Friday, March 25, 2011

T.S. Eliot on the Metra: Urban Alienation and the Urge for Community

Maybe it's appropriate that I've been doing all my thinking about T.S. Eliot on the train, from the windows of which I catch fleeting glimpses into other people's lives: a bent-over old man with a plastic shopping bag shouting angrily at a bent-over old woman; two kids in kelly green hoodies running down an alley, looking back over their shoulders; a laughing, shirtless, dreadlocked man seen through the open blind of his apartment window, a bottle of wine in his hand; other quick flashes of people living out their particular stories, in which I won't, in all probability, play even a walk-on role.  Eliot was, after all, a great poet of urban alienation, of the strange mix of intimacy and distance created by life in the modern metropolis.

Except for my commute on the Metra, where I've been poking around Eliot's Selected Poems on my Kindle, I haven't had much time to devote to Eliot lately, but I do want to start getting him into my mind, since the impossibly glorious summer, free of teaching and (I hope) free of administrative chickenshit, lies just a few weeks in the future, and I'm hoping to bang out two chapters of the big, boring book I've been writing (now called Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy in Poetry): one chapter on the rejection of Tennyson by poets coming of age in the 1890s, and another on Yeats and Eliot. 

The interesting thing, for me, is how both Yeats and Eliot act out versions of Tennyson's old dilemma in radically different contexts.  Tennyson really does have two distinct careers: one as a writer of somewhat cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems — poems like "The Kraken" or "The Eagle" or even "The Lady of Shalott" — poems that resist being converted to moral messages; and another career as the writer of poems like Enoch Arden or "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip.  He had the dilemma because he inherited a tradition of aesthetic autonomy from one of the main strands of Romantic poetics (Keatsian negative capability, Coleridgean ideas of polysemous symbolism and organic form, etc.), but he wrote at a time when a certain kind of middle-class reader turned to poetry for a particular kind of self-affirming moral guidance.  By the 1880s and 1890s, though, the public that had sought moral guidance in poetry was finding it elsewhere, and publishers were less interested in poetry relative to other genres than they had been.  The public was rejecting poetry, and poets were rejecting the public right back, turning, with a new intensity, to aestheticism, to art for art's sake, and to an attitude that rejected poor old Tennyson as a stooge for the middlebrows.  When Harold Nicholson tried to revive Tennyson's reputation in the 1920s, he did it by disowning the "Charge of the Light Brigade" side of Tennyson's poetics, and embracing the Tennyson canon to which we still cling — the side of the work that shies away from overt moralism.  This was, of course, to truncate Tennyson in order to make him more amenable to our tastes, and in a way to kidnap him out of his own context and fit him to the Procrustean bed of our own time.  For me, this is a real loss, since we miss the struggle in Tennyson between two incompatible urges, the battle between the aesthete and the moralist, which was the real dilemma of the poet in his time.  It's a dilemma that Yeats and Eliot inherited differently.

Yeats is, of course, drawn to esoteric wisdom, arcane and polyvalent symbolism, and to ideals of transcendent beauty (for which one of his most famous symbols is the rose).  But he's also drawn to a very specific kind of politically and culturally engaged poetry, a poetry at the service of national liberation.  The gymnastics he goes through trying to square that circle can be excruciating.  Here's the beginning of the poem "To Ireland in the Coming Times," where he tries to make the rose of esoteric, otherworldy beauty compatible with the politics of Irish liberation:
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because of the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan...
You can feel the anxiety: he wants to devote himself to the rose of eternal, autonomous beauty, but he also wants to write ballads of Irish nationalism — a heteronomous poetry if ever there was one.  He ends up claiming that esoteric beauty and Irish nationalism are compatible by making up a kind of bullshit history, where Ireland's past was devoted to this rose, and where that past endures now in the "Druid land" of Ireland.  Yeats wants to have it both ways, but only by pretending that Irish nationalism is also aestheticism because of an ancient-yet-enduring commitment to esoteric beauty can he do it.  And that's just one stop on the long, strange trip he took trying to work out those incompatible urges.

