Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Danny Devito Explains "The Poet Resigns"

Danny Devito passionately explaining my work.

Just in time for the new year, the latest issue of Pleiades has arrived.  The current issue put me in a bit of a dilemma, since I didn't know where to turn first.  Should I plunge into the teeming multitude of promising looking poems?  Grab onto my colleague Rebecca Makkai's short story?  Or rush ahead to the virtuosic, and sure to be controversial, Mark Halliday take-down of Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins (I have not read Brimhall's book, so I don't know if Halliday is right, only that he writes a hell of a take down).  Should I begin at the beginning and race on to the end?  These, I'm a little abashed to say, weren't the questions. Rather, I was stuck between wanting to read my own contribution—an essay on John Matthias' poetry, to see if the typesetters had changed innocent words into vile profanities—or to read Amish Trivedi's review of a collection of my own essays, The Poet Resigns.  Anxiety warred with vanity!  I won't tell you which won out, but veil the embarrassing result by quoting, instead, from both pieces.

My essay on Matthias is called "Indirections," and takes as its occasion the publication of his collected poems.  But it's really out to make a general statement of Matthias' poetics.  It begins like this:
John Matthias is so thoroughly a European poet he could only be American. That is, his poetry, now collected in three volumes from Shearsman Books, is so saturated with European geography, history, and, most importantly, personages from the history of high culture, that a reader coming to it for the first time would see at once an affiliation with Europhile American poets like Pound and Eliot. Like those poets, Matthias spent a considerable period of his life in Europe (mostly England), and like them he has read widely in the poetry of the continent. Like them, too, he takes Europe as a kind of whole, and as a single living tradition—very much an American thing to do, and not at all English, or Spanish, or Lithuanian. Every inch of Europe seems to open out into a richly storied past, and one senses that at least part of his attraction to Europe is that it offers an escape from a perceived American historical shallowness, the sort of thing Harold Rosenberg described when he said that America “builds and acts on a thin time crust—its constructions reach upward rather than down, its politics take account of the immediate future rather than the past.” 
One thing that the opportunity these three volumes—some 900 pages in all—offers is the chance to see the consistent appeal of Europe to Matthias, and to recognize a fundamental pattern in the way Europe plays into the poetry. Despite the serious religious concerns of poems like the 45-page “A Compostella Diptych” (which traces ancient pilgrim routes across France and Spain), Matthias does not seek in Europe a path back to a meaningful religious communion, as did Eliot. Nor does he use the European past as a way to cudgel Americanized modernity, with its preference for mass produced plaster over artisanal alabaster, as did Pound. Instead, Europe, and especially Europe’s past, provides a kind of Archimedean point outside of Matthias’ immediate experiences from which he can re-imagine them. From his earliest poems to his most recent, we find Matthias changing his perspective on experiences—often difficult or painful ones—by placing them in the context of distant geographies, remote pasts, or foreign lives.

Even the erotic poetry of Matthias’ youth works this way. Consider “What They Say,” a short poem written when Matthias was twenty and published for the first time in volume one of the Collected Shorter Poems. Grouped with other erotic poems like “Female Nude, Young” and “Swimming at Midnight,” it describes the Viennese painter Egon Schiele in his studio, posing his models and friends as “onanistic nudes,” then climbing a ladder to a loft to get the odd angle he desired. “And it’s the perspective that distorts,” writes Matthias, “The ladder and the beds/were Egon Schiele’s.” while “The postures and/the gestures/were all theirs.” It’s a simple poem, and very much juvenilia, but in a way it contains the poetic career that will to follow for another half century and more. It’s not just that Matthias’ erotic imagination, here, runs toward the visions of long-dead artists in faraway Europe rather than the proximate body of a lover: it’s that the important thing, the thing that makes Schiele more than a pornographer, is his distancing himself from his material, his climbing of a ladder to gain exactly the right point of distance and perspective.

Amish Trivedi's review of my book The Poet Resigns begins by explaining the book with reference to some lines spoken by Danny Devito's character in the move Other People's Money—a gambit that I never would have thought would work, but does:
"We're dead alright.  We're just not broke. And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.  Down the tubes.  Slow but sure" (Other People's Money, 1991).  In The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World Robert Archambeau confronts Danny Devito's point: no matter how successful a poet may become, it is a success limited by poetry's ever-diminishing position within the world. While there are plenty of poets who wish that poetry were as marketable as popular fiction or Miley Cyrus, the central question Archambeau asks is whether or not poetry can successfully return to some imagined high point of a golden past...
Trivedi cuts to the core of the book when he says that its central question is "What is the role of poetry in contemporary society?"  Trivedi says some kind things about the book, but personally, I feel The Poet Resigns only starts to answer that question.  I'm hoping the critical book I'm resolving to finish in the year ahead, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself takes things further.  And in a way I'm kind of hoping a future reviewer will find a way to link that book to the Danny Devito oeuvre, too.


