Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: WH Auden

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

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The most heartbreaking English poet of his generation. Robert Lowell’s tribute to Randall Jarrell

I have been writing about a group of American poets who knew each other, competed with each other, and supported each other. I had a loose title for this series: The Mad Poets Society. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke all had problems with alcohol and mental illness which made their lives often shambolic and difficult. At first glance, Randall Jarrell might not seem to fit into this category. He controlled his appetites more successfully than his friends did, avoiding their kind of public dramas; he eschewed alcohol and, most of the time, adultery. He was handsome, charming, witty, got on well with children and generally inspired affection and respect.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the year of Roethke’s death, Jarrell’s behaviour changed, probably because of what he himself called torschlusspanik (door-closing panic) – the metaphor I myself use for this is the realisation that the years left in one’s tank are rapidly diminishing. As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Jarrell started worrying deeply about his age. After JFK’s assassination, he spent days in front of the TV, weeping uncontrollably. Medication made him manic; a change of medication made him depressive. Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965. It may have been  suicide.

Early Life

Jarrell is sometimes thought of as a “Southern” writer, although he did not think of himself as such. True, he was born in Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, and spent portions of his childhood there. However, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 and he preferred California. After his parents separated, Jarrell’s mother took him back in 1924 to Nashville, where she had some prosperous relatives. Jarrell later told his wife Mary that in Nashville he was “covered in relatives”. He spent a lot of time in Nashville Carnegie Library where he said he regularly read “half his weight” in a week. “No matter how little time I had left, there were never enough books to fill it – I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.”  In 1926, he returned to California to live with his father’s parents but went back to Nashville in 1927.

In 1932, Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Although he was influenced by the poetics of this group known as “The Fugitives” or “The Agrarians”, he was not interested in their conservative politics or their ‘Southern’ cultural ideas.

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Early Work

Blood for a Stranger, his first book of poetry was published in the same year that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 1942. His early poetry is influenced, as was Berryman’s and Roethke’s, by WH Auden. It is apocalyptic, surreal, and lacks the wit and humour that Jarrell displayed in person. He came into his own with the works he wrote after joining the army. He soon transferred to the army to work as a control tower operator.   His second book of poems, Little Friend, dealt with fears and moral struggles of young soldiers.

Although he did not see active service, the war and military service prompted him to think at an early age about death.

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War Poetry

“Losses”

When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying—no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,

And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

army1

War takes inexperienced young men and often kills them. There are shifting viewpoints in the poem but the narrator himself has nothing but high school with which to compare the huge monstrosity of war. He has losses without having had the time to have many gains. He does not have time for heroism and does not understand what sacrifice is or why it is him who is making it. I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch22; when he claims someone is trying to kill him he is categorised as paranoid. But of course someone is trying to kill him – this is war. When you cannot see your enemy, it is a peculiar, seemingly mad, idea that this stranger is trying to shoot down your plane and hurt you when you have never met him. Also in Catch 22, every time a pilot completes his quota of missions the quota is raised. The flyers must be haunted by the knowledge that the more missions they undertake, the greater the possibility of being shot down. Their lives are being used up like commodities. Because of 21st century technology, the bombing attacks on Iraq seemed as unreal as video games. Even in World War II, bombing civilians was impersonal. The cities down below are as artificial as targets in a training exercise. All over the world today, civilians live in fear of death by remote control by terrorist suicide bombers or IEDs.

In her book The Body in Pain, literary critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote: ““It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act  of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. ..He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the  upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. .. Because his act of killing  does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended  assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”

In Jarrell’s poem, as the point of view becomes blurred, the pilot’s own death becomes as unreal as the deaths of those foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) down below.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

ball_turret_gunner

Another war poem appeared in so many anthologies that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a mere five lines about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner whose job entailed hanging upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The distinguished American critic Helen Vendler wrote about this: “The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother?” The gunner wakes at birth, a cowering damp animal whose only purpose in living is to die for the state while sent out to  kill for the state. His  inconsequential life is compressed into five lines by skilful manipulation of time. The state shows its gratitude by impersonally hosing his bloody remains from the turret.

Jarrell’s people wake with a dark knowledge of their own death and an awareness of being helplessly trapped  by mighty forces. This kind of helpless frustration is  symbolized by  the separation of mother from child, or in the depiction of the  mother as the killer of the child. The murderous mother is identified with the state.

