Monday, January 18, 2010

Scrabbling in the Continuum

A Tree

A lovely remark (by William Carlos Williams): “I found I could not use the long line because of my nervous nature.” So (yesterday) dawdled back along the mostly two-lane Chicago Road, U. S. 12—eastern terminus downtown Detroit, western, Aberdeen, Washington—entering into its pact of examiner’s sobriety somewhere prior to the stretch of Indiana dunes. Major towns: White Pigeon, Sturgis, Coldwater. Camera out and numerous the calls to wheel the Vibe back around for the miss’d shot. Hit sundown with the Irish Hills, some smudge of unflagging optimism there in the seasonally shut down “attractions”—the Mystery Hill, the snow-hump’d wooly mammoth of the Prehistoric Forest, the thirty-foot chump-muscular Paul Bunyan, the Stagecoach Stop, &c. In a day of snow-cover’d landscapes and barns such preposterous beauty’d only’ve “pulled the pattern out of shape,” is what one had—like Dame Edith Sitwell—to remind oneself. I did note with regret how the two enormous early nineteenth century red-brick’d structures housing, the sign says, 102,000 books, wherein one day—coming back up out of South Bend—I found a copy of Marguerite Young’s Prismatic Ground (1937), had spanking new for sale signs attach’d, with a number direct’d at dealers (only).

Roundabout nod to my habitual Monday (and, of late, continuing) lack of preparedness, scrabbling about in the morning’s still gummy guano for a purchase. Here’s one: Coleridge (in the Notebooks) saying (or quoting Mrs. Barbauld referring to so-and-so—it’s unclear without checking the “companion” volume of notes—an unwieldy and untenable sitch unabidable): “An affectation of plainness and simplicity, with is the flimsiest covering for Incapacity that was ever assumed.” And hain’t I thunk that of a whole measley crop of terminal simplicitissimusses who’d make a virtue of a lack veering all across’t the spectrum: say Creeley to Merwin? Pathos of the plain turn’d to regular rot-gut vin ordinaire plonk? Coleridge (or Mrs. Barbauld) on “A School of Poetry” lacking “vigour of Expression” wherein “the regularities of Rhythm & Varieties of Cadence are disregarded [and] . . . all the Graces of Language . . . contemptuously banished”: “Disgusted probably that these Ornaments should have been distributed with an ill-judged Profusion, this School, in order to reform the Taste, and enamour it with the charms of Simplicity, not content with stripping Poetry of her superfluous Embellishments and arranging tastefully those which would really adorn her Person, and set off her Beauties, has absolutely deprived her of the common decencies of Dress. The Nymph is now always pouting, always melancholy, always discontented & fretful / she may well be ashamed of her Nakedness, for she really is not fit to be seen. In this School too she has been taught an abominable Lesson of Affectation / instead of those high-bounding Spirits, that animated Eye, that healthy, generous and open Countenance, on which every Passion, as it arose, was faithfully pourtrayed, the affected little Minx is always sighing & crying, her Eye is always downcast, her Look demure, & her Countenance deceitful.”

Marianne Moore (in “Edith Sitwell, Virtuoso”): “Sitwell is a virtuoso of rhythm and accent. She has given me immense pleasure, intensifying my interest in rhythm, and has also encouraged me in my rhythmic eccentricities. I can scarcely read the Bible without forsaking content for rhythm, as where the Apostle Paul speaks of the shipwreck on Malta and says, ‘when the ship could no longer bear up into the wind, we let her drive,’—a better rhythm than ‘and were driven,’” Moore: “‘I used to practice writing,’ Dame Edith says, ‘as a pianist practices music.’ She says that she would take a waltz or a polka or the music of the barrel organ beneath her window and translate it into words . . .” And Moore notes (what continues—recall Michael Cuddihy’s remark of years back that “to be call’d a virtuoso in music’s not a compliment”): “One cannot be a virtuoso without being combated,” though how wilily Moore combats that by leveraging up—apropos Sitwell, a newspaperman’s assessment: “One may judge the vitality of of an artist by the extent to which he is resisted”—and noting Sitwell’s report of “a mingling of bouquets and brickbats –with a strong predominance of brickbats.”

And the source of rhythmic virtuosity (amongst prehensile scads of other necessary combats of poesy’s direst insufficiencies—readers of only slim volumes of contemporary American verse, beware)? Prose. Donald Hall, asking if “any prose stylists” help’d determine Moore’s “poetic style” gets a reply “unexcell’d”:
Prose stylists, very much. Doctor Johnson on Richard Savage: “He was in two months illegitimated by the Parliament, and disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the oceans of life only that he might be swallowed by its quicksands, or dashed upon its rocks. . . . it was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that, he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.” Or Edmund Burke on the colonies: “You can shear a wolf; but will he comply?” Or Sir Thomas Browne: “States are not governed by Ergotisms.” He calls a bee, “that industrious flie,” and his home, his “hive.” His manner is a kind of erudition-proof sweetness. Or Sir Francis Bacon: “Civil war is like the heat of fever; a foreign war is like the heat of exercise.” Or Cellini: “I had by me a dog black as a mulberry . . . . I swelled up in my rage like an asp.” Or Caesar’s Commentaries, and Xenophon’s Cynegeticus: the gusto and interest in every detail! In Henry James it is the essays and letters especially that affect me. In Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance: his definiteness, his indigenously unmistakable accent. Charles Norman says in his biography, Ezra Pound, that Pound said to a poet: “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, under stress of some emotion, actually say.” And Ezra said of Shakespeare and Dante: “Here we are with the masters; of neither can we say, ‘he is the greatest’; of each we must say, ‘he is unexcelled.’”

Edith Sitwell, 1887-1964