Pleiades 35.1 is currently available in print—online selections from the issue will appear soon.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Invitation to the Voyage: Notes on The Modern Poetic Image

“Invitation to the Voyage,” the dark jewel in the crown of Baudelaire’s prose poems, is many things.  For me, lately, it has become a touchstone for understanding what is modern—and, for that matter, postmodern—in poetry.  The modern quality of Baudelaire’s prose poem shows best when we hold it up in contrast against its most significant background: Dante’s Vita Nuova. Both “Invitation to the Voyage” and the mixed prose and poetry of the Vita Nuova are drenched in yearning for a woman who is more than just a woman: she is also a gateway to something infinite and eternal.  But the differences between Baudelaire’s eternity and Dante’s are striking, and go beyond matters of religious doctrine to the far more serious issue of the nature of the literary image.

Aesthete that he is, Baudelaire gives us, in “Invitation to the Voyage,” an image of a place that is somehow the antithesis of the ordinary world—a place that isn’t described in isolation, but through contrast to our busy, vulgar world.  It shines in the beyond, this other, better place where “slower hours” than ours “contain more thoughts, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper and more significant solemnity.”  The nature of the place isn’t defined with any exactness, but evoked by a series of images—tall windows divided into leaded glass panes, a bright, shining array of kitchen copper, the light of sunsets settling richly on the walls—is it an aesthetic place? A place of interiors and artifice? A place of order? Of dignified domesticity?  It’s hard to say, exactly, except that there’s a mood of quiet and order and timelessness.  It isn’t just an indefinite place, though: it is also an impossible one, or contradictory: it might, says Baudelaire, be called “the China of Europe.”

If anything is certain about this place to which Baudelaire would flee, it is that it is a country made in the image of his beloved—a point on which he insists. Everything made in the country, he tells her, “is made in your image”—indeed, it is a country entirely “in your image.”  As the prose poem reaches its climax, we read “These treasures, this furniture, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, these miraculous flowers, are you.  They are you, too, these great rivers and these quiet canals.”  The beloved is this escapist paradise, into which Baudelaire himself enters in his mind. Continuing with his image of rivers and canals, he writes “these vast ships that drift down them, laden with riches, and from whose decks rise the monotonous songs of laboring sailors, they are my thoughts which slumber or rise and fall on your breast.”  It is the beloved who, in embodying or signifying the better, purer, more timeless place, brings Baudelaire away from this world and toward the eternal: she leads his river-faring thoughts “gently toward the sea, which is infinite.” This infinity isn’t the beloved, exactly, though: it is a place the poet reaches via love for her, a place where his thoughts can stay only for a while before they weary of it, and “now enriched… return to you from the infinite.”

The debt Baudelaire owes to Dante is profound.  Firstly, there is the way the beloved woman connects to the other, better world.  The best way to describe the relationship of the two in “Invitation to the Voyage” is to lift a passage on the Vita Nuova from the scholar and translator Barbara Reynolds, who says Dante writes of Beatrice in a manner that represents “not personification or symbolism, but the perception that actual persons can be images of qualities beyond themselves.”  That is: a real person, rather than an allegorical figure, an imaginary metaphor, or a symbolic creature is the image and pathway to a world better than the one around us. The concept is new with Dante, and ranks among his greatest inventions.  It is a concept very much alive in contemporary poetry, as we see, for example in Lorenzo Thomas’ poem “God Sends Love Disguised as Ordinary People,” where we needn’t go further than the title to see the notion that real individuals in our lives represent something greater and more eternal than themselves. 