Eliot faces a different situation, since the politics of national liberation aren't really an issue for him, and there isn't really a strong constituency urging him to write for the greater glory of his nation.  The Irish eventually made Yeats a senator, such being the esteem attached to poets during periods of national liberation, but that sort of situation hasn't really been available for poets from powerful nations like 20th century America: when Yeats wrote to Ezra Pound saying "don't let them make you a senator" (or words to that effect), he must have known that such an event was impossible.  And it was just as impossible for Pound's more respectable friend Eliot.  In fact, Eliot was so far from being an American nationalist that he became not only an ex-pat, but a nationalized British citizen.  Instead, his dilemma had to do with the conflict between a commitment to French symbolist poetics, with all their glamorous obscurity and aesthetic autonomy — Eliot was so drawn to this that he even wrote some poems of that kind in French — and a commitment to poetry at the service of a community of Christians, a yearned-for society of people committed to the same principles, the same tradition, the same past, and the same places — the grounded community of "the same people living in the same place" for generations, as he put it in After Strange Gods (a people for whom he wanted to perform "the role of a moralist").

What I've been thinking about, as I read Eliot's early poetry between glimpses out the train window, is just how Eliot's need for a coherent, rooted, traditional society grew out of his experiences of alienation as a young man in London [correction: in greater Boston, given the dates of composition for "Preludes"].  Consider the experience of urban space in the famous "Preludes" from Prufrock and Other Observations.  The dominant impression is of a strange combination of closeness and distance, of constantly seeing other people in their private moments without actually knowing those people.  If you've lived in a little apartment in a big city, you know what he's talking about.  Here's the second section of the poem:

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampeled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This is the poem of a man whose senses always take in the intimate traces of other people's lives: he smells what the people around him drank last night, and what they're drinking this morning, he sees their footprints in the street, he sees their hands, and the dinginess that is the trace of the repeated actions of their hands, on a thousand window shades.  The bodily presence of others is near, and palpable, and not really meant to be the acknowledged public face — the "masquerade" — they present to the world.  There's intimacy, and bodily proximity, but there's also total anonymity.  Eliot doesn't know the people raising their dingy shades, and seems to glimpse them only partially.  It's proximity without community, the world of the lonely crowd, the depersonalized modern world of gessellschaft.

The impression in the final section is much the same, at least initially:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

It's all in those stubby fingers, isn't it?  There's more of the intimate proximity of people in their private acts, but once again the people are seen only in parts — as fingers, as eyes — and don't belong to anyone known, to anyone with a proper name.  The poem ends with the speaker (let's call him young Eliot) feeling the pathos of this lonely crowd, perhaps yearning for some kind of connection to the people he only glimpses in brief vignettes of their private lives — until he breaks away with a brusqueness that seems like an attempt to place himself above his own yearnings:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

The imagination would provide some fanciful connection to the people around him, some emotional intimacy with those Eliot smells, hears, and briefly sees.  But then Eliot backs away, laughing at his pretense, and trying to be the tough-minded, cynical person the metropolitan way of life seems to demand.

"Rhapsody on a Windy Night" is even better (though here the setting seems more like Paris, and the critic B.C. Southern argues that the images are actually culled from Charles-Louis Phillipe's Bubu-de-Montparnasse, but that's neither here nor there, and only the most ink-stained of pedantic wretches would mention it in a parenthesis).  The imagery suggests a metropolis of the kind familiar to many of us, where the mentally ill wander, disconnected, through the uncaring streets, and where the illusion of intimacy presents itself in terms of base commerce:

Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drumm
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one, 
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
The street-lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her with a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The intimately-observed sordidness, the seeing-past what is meant to be seen (that stain, that strangely twisted eye), recalls the anonymous proximity of "Preludes," and the odd hesitancy, as the prostitute eyes young Tom Eliot up, trying to gauge whether he's too jammed up for the awful daring of a moment's surrender, is powerful stuff: we feel a strange stand-off, which could result in cold distance or an act of sexual commerce that is much like the alienated intimacy of "Preludes," where we can see, smell, and almost touch the closeness of others without any real intimacy.

