is not saying much), that he liked the stuff well enough, but that it had no chance of survival because it was “carved in butter”: an appreciation profound and just. It is with the production of verse as with the chiselling of a material. You handle a little figure of the fourteenth century in boxwood; it is smooth, strong and perfect. So is the cut oak of the medieval stalls. But the pine has perished.
      Now this quality of hardness in any poet or writer of prose is difficult or impossible to define—more easy to feel.
      It is to be discovered by certain marks which are not the causes of it, but are its accompaniments. Of these the chief is what the generation before our own used to call “inevitableness”: the word coming in answer (as it were) to the appeal of the ear: the conviction, when you have read the thing, that the least change destroys
it; the corresponding conviction of unity through perfection.
      Villon has that.
Which mostly made me think of Basil Bunting, whose poem “Villon” must’ve been written about then (it appear’d in a late 1930 issue of Poetry) with its lines:
precision clarifying vagueness;
boundary to a wilderness
of detail; chisel voice
smoothing the flanks of noise
. . .
                        unnoted harmonies;
name of the nameless;
                        stuff that clings
to frigid limbs
                        more marble hard
than girls imagined by Mantegna . . .
And Bunting recalling it all thirty-some years later, coming to write “Briggflatts” with its admonition: “Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write.”

Ah, conjecture and sweet flailing. One points to Bunting’s writing of “Villon” in 1925. What about (tout à coup I am struck) Pound’s Villon, or “Montcorbier, alias Villon” as he writes it in The Spirit of Romance (1910). Pound’s version: “Villon is destitute of imagination; he is almost destitute of art; he has no literary ambition . . .” and “Villon has the stubborn persistency of one whose gaze cannot be deflected from the actual fact before him: what he sees, he writes.” And “he is the only poet without illusions. There are désillusionnés, but they are different; Villon set forth without the fragile cargo. Villon never lies to himself; he does not know much, but what he knows he knows: man is an animal, certain things he can feel; there is much misery, man has a soul about which he knows little or nothing.” Nothing about style or form (rare for Pound), Villon is all “behavior” (he is “shameless”—one suspects that young Pound is a little mystify’d, half squeamish, half longing to shed middle-class veneers (“Much of both the Lesser and the Greater Testaments is in no sense poetry; the wit is of the crudest; thief, murderer, pander, bully to a whore, he is honored for a few score pages of unimaginative sincerity; he sings of things as they are.”)

Et puis, there’s a late essay by William Carlos Williams that largely rehashes Pound (“Villon had only one poetical theme—himself: his life and his sorrows about Paris . . .”), though noting that the refusal to “lie” in Villon is flung wide, covering the dodges of “art” too: “any ruse, or indirect approach, even at the excuse of art, savored of the lie.” Okay, I am not getting anywhere in my summary of Villon thinking (and what about the Robert Louis Stevenson essay—one ought to stop thinking he’s just for Boy Scouts, no? I “dabbled” (the extent of my ability of late—largely because I am “devoting” energy (like a candle) to reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 every night, the final “Part About Archimboldi” is draped in mystical Kafkaesque gauze after the flat out forensics of “The Part About the Crimes”—Hans Reiter is the boy who resembles seaweed), too, in Bernadette Mayer’s Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 2008). Is she “our” Villon? Here’s “In America”:
so far most of us
don’t have to go to jail for long
or be killed for our beliefs yet

I remember when a crazed nun in fifth grade
during the mccarthy era said to us
how may of you would die for your faith
if the communists came, raise your hands

of course we all did
now it’s different
this is a sonnet

people are astonished if a poet
in america can live long & not be destroyed

it makes no sense to anyone, none of this
all of us are all wrong.

Portrait of François Villon, woodcut out of the first edition of Villon’s works published by Pierre Levet, 1489. The ballade “Faulce beaulte,” printed below the portrait, is an acrostic, the initial letter of each line spelling out “Francoys.”
(Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)