What is more, the specific qualities of the world Baudelaire associates with the beloved hold much in common with the world to which Dante ascends via Beatrice.  For both poets, the beloved is the gateway to a love not only of the beloved herself, but of eternity.  Dante’s initial love for Beatrice in the Vita Nuova begins with the senses, with his glimpse of her on the street.  The book recounts the transformations of this love: from a love governed by the sensual attraction, to a love of the poetry of love, to a despair of love at the death of Beatrice, to an abortive revival of earthly love for “Lady Pitiful,” the woman who looks on him compassionately in his bereavement.  Had Dante allowed this new love to flower, the Vita Nuova would have been a startlingly secular book, one in which the pleasures of this life follow upon one another cyclically, one dying love leading to another.  But the new secular love, a “little spirit, newly sent by Love,” that “Its longings and desires before me brings” is banished.  Dante tells of how, before this little spirit could grow, his “heart began to repent sorrowfully of the desire by which it had so basely allowed itself to be possessed for some days.”  Instead, he turns his gaze upwards, to love Beatrice in Heaven—and this brings about the final, most profound transformation of his love.  His love becomes “a pilgrim spirit” and “ascends into the heavens.”  The final poem of Vita Nuova traces the journey:

Beyond the widest of the circling spheres
A sigh which leaves my heart aspires to move.
A new celestial influence which Love
Bestows by virtue of its tears
Impels it ever upwards.

Just as Baudelaire’s voyage on the river of the beloved guides him to the infinite sea, Dante’s quest for Beatrice guides him away from the moral to the eternal.

Of course Dante’s is specifically Christian—indeed, when he depicts Beatrice following one Giovanna (the Italian feminine of John) he makes her a female Christ, appearing after John the Baptist, and his association of her with the number nine (the age at which he first saw her, among other things) underlines her specifically Christian perfection, since nine is the square, or perfection, of the trinity’s three.  This is one key difference between Dante and Baudelaire: Baudelaire’s infinity is indefinite and visited only momentarily—it lies outside of any particular doctrine or orthodoxy. In contrast, Dante takes pain to affiliate his sense of the infinite with specifically Christian iconography and dogma.

The pains Dante takes to specify the specific nature of the eternity to which he ascends are at least as important in differentiating him from Baudelaire as the Christian nature of his eternity.  Not only does he work with Biblical allusion, Christian numerology, and other semiotic systems to control the way the poems of Vita Nuova are read: he structures the book in such a way that most of the poems are sandwiched between contextualizing prose passages and little critical interpretations of their meaning—including helpful indications of what he meant in each part of the poem, and where exactly the parts should be divided.  Moreover, he makes his wishes for hermeneutic clarity explicit, writing that poets must be able to “justify what they say,” for "it would be a disgrace if someone composing in rhyme introduced a figure of speech or rhetorical ornament, and then on being asked could not divest his words of such covering so as to reveal a true meaning."  "My most intimate friend and I," Dante adds, "know a number who compose rhymes in this stupid manner."

Dante is, indeed, very clear about the way the love that begins with the senses directed at a woman can lead to a love of the divine (or, one should add, for a woman’s sense-based love of a man to do so—Dante allows for both forms of heterosexual desire, although his views of same-sex desire were less tolerant, as readers of The Inferno know).  So very clear is Dante about the relation of earthly to divine love that his views, announced at the end of the thirteenth century, endure and become a doctrine, still articulated in full force more than two centuries later in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.  In Castiglione they appear as part of the ideological equipment of all civilized gentlemen:

… speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colors embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense...
The attempt to delimit specific meaning and to control it is central in Dante and, as the legacy of European literature for centuries after he wrote demonstrates, largely successful.  It is also entirely understandable for someone who wrote about eternity in a time when religious orthodoxy was enforced at the end of pikes and halberds.  And this is by no means something limited to Catholicism or to the middle ages: in the seventeenth century, the great English protestant writer John Bunyan prefaced his Pilgrim’s Progress with a poetic “Apology” in which he goes to pains to prove that his allegory contains nothing but “sound and honest gospel strains,” perhaps like those sung by Cromwell’s soldiers on their way to behead that Catholic sympathizer, Charles the first.