I will explore later the common theme running through Jarrell’s work of the fate of individuals oppressed by  institutions.

 

Theodore Roethke Part 4 The Far Field

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday January 4 2015

Garments of adieu.

stamp

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

Roethke in Ireland

In 1960, Richard Murphy, the distinguished Irish poet (whose father was once Mayor of Colombo and who currently lives in Sri Lanka) received warning from another Irish poet, John Montague, of Theodore Roethke’s impending visit to Ireland. In his autobiography, The Kick, Murphy writes: “I decided to try to entice him from the literary pub life of Dublin and invite him across to the west coast.” Murphy thought Roethke, who was at that time famous (in as much as poets can be famous), might help him to find an American publisher if he stayed on Inishbofin and sailed on Murphy’s boat.

Roethke responded positively and said that he and “one wife aged thirty-four, part Irish” would arrive on 25 July 1960. When Murphy first sighted them, he thought he had made a mistake in inviting them: “There they were Ted and Beatrice. A touching sadness seemed to connect her fragile elegance to his hunky dishevelment”. Roethke himself “was like a defeated old prize-fighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence…”

Once ensconced in Miko’s bar, the previously sullen Roethke became voluble, sipping alternately wine and stout and occasionally taking a naggin of Irish whiskey from his overcoat pocket. When Murphy mentioned Robert Lowell, Roethke banged the table and shouted, “Why are you always praising Lowell? I’m as mad as he is!” He then roared with laughter, making Murphy wonder if “he was deploying madness, which caused him terrible suffering when he plunged from a manic high into a deep depression, as part of a grand strategy to win fame as the greatest poet on earth – America’s answer to William Blake”. Was he licensed to be what Beatrice called “a nut, a drunk and a lecher” because he was a poet?

roethke-jungcurrents

During his visit to Inishbofin, Roethke drank a lot and sometimes seemed on the verge of violence. Eventually Beatrice sent for a doctor who signed a certificate committing Roethke to the County Mental Hospital at Ballinasloe. The law required that he be accompanied to the hospital by police. Beatrice said that when the police were called when he had a manic turn while being presented with his Pulitzer Prize he picked one up under each arm and threw them out of the Waldorf Astoria. The local priest drove Roethke to Ballinasloe in his VW Beetle.

Six weeks later, he returned, chastened, to Inishbofin without Beatrice and Murphy got the job of typing poems for him to send to the New Yorker. Murphy was disappointed that Roethke did not get him useful contacts. Before leaving Galway, Roethke was going to stay at John Huston’s house but managed to engineer matters so that Murphy did not get the chance to meet the director’s wife, who was picking him up at the Great Southern Hotel.

Murphy thought: “Roethke’s ambition seemed deplorable because he displayed it so stridently. Without ambition I might never have written poetry but many years later I came across a sentence by Henri Michaux that left me chastened and subdued: ‘The mere ambition to write a poem is enough to kill it’.”

The Far Field

At the height of his popularity and fame, Roethke balanced his teaching career with reading tours in New York and Europe, supported by a Ford Foundation grant. During his final years he wrote the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field (1964). This was the first book of Roethke that I bought- I have written on the flyleaf “February 1966”. Its power has never waned for me. The Far Field won the National Book Award. Roethke was found dead in a swimming pool on August 1 1963 on Bainbridge Island, Washington State after a party at the estate of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The cause of death was a heart attack although many suspected that alcohol played a part.

The main themes of The Far Field are the individual’s quest for spiritual fulfilment and coming to terms with the inevitability of death:

The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,

The poet’s immersion in nature, his sense of being evolved from primeval organisms is reflected in lines like this:

— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Thinking:
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
Believing:
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

The poem employs  rhythms which flow like water and move like rustling leaves.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, —
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.