The poem moves on to a string of images less literally connected to the street setting.  My favorite is this:

I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

We return to those eyes looking out from behind shades, seen by other eyes: a curious kinship between the observer and the observed, a kinship in anonymity and alienation.  And the pairing of this with the image of the stick-grabbing crab is wonderful, because the man-stick-crab combination is an intimacy, but also a distance: it's play, but it's also struggle for the stick, and the man and the crab, while involved in the same action, are such utterly different forms of life, so terribly alien to each other.  Like "Preludes," it's all about distance-in-proximity, the alienating condition of life in the rootless modern metropolis.

It's the notion of humanity under these conditions  as "some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing" that drives Eliot to dream of a more rooted world, a world united by shared traditions, shared religion, and the kind of stability of trans-generational habitation of the same space that the industrial world destroys.  Seeing this makes me about as sympathetic to Eliot's reactionary politics as I'm ever likely to get.  Glimpsing the world from my train window, I feel much the same as he felt, looking at those eyes  behind the shutters.  The difference was that he arrived at a prescription for the condition, in After Strange Gods, The Idea of a Christian Society, and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture — a narrow, somewhat authoritarian, hierarchical, and ultimately a xenophobic prescription.  Me, all I've got is a sense of the problem.  That, and a deep skepticism about people with comprehensive plans for the renovation of civilization.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Project for a History of Poetics at Buffalo

Literary history is dead, or so says one of the crowd of villains with whom I hung out at the recent Louisville literary conference. Me, I'm not so sure.  In fact, I'm so ready to believe that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated, I've started making inquiries about the possibility of putting together a group to work on a surprisingly under-examined piece of literary history: the story of poetry and poetics at Buffalo.  There's been plenty of talk about the various poets who came through Buffalo from the days of Olson and Creeley to the Bernstein era, and the critical literature about their works has been growing steadily.  There have even been a few attempts to discuss the deluge of small-scale publishing that was so characteristic of the culture of the place (Peter O'Leary's remarks on Apex of the M in the most recent Chicago Review being a case in point).  But there's been no large-scale attempt to trace the history of the single most influential institution in several decades of American poetry.  When I shopped the idea of such a history around at Louisville, everyone I spoke to was excited about the idea.  So I followed up recently with a message to several people I thought might be interested in shaping the project, and the backchannel response has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive.

Here's the message I sent, outlining a very preliminary version of the project and asking for comments.  I'd be glad to know what you think — bearing in mind that this isn't going to be a set of studies of particular texts, but a history of an institution and its influence.



Some of us were recently at the Louisville conference, where we discussed the idea of a possible history of poetry and poetics at SUNY-Buffalo.  I’m writing to follow up on that discussion.  I’m sending this to those of you who weren’t in Louisville because I rather wish you had been there for the discussion, and because I’d very much like to know what you think of the project outlined below.  If this message is an imposition, I apologize, and I’ll remove your name from this mailing list on request.  I understand all-to-well what it’s like to be too busy to get involved in yet another project.

The idea discussed in Louisville, which I’m calling the Project for a History of Poetics at Buffalo, is this: to put together a book that will constitute a comprehensive socio-aesthetic history of the major activities in poetry and poetics from the days of Olson, Creeley, and Albert Cook, to (to pick a convenient terminus) the departure of Charles Bernstein from Buffalo.  This is not to be a series of statements of poetics, nor a series of essays about the works of the major figures associated with Buffalo.  Rather, the idea is to tell the story of the remarkable rise of poetry at Buffalo, which is one of the most important stories in postwar American poetry.  Such a project would be social and institutional as much as literary, detailing the congruence of events that allowed a provincial state university to become the most important institution in American poetry in the late twentieth century.  Topics to be covered could include:

The chronicling of the arrival, achievements, and departure of poets and theorists.

An examination of particular social and aesthetic bonds established at the institution and their later importance.

The position of the Program in the university and the influence of the material conditions on activity in poetry and poetics.

The history of the various publications — both established and ephemeral — associated with the Program. (The special knowledge of archivists will be of great importance here).

The larger discursive conditions in the academy and the literary field that allowed for the Program and many of its faculty and students to become prominent and prolific.  (Work informed by sociological theory could be particularly important here).