Here, in the insistence on a clearly defined meaning, we see the principal point of difference between Dante and Baudelaire, and the point at which we can begin to pinpoint what is modern about the latter poet.  Baudelaire’s prose poem is suggestive, not definitive.  It evokes meanings, but does not delimit a specific meaning.  Baudelaire was not the first to work with elusive poetic images: indeed, he draws upon a rich Romantic heritage, including the works of Coleridge, whose theory of the symbol (as opposed to the allegory) can serve almost as a statement of poetics for Baudelaire and his kin.  Coleridge uses the term “symbol” inconsistently over the course of his career, but it is his sense of the word in The Statesman’s Manual that is important here.  In that work Coleridge tells us that, unlike the allegorical figure, the symbol is characterized “above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.”  It connects us to the ever-changing yet timeless eternity that Coleridge calls “the infinite I AM.” As the scholar James C. McKusick puts it, with Coleridgean symbol, “the form of the sign is determined by the form of the referent” – and when the ultimate referent is the infinite I AM, as it must at some level be in true works of imagination, the form will, like its referent, be dialectical, a process of coming together and diffusing.”  That is, with symbols, we never come to a definite meaning, but watch the process of meanings come together and fall apart; are evoked and dismissed and replaced continuously in the rapt mind of the reader.  We’re pretty far from Dante’s ideal situation, in which the meaning of the poetic image can—indeed must—be paraphrased by any poet aspiring to a state beyond stupidity.

The emphasis on an ultimately elusive poetic image grows over the course of the nineteenth century, reaching a kind of apogee in the works of the French symbolists of the fin de siècle. Mallarmé, for example, tells us that the poem ought to present an array of “resonant meanings and associations” rather than specific referents.  As he put it in an 1891 interview published in L’Echo de Paris, “the contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song…. to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol.”  This art of suggestion rather than delimitation is at the very heart of the symbolist enterprise: Paul Verlaine insists, for example, that the poet “must not/select [his] words without some vagueness.”

In the early twentieth century the notion of the modern poetic image as suggestive rather than definitive becomes codified by that great tribe of rationalizers of the irrational, the Surrealists. André Breton cites Baudelaire as an inspiration in the First Manifesto of Surrealism, where he proclaims that the most powerful poetic image is that which presents the greatest degree of arbitrariness; that 

which takes the longest to translate into everyday language, either because it contains an immense amount of apparent contradiction; or because one of its terms is strangely hidden; or because proclaiming its sensational nature, it has the appearance of ending weakly… or because it is of a hallucinatory nature...

He then cites examples, including Lautréamont’s “the ruby of Champagne,” Louis Aragon’s “the frosted gleam of freedom’s disturbances” and his own “on the bridge the dew with a she-cat’s head rocks itself to sleep.” The grand point of such images is not that they communicate a meaning already determined by the poet, but that the mind, “at first confining itself to submitting to them, soon perceives that they stimulate its powers of reason… it goes onward, borne by these images which delight it.”  The night of confusion through which such obscure images take us is, for Breton, the confusion that leads us to discovery, to new and unpredictable insights, and so it becomes “the most beautiful night of all, the night of the lightning-flash: day, compared to it, is night.” 

Après les Surrealistes, le déluge: the decades between the First Surrealist Manifesto and the present brim over with poetic language and images that cultivate the indefinite, that seek by their strange beauty to refute Dante’s assertion that the poet ought to be able to write a clear prose summary of his meaning.  From the New Critical heresy of paraphrase to the midcentury American “deep image,” from the drifting syntax of John Ashbery to the elliptical juxtapositions of Anne Carson or Graham Foust, to Michael Stipe’s ambiguous lyrics (styled after Patti Smith, herself a student in the school of Baudelaire and Rimbaud) our proximate heritage consists of a thousand versions of the poetics of evocation, rather than definiteness.  It is a tradition inviting us to discovery rather than educating us in dogma, and in that sense the modern poetic image is not an illustration of an idea, but something altogether different: it is an invitation to the voyage.

Friday, December 26, 2014

David Caplan on The Poet Resigns

David Caplan in Venice, presumably recovering from reading The Poet Resigns

It's always good to hear what intelligent people have to say about what one writes, so I consider it a great end-of-year treat to run across David Caplan's review of The Poet Resigns in Modern Philology. The review starts with these kind observations:
Robert Archambeau’s The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World collects twenty-seven of his essays on poetry, written (as the publication history listed in the acknowledgments suggests) approximately over the past decade and a half. The essays split roughly into two types: discussions of broader issues and considerations of a fairly eclectic group of individual poets’ work. Archambeau is best known for his monograph Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010), a study of Yvor Winters’s influence on five of his particularly notable graduate students (Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Matthias, and John Peck) and for his Samizdat blog. The essays in this collection resemble his previous writing. Again he is a smart, affable critic; his work is admirably lucid and consistently engaging. 
In broad terms, Archambeau’s interest in poetry might be termed more sociological than formal or thematic: he returns to questions concerned with “poetry and politics, poetry in relation to its social situation.” One chapter—which I will examine in greater detail—is arrestingly titled “Poetry and Politics, or: Why Are the Poets on the Left?” Several other chapters pose similar questions in their opening paragraphs. Referring to “the phenomenon of the poet as professor,” another chapter poses as its central question, “How does the confluence of poetry and academe change the poet’s self-definition?”
Caplan goes on to pick a bone or two with some of the book's conclusions in interesting and informed ways.  The whole review is available free to all here—an unusual and welcome thing for a journal accessible through JSTOR.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Modernism and Decadence, or: The Modernism That Hurts