Sad to think that when these words were published the poet was already dead:

For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,

And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —

Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —

Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,

Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,

Still for a moment,

Then pitching away in half-flight,

Lighter than finches…


Influence and Reputation
Roethke remains one of the most distinguished and widely read American poets of the twentieth century. He influenced many subsequent poets including Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and James Dickey. Clive James was not a fan. “It should be obvious by now that the general critical view of Roethke has not a great deal to do with poetry, and everything to do with his efforts (heroic efforts, considering what he went through: but heroism is a term of accentuation, not necessarily of approval) to get established as a poet, to Make It… It seems probable that in Roethke’s case the general critical view has followed the lead of his fellow poets, who simply liked him, just as much as it has followed the lead of industrious scholarship, which finds his work such a luxuriant paradise of exfoliating symbols.” Other critic share James’s view that “Roethke’s incipient individuality as a voice was successively broken down by a series of strong influences – from the close of the thirties these were, roughly in order: Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot again.”

Roethke himself was not ashamed of echoing other poets and indeed revelled in it. He gave a piece of advice regarding influence: ”don’t fret too much about being ‘influenced’ but make sure you chew up your old boy with a vengeance, blood, guts and all.” In 1959, he wrote an essay in the Yale Review called, “How to Write Like Somebody Else”. In that, he described his relation to WB Yeats in terms of “daring to compete with papa.” He boldly quotes his own poems and prompts criticism by blatantly saying who influenced them. He even points out his own “blunders”. James calls some of Roethke’s work “sub-Auden” but Roethke describes Auden’s own “pillaging”, describing him as “a real magpie with a cormorant’s rapacity and the long memory of the elephant”. Roethke’s drive to master his precursors led him to literary innovations that were his own.

“There is no poetry anywhere,” James Dickey wrote in the Atlantic (Nov. 1968), “that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s; no poetry that can place the body in an environment.”

John Berryman shared Roethke’s problems with manic depression and alcohol. They did not always get on but there was mutual respect as well as rivalry. Berryman outlived Roethke but eventually gave in and jumped off a bridge. In the New York Review of Books dated October 17 1963, Berryman published a moving tribute entitled “A Strut for Roethke”.

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
and staggered on.

The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped & crashed.

needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around our jungles where us blurt ‘What for?’
Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don’t favour men.

 

gravestone

Theodore Roethke Part 3

This article appeared in The Nation newspaper on Sunday December 28 2014.

 

His voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

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Roethke always maintained that poems were better heard than silently read on the page. He himself was a rambunctious performer of his own work on the stage. Fellow poet Stanley Kunitz described one such performance. “He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously from every pore as he guzzled champagne by the bottle. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to the new ‘mad’ sequence, particularly the poem that begins, ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see,’ his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.”

The Waking

Another performer, jazz singer Kurt Elling, has set Roethke’s poem “The Waking “ to music and has often included it in his live performances. Another performing Kurt, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, quotes from the poem in his novel Slaughterhouse 5.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcuUAxinEUs

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   

God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do   

To you and me; so take the lively air,   

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   

What falls away is always. And is near.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

This poem lends itself to music because it is a villanelle, a fixed form of five tercets and a quatrain. There is a blending of sound, tone, movement, and recurring motifs. Use of the villanelle heightens the overall impression of confusion as the speaker wavers, drowsily disorientated, between night and day. Key phrases are repeated in a circular motion and the echoing rhyme scheme lends itself to song.

 

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. In this poem, Roethke shuffles through layers of experience and consciousness, through hyper-alert sleep to musing on the nature of awareness and being. The poet recognises the limits of human logic. We think by feeling. What role does fate play in what you feel and where you will go? Are you awake or sleeping? It is an in-between world where opposites meet and merge to create new entities.

 

A Muse Called Beatrice.

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The collection named The Waking was published in 1953 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.In 1953, Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, and he wrote many love poems to her. “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” As I wrote last week, these love poems are not just evocations of feelings about his wife. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her. Through her, his vision is transformed. Like Dante’s Beatrice, her guidance brings the poet to a revelation of the Divine. He never denies the physical nature of the love relationship but sees it also as the occasion for a breakthrough in the spiritual order. His love for her sharpens his sense of participation in the life of all creation as she merges with all natural things.

 

“Words for the Wind” was written during their honeymoon at WH Auden’s villa in Ischia.

 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree.

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be,

All’s even with the odd,

My brother the vine is glad.

 

There is an echo of St Francis of Assisi in that “brother”. His love for Beatrice brings him in harmony with the cosmos and also establishes an internal equilibrium. His previously divided self is made whole through a woman who is a creature of spiritual and mythological significance as well as being physical and sexual.