Vince Sherry mesmerizing the present humble blogger with talk of modernist decadence

Hot damn, people! Vincent Sherry, author of such books as The Great War and the Language of Modernism and Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (which really shook things up for me) has a new book out: Modernism and the Invention of Decadence.  Here he is, talking about "the modernism that hurts."  He's a good talker, by the way: he once had me so drawn in that I followed him out of a bar in Louisville, leaving my tab unpaid.

Sherry, possibly telling Joseph Donahue that whatever I'm saying to Peter O'Leary is bunk.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Orlando Notebook

No, not Orlando, Florida: Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've been reading for the first time in years.  As always, I've taken too many notes.  Here are three of them.


The question of the old-school bildungsroman like Jane Eyre is "how can the individual find balance and rule herself?"  The question of a more naturalistic novel, like Hardy's Tess or Jude, is "can the individual find agency in a world of chance and Titanic forces?"  The question in one type of modern novel, like Orlando, is "is there a self beyond conventions?"


When Orlando gives birth to a son, it comes as something like a non-event in the novel, and we never meet the boy.  This is significant: in a novel so concerned with gender, we find that motherhood does not define a woman.


"What is life?" asks Woolf's Orlando, near the end of the novel, when we read that she is finally growing up.  It matters that the question comes after the publication of her poem "The Oak Tree."  For much of the novel, identity has been a dialectic of social conventions (of an era, a genre, a gender) and solitude or withdrawal, the latter associated with both the poem and the actual, ancient oak tree to which Orlando retreats from society.  Now, though, she turns the poem loose into the world, and she feels herself to be a part of that world in a rich and particular way: she is a palimpsest of different eras and experiences, a multitude of accrued identities, the culmination of "the selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand."  She no longer worries about being reducible to any one set of conventions, having lived through so many of them.  So she no longer feels the same need to withdraw, to retreat from society to solitude.  This is Woolf's take on what it means to grow up, to become someone in particular.  The vision of growth is less schematic than what we find in Jane Eyre, where we're being taught how to balance passion and reserve, how to become a self-policing bourgeois subject.  Orlando is as much a feminist's book as is Jane Eyre, but it is far more of an aesthete's book, out to show us the rich, strange evolution and accretion of individual personalities—personalities treasured not for their self-control, but for their idiosyncrasy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Allan Kornblum, R.I.P.

Allan Kornblum in 2002

Sad news: Allan Kornblum, whom many of us knew as the presiding genius of Coffee House Press, has died.  I heard the news from Michael Coffey, who kindly agreed to let me post his tribute to Kornblum:

Allan Kornblum was a true pioneer in American publishing. He was present at the creation of the small press movement, which fed upon energies for social change in the 1960s and that sited its passions in a not-for-profit business model. This inevitably brought Allan from Iowa City, where he learned the craft of letterpress from the legendary Harry Duncan, to Minneapolis in the early 1980s, an environment that benefited from a progressive state arts program (Allan joined Scott Walker, who had moved Graywolf Press to the Twin Cities, from Port Townsend, Wash., for similar reasons). Coffee House Press, a new name for what in Iowa had been called Toothpaste Paste—a renaming reflecting Allan's intention to build a larger community around his literary press—was among the original eight publishers distributed by the then-fledgling Consortium Books and Sales Distribution. Allan's combination of book-making skills and his tastes for the New York School of poets, for new ethnic voices in America, and particularly those voices that had found their way to the Upper Midwest, made for an impressive and award-winning list. 

Of course, to all in the independent publishing community, Allan was a longtime friend and presence at the various book fairs, particularly the BEA, where he would appear each year with a printer's apron and visor and a new broadside of a poem beautifully typeset by hand and always having to do with the wonder of language and books. Allan published a book of my poems because, he told me, "Michael, I can see these poems matter to you—and it comes through. That's what I want to publish." Allan, ever the visionary—there was no foot-dragging at Coffee House about doing books in digital formats—also saw his own end approaching, and managed a brilliant succession, selecting and then grooming and then adjudging that he had his man in Chris Fishbach, who now steers the press with his own independent and unique tastes (which Allan told me was as important as anything) but also with a spirit that is the continuation of Allan's. As for the larger literary culture, it is by Allan's efforts that we have been able to follow Anne Waldman's essential trajectory, read the delicate poetry of the brilliant Anselm Hollo and got the whole of Ron Padgett's work. Not to mention the finds: Laurie Foos and Karen-Tei Yamashita and Sam Savage, these discoveries that now meld into Chris's, with Eimar McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as the latest example. In this instance, Allan's passing does not mark, for publishing, an end of anything, but rather highlights a bright legacy that has been handed on, for which we should be thankful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

John Berryman at 100

John Berryman's centenary is just a few weeks behind us, and it has occasioned a renewal of interest in this troubled, troubling, and undeniably great American poet.  There's a new edition of his selected poems, his publisher has re-issued his best books, including The Dream Songs, and there's a new version of Poets in their Youth, a memoir by Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson.  The national and international press has taken notice—so it's no surprise that the poets have joined in and made their own contribution to the Berryman revival.

Philip Coleman's Berryman's Fate is a major document of the renewed interest in Berryman among poets.  It collects tributes to Berryman from a host of poets including Paul Muldoon, Timothy Donnelly, John Matthias, Isobel Dixon, Jane Robinson, George Szirtes, John Montague, and me, among many distinguished others.

My own contribution takes its title from a line in "Dream Song 14," but it's really a riff on Berryman's wonderful meditation on loss, "The Ball Poem."  It goes like this:

We Must Not Say So 

Sadness was he ever. Teacher, taught 
my teacher, taught me too (his being not 
in body but in book). “What is the boy now 
who has lost his ball?” he’d ask. The question’s flawed. 
“What, what” he’d ask “is he to do?” A haughty Henry’d 
huff his loss, a stone his daily broken bread. 
And yours and mine? Is what he wrought? 
Sadness we are ever, teacher taught. 

“No use,” he’s say, to say “O there 
are other balls,” the ball gone harbor-wise, 
and out, the tidal-tugging way. 
No use to whistle “I am not a little boy.” 
For him a hurting. Us, maybe a sigh. 
No laws against our Henry but “Beware.”

Berryman's Fate is available here.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Archambeau World Tour 2014: Making Nothing Happen in Houston

My last, somewhat more dramatic, performance in Texas.

I know, I know.  You're exhausted because you piled into your VW microbus and followed my motorcade earlier this year as it shuttled from Boston to Chicago to Poughkeepsie to New York.   I apologize to the damage your ears may have suffered from the sirens of the police escort and the shrill shrieks of the younger and more enthusiastic fans. But there's one more stop on the Archambeau World Tour this year: Houston.  I'll be giving a talk at the University of Houston at noon on Wednesday the 12th of November.  It's called "Making Nothing Happen: Poetry for Its Own Sake, 1914-2014."  It's really a kind of hyper-compressed version of the book I've been working on for a few years and that I hope to finish next summer.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Ego as Hero in Victorian Literature

Our protagonist.

Hypocrisy, we think, is where the Victorians truly excelled. Prodigious achievers in industry, in science, in the triple-decker novel and the many-gunned battleship, they were even better at having things both ways: at keeping a stiff upper lip and a respectable front while groping the maidservants on the back stairs and puffing opium discretely behind a curtain in a den where no one asks a gentleman his name or his place in the Great World beyond. There’s something in this, of course: public virtue and private vice thrived together in the first great bourgeois empire, with its un-aristocratic moralism and its many newfound opportunities for decadence. It helped, too, that this was also the first age of mass media, with its quenchless thirst for both sentimentality and scandal.

One of the more notable characteristics of the age was the disunified psyche created by such circumstances. What, after all, could be more Victorian than the thought of Prime Minister William Gladstone lusting over the prostitute Marian Summerhayes —one may turn to his private diaries for considerable salacious detail—then declaiming Tennyson’s poetry to her for hours on end before sending her off untouched and whipping himself for having sinned in his mind. There is precious little reconciliation between the forces warring in the poor man’s breast: the id bubbles and roils away, wanting what it wants, before being violently, albeit temporarily, crushed by the appalled and vengeful superego. We would do well to remember that Freud himself was something of a late Victorian, born a few years after Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few before George Gissing and Rudyard Kipling. The trio that played so much of Freud’s chamber music—the yearning id, the stern superego, and the hardworking ego that negotiates between them—was the product of the same broad cultural conditions that gave us Gladstone’s symphonies of self-flagellation.