 

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind wreathes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolicks like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

 

A Fond and Foolish Man

 

Unfortunately, Beatrice could not completely make Roethke whole or exorcise his demons. It is not easy to make a living as a poet and Roethke had to depend on teaching jobs to make ends meet. His students testified that he was a brilliant teacher of poetry but he did not get any assurance of academic tenure until he took up a post at the University of Washington in 1947. It would be wise to keep his mental problems quiet but he was a loud gregarious bear of a man.

 

My working title for this series of articles on a generation of American poets was “Mad Poets Society”. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Roethke knew each other well and had similar problems. Jarrell to a lesser extent perhaps, but they all had problems with mental health and alcohol. They all knew Dylan Thomas also who succumbed at an early age.

 

In his biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani paints a harrowing picture of his subject’s abuse of alcohol and his mental breakdowns. Mariani is perhaps a little partisan when he states: “if Berryman’s behaviour was unsteady, it was stolid compared Roethke’s”. He does describe a Christmas party held by Edmund Wilson. Roethke arrive “aggressively sober” with several friends. When Wilson introduced him to Berryman, he pretended he had never heard of him. Roethke flirted with the female guests and then insisted that Wilson leave the party and come and read his poems. When Wilson demurred, Roethke grabbed Wilson’s jowls and said he was all “blubber”. Wilson called Roethke a half-baked Bacchus and asked him to leave. As he was being propelled to the door someone tried to introduce him to a psychiatrist who was just arriving. The man reached out to shake his hand. Roethke thought he was about to be restrained and committed and punched the man.

 

As a young man, he was humiliated by breakdowns that continued to afflict him throughout his life. It might have been some consolation to him that he was a member of fellowship of mad poets and lost children that included Kit Smart, John Clare and William Blake, with each of whom he was able to identify and echo.

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More about Roethke’s health, death and posthumous reputation next week

 

 

Robert Lowell Part 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

Delmore Schwartz Part Two

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 29 2014.

 

Last week, I gave an introduction to the life and literary reputation of the American poet, short story writer and, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). This week, I will attempt a close analysis of a single poem by Schwartz.

 

Schwartz on Seurat

Georges_Seurat_-_Un_dimanche_après-midi_à_l'Île_de_la_Grande_Jatte

 

My favourite poem by Delmore Schwartz is “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”, written in 1959, in which the poet examines Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting. The painting is usually referred to as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting was also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The painting shows members of all social classes mingling in the sun and participating in various Sunday afternoon leisure activities. It took Seurat two years to complete this ten foot-wide painting, much of which time he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago – which explains Schwartz’s reference in his poem to:

 

Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine has gone away,

Has gone to Chicago: near Lake Michigan,

All of his flowers shine in monumental stillness fulfilled.

And yet it abides elsewhere and everywhere where images

Delight the eye and heart, and become the desirable, the admirable,

the willed

Icons of purified consciousness.

 

Schwartz dedicates the poem to Meyer and Lillian Schapiro. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an American art historian known for forging dynamic new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach, engaging other scholars, philosophers, and artists, to the study of works of art. Although an active Marxist, Schapiro was an expert on early Christian art. Schapiro was interested in the social, political, and the material construction of art works. He spent his entire career at Columbia, where he knew Schwartz.

 

The full text of the poem can be read online:

 

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/resources/423.pdf

 

 

Sunday is traditionally a day for Christians to do their worship. Perhaps it can also be a day for non-Christians and atheists to celebrate something. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning”, stripped away Christian delusions in shimmering, flamboyant, rococo language.

 

 

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

 

Those whom Schwartz sees in Seurat’s painting are enjoying “The comforts of the sun” and enjoying the freedom, albeit temporary, of a day off from quotidian cares.

 

They are looking at hope itself, under the sun, free from the teething

anxiety, the gnawing nervousness

Which wastes so many days and years of consciousness.

 

Schwartz seems to be asking: Is there a higher power, though? Is there a deus outside the frame of this picture?

 

 

The one who beholds them, beholding the gold and green

Of summer’s Sunday is himself unseen. This is because he is

Dedicated radiance, supreme concentration, fanatically threading

The beads, needles and eyes -at once- of vividness and permanence.