Much of the underground literature of the Victorian era serves as a kind of testimony to the fractured identity, to the id unreconciled to the public life of its possessor. My Secret Life, for example, the million word obsessive and repetitive chronicle of sex in the age of Victoria, documents the erotic life of an anonymous gentleman with what seems like an army of prostitutes and servants—a life that had to be kept separate from the author's public and domestic lives. As the title indicates, the author led a fractured existence, indulging his urges yet keeping his erotic activities so thoroughly isolated from the rest of his life that to this day scholars remain unsure of his identity (we suspect Henry Spencer Ashbee, but I personally hope it will turn out to have been another candidate, William Haywood, since his high position in the City of London’s Commissioners of Sewers Office, with its concern for the underground and the abject, seems almost allegorical).

Pre-Raphaelite poetry positively bursts with sexual energies that chafe against its own moralizing or even scolding tones—a kind of verse equivalent of Gladstone’s idiosyncracies with hookers and whips. Consider William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” Here, we find King Arthur’s wife accused of adultery with Sir Lancelot, a crime of individual indulgence that not only violates the sacrament of marriage, but threatens to throw the kingdom into chaos. The accuser, Gawain, is known for his honesty and honor, and Guenevere addresses a silent assembly of lords, whose disapproving actions we can infer from her speech. The speech itself consists of an astounding catalog of rhetorical appeals, running the full gamut from pathos (pity me, so lonely as the bride of the distant Arthur) to ethos (I am a fearsome queen, how dare you judge me!) to bad logos (God wants us to be happy, sex with Lancelot made me happy, ergo…) to really bad logos (it wasn’t me who kissed Lancelot, it was my mouth… I was driven mad by my own beauty, and can’t be held responsible, etc.). The poem is structured such that we can see through Guenevere’s arguments: indeed, at the end, we see that she was merely playing for time, waiting for Lancelot to arrive on his white charger to carry her off to safety. Everything at the level of reason indicates Guenevere’s guilt, and urges us to disapprove of her affair with Lancelot. But everything, or almost everything, at the level of emotion urges us to kind of admire her: she is spirited, she is fierce, she is independent, clever, funny, charming, and on the side of desire—we kind of want to give her what amounts to a free pass, even as we know we shouldn’t. The poem never really reconciles these things, but leaves us with a curiously doubled reaction: it’s a poem whose id is at war with its superego, a poem without a mediating ego forging some kind of compromise or détente. It is worth noting that Morris used his notoriously unfaithful wife Jane as the model for his painting of Guenevere—the unresolved judgment and emotions of “The Defense of Guenevere” came from experiences very close to home indeed. 

A much greater poem, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” shows, if anything, an even more disunified psychological position. It sweats eroticism from every pore: from the goblin men with their animalistic faces calling out for young Lizzie and Laura to buy their fruit with locks of hair, to their disturbingly violent manhandling of Lizzie, covering her with mashed fruit and its juices, to her return to save her sister as a kind of same-sex incestuous Christ figure, crying out:

 … “Laura,” up the garden, 
“Did you miss me? 
Come and kiss me. 
Never mind my bruises, 
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices 
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you, 
Goblin pulp and goblin dew. 
Eat me, drink me, love me; 
Laura, make much of me… 

But for all this wildness, all this exploration and embracing of all that Victorian public morality forbids about sex, the poem ends with a little picture of the sisters as that most legitimated form of Victorian womanhood: they are wives and mothers. And when they speak of their past with the goblins, they offer a moralistic vision unrecognizable to those who have witnessed the events in the earlier lines: 

Afterwards, when both were wives 
With children of their own; 
Their mother-hearts beset with fears, 
Their lives bound up in tender lives; 
Laura would call the little ones 
And tell them of her early prime, 
Those pleasant days long gone 
Of not-returning time: 
Would talk about the haunted glen, 
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men, 
Their fruits like honey to the throat 
But poison in the blood; 
(Men sell not such in any town): 
Would tell them how her sister stood 
In deadly peril to do her good, 
And win the fiery antidote: 
Then joining hands to little hands 
Would bid them cling together, 
“For there is no friend like a sister 
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray, 
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands.” 