He is a saint of Sunday in the open air, a fanatic disciplined

By passion, courage, passion, skill, compassion, love: the love of life

and the love of light as one, under the sun, with the love of life.

 

There is permanence in the stasis caught in the frame, a permanence that defies the anicca we actually experience in real life outside the picture.

 

A little girl holds to her mother’s arm

As if it were a permanent genuine certainty:

Her broad-brimmed hat is blue and white, blue like the river, like the

sailboats white,

And her face and her look have all the bland innocence,

Open and far from fear as cherubims playing harpsichords.

 

This is the celebration of contemplation,

This is the conversion of experience to pure attention,

Here is the holiness of all the little things

Offered to us, discovered for us, transformed into the vividest con-

 

Schwartz refers to “supreme concentration”. Is there a hint there of a supreme being? WH Auden and Iris Murdoch both referred to the act of concentration, of paying attention, as being akin to prayer. Buddhism explores the concept of “mindfulness”. Concentrating on writing a poem can seem like praying. Reading a poem in an analytical way can be like praying. Schwartz examines Seurat’s picture in a prayer-like manner and suspects prayer-like qualities in the demeanour of the people in the painting.

 

 

If you look long enough at anything

It will become extremely interesting;

If you look very long at anything

It will become rich, manifold, fascinating:

If you can look at anything for long enough,

You will rejoice in the miracle of love,

You will possess and be blessed by the marvellous blinding radiance

of love, you will be radiance.

A prayer, a pledge of grace or gratitude

A devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude.

The Sunday people are looking at hope itself.

 

Is the deus Seurat himself, the artist, the artificer?

 

 

An infinite variety within a simple frame:

Countless variations upon a single theme!

 

Schwartz uses internal rhymes and repetitions to create a mantra-like chant. Seurat is at once painter, poet, architect, and alchemist:

 

 

The alchemist points his magical wand to describe and hold the Sun-

day’s gold,

Mixing his small alloys for long and long

Because he wants to hold the warm leisure and pleasure of the holiday

Within the fiery blaze and passionate patience of his gaze and mind

Now and forever: O happy, happy throng,

It is forever Sunday, summer, free: you are forever warm

Within his little seeds, his small black grains,

He builds and holds the power and the luxury

With which the summer Sunday serenely reigns.

 

Seurat’s technique was to use tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-coloured paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colours physically blended on the canvas. Meyer Schapiro had written about the painting and had described Seurat’s technique as being like an alchemist’s. An alchemist transmutes the mundane into the wonderful; an artist uses gross material or plain words to create the numinous.

 

Although God or the painter threaded permanence into the picture in the frame, the painter himself did not enjoy permanence; Seurat died at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His son died two weeks later.

 

the painter who at twenty-five

Hardly suspects that in six years he will no longer be alive!

-His marvellous little marbles, beads, or molecules

Begin as points which the alchemy’s magic transforms

Into diamonds of blossoming radiance, possessing and blessing the

visual:

For look how the sun shines anew and newly, transfixed

By his passionate obsession with serenity

As he transforms the sunlight into the substance of pewter, glittering,

poised and grave, vivid as butter,

In glowing solidity, changeless, a gift, lifted to immortality.

 

Perhaps the painter does live on, despite his early death, in the beauty he created in his work. To quote Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” again: “Death is the mother of beauty”.

 

This is the nervous reality of time and time’s fire which turns

Whatever is into another thing, continually altering and changing all

identity, as time’s great fire burns (aspiring, flying and dying),

So that all things arise and fall, living, leaping and fading, falling, like

flames aspiring, flowering, flying and dying-

Within the uncontrollable blaze of time and of history:

Hence Seurat seeks within the cave of his gaze and mind to find

A permanent monument to Sunday’s simple delight; seeks deathless

joy through the eye’s immortality;

Strives patiently and passionately to surpass the fickle erratic quality

of living reality.

In emulation of the fullness of Nature maturing and enduring and

toiling with the chaos of actuality.

 

At the end of the poem, Schwartz acknowledges the sense of escapism that art allows, and also the poignancy of the fact that it is impossible really to enter the world of the painting. This is the final line of the poem:

 

They all stretch out their hands to me: but they are too far away!

 

Next week, I will analyse some more of Schwartz’s poetry and discuss themes that run through his work.

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