It’s not that there is some sophisticated irony here, some version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner preaching a line about community that he fails to embody: the poem doesn’t work with that kind of irony. Rather, it is a poem imperfectly at one with itself. It embraces public morality about motherhood and sisterhood and about a wife’s duty, and does so explicitly in a moralizing conclusion. But the poem that comes before ripples with a very different kind of energy, with a sexuality forbidden not only by Victorian society but by the poem’s own conclusion. Like Morris’ “Defense of Guenevere,” it is a poem with a strong and prudish superego, an even stronger id, and little or no ego seeking to mediate between and reconcile the two. 

Poems like these express the condition lived out by the author of My Secret Life: desires segregated from principles.  It's the same condition that, in more acute form, tormented poor Mr. Gladstone. With such a vast gulf between id and superego to be bridged, is it any wonder many Victorian writers came to portray the ego itself as a kind of hero? 

We see this ego-heroism in some of the most enduring fiction of the Victorian period. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, our heroine is constantly pulled between the world of the passions—lust, anger, anything adhesive that would link her to other people, positively or destructively—and the world of cold self-possession. From the moment we first see her—with a red curtain separating her from a domestic world of blood violence, rage, and passion, and a window facing a white, cold, foggy world of solitude and exile—she is trapped between two poles, a world of id and a world of self-disciplining, self-respecting superego. The novel is filled with doubles and foils: the too-passionate Mr. Rochester and the too-cold St. John Rivers, say, or the too disciplined Helen Burns and the overly passionate Bertha Mason (whose passions are embodied in the fire she sets that destroys Rochester’s home, maim him, and kill her). Jane’s journey and self-invention, the bildung in this bildungsroman, is a journey toward the reconciliation of desire and self-control. The elaborate fire and water symbolism of the novel culminates in a deceptively simple image near the end, when Jane bears a tray in to the the wounded Rochester. On the tray burns a candle, next to a glass of water, some small amount of which spills. Here we have Jane balancing (albeit unsteadily) the passions of the id and the strictures of the superego—but just as important as the presence of fire and water is the fact of the tray. Jane holds the two, controls them, and in some sense masters them. She is a force that works out and managing the proper relation of id and superego. She is the figure absent from “The Defense of Guenevere” and “Goblin Market,” and too weak to keep poor Gladstone from wounding himself. She is the ego itself. 

The ego balances desire and conscience—it is the “inner gyroscope” David Reisman described as the necessary equipment of the self-governing subject that grew out of the long drama of renaissance, reformation, and the bourgeois-capitalist transformation of society. And it isn’t just in Brontë that it emerges as a Victorian hero. It’s everywhere, especially in the works consumed by the common middle-class reader of the time. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s perpetually popular novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dilemma of the titular character, or characters, is a dilemma of disunified psyche. Jekyll wishes to be purely good, and approved of by society (the string of honorific letters after his name is significant in this regard). And he wishes, at the same time, to let loose his basest inner urges—violent ones, in this strangely chaste book, rather than sexual ones. There is a primitive and childlike self-assertion to Mr. Hyde, something devoid of empathy or morality, something like a pure assertion of self and will, the desire to put others out of the way—and this childlike urge accounts for the curious smallness of Hyde, a smallness emphasized when he is forced to drape himself in Jekyll’s clothes, like a little boy in his father’s suit. Jekyll, in creating Hyde, wants to have it both ways: to be purely good, in society’s conventional sense, and to act on his will and desire, like an unsocialized child. He wants all of this, and he wants to surrender the wearisome work of the ego in continuously working out a compromise between the two. In this, he is unlike Mr. Utterson, the lawyer we meet at the beginning of the book, who enjoys expensive wines but will only allow himself a little cheap gin, who loves the theater but almost never lets himself attend. Utterson is the ego figure, the mediator of desire and restraint, and his are the virtues celebrated in the book, the virtues whose absence bring about Jekyll’s tragic fate. 

The ego—as fact, as idea, as ideal—has been battered pretty hard by the twentieth century and its aftermath. Variously accused, dissolved, pilloried, declared dead, dismissed as fictitious, and otherwise expunged by Surrealism, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, late Marxism, postmodernism and the infernal machines of neoliberal capitalist desire, it remains, at best, as a chipped and smog-besmirched monument from a prior age, under which sit hipsters dropping references to Rimbaud’s “je est un autre” as they stub out their cigarettes on the base moulding. But like most monuments, it was built by people who really believed in it, and for whom it celebrated something that seemed like a solution to their genuine pains and troubles.