A possible format for the project would be a book consisting of three parts: a general narrative history, possibly by several authors; a series of essays on specific topics (I do not think interpretive readings of particular texts would be right here, but essays on larger, and more social and historical, issues); and a section reprinting, possibly in facsimile form, selections from the publications that poured forth so abundantly from those associated with the program.

I should note that it is probably not a good idea for the preponderance of the book to be written by people with close ties to Buffalo: the Vatican’s history of Catholicism is never the one to embrace.  I should also note that while I very much wish to contribute to this project in whatever way I can, I in no way consider myself qualified to edit the volume, though I do think I could co-edit it if need be.  At this point all ideas about possible publishers, funding sources, and the like are welcome.  I do not anticipate great difficulties in these realms: if the early responses to the idea at the Louisville conference are any indication, this is a project people are excited to hear about, and if it results in a book, it will be a book people want to read.

At this point, everything about the project is up for discussion: whether it should be a book, or a special journal issue, or an electronic resource; to what degree the specifics of the above preliminary notes on format and topics should be changed; who should be contacted, etc.

I’m looking forward to hearing back from you, even if it’s a simple statement to the effect that you’re interested in being kept in the loop as the project develops.

All best,


Saturday, March 12, 2011

“If This Happened in Germany, Cars Would Be Burning”: American Passivity in the Class War

Assaults on collective bargaining, a proposal to eliminate child labor laws, a tax structure that favors the wealthiest of the wealthy, no financial gain for workers despite huge increases in per-worker productivity, a tax-funded bailout for the financial speculators who all-but-destroyed the American economy, a law allowing corporations to anonymously give unlimited amounts of money to politicians, increasing employment insecurity, a jobless “recovery,” and a billionaire-funded scheme to pit the public-sector middle class against the private-sector middle class so as to reduce both sectors to a lowest-common-denominator of economic insecurity. Looking at all this from across the Atlantic, a German acquaintance of mine recently noted “if this happened in Germany, cars would be burning in the streets.”  Why, he wondered, were working and middle class Americans so docile in the face of this aggression by Wall Street and its paid-for politicians in both major parties?  Why were the protests in Wisconsin an anomaly, rather than part of a nation-wide outcry against the persistent assaults on the vast majority of the population by the plutocratic few?

It’s not for lack of anger.  Much of the country is seething with barely-repressed rage at the state of things, and optimism is hard to come by.  But the anger rarely seems to manifest in ways that actually help to roll back any of the policies of the plutocracy.  At a time when collective action is toppling corrupt oligarchies in Egypt and Tunisia, Americans seem unable to stop the decline of their own country into a land with third-world level wealth polarization and a government utterly beholden to the interests of the moneyed few.  Why?

A large part of the answer can be found in Louis Hartz’s classic 1955 study of America’s political heritage, The Liberal Tradition in America.  The “liberal tradition” of the title isn’t what you might think: it’s the classical liberal tradition, something that’s so hegemonic in the United States today that it includes just about all politicians, whether they call themselves “liberal,” “conservative,” “moderate,” “progressive,” or “libertarian.”  Liberalism, in this sense, is to be distinguished from socialism, or communism, or fascism, or traditional feudal societies — from any tradition that places a high value on collectivism.  It’s the tradition of people like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, the tradition of individual liberties, nominal equality in the eyes of the law, and the valorization of the marketplace as a field of open competition.  Much of American life functions in line with this model, although increasingly there are violations of the model (as in the rigging of financial laws to allow market manipulations and the purchasing of political influence, the de facto inequality of people before the law due to the pernicious influence of money, etc.).  But despite those areas in which the American ideal of classical liberalism has ceased to function, the ideals of classical liberalism remain the only widely-held political ideals in American society, and as harsh as our partisan politics can be, the struggles in American politics tend to be intramural among slightly different tendencies of classical liberalism. 

There are, says Hartz, historical reasons for this, and he goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville for an explanation.  “The great advantage of the Americans,” said de Tocqueville, “is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they have been born equal, without having to become so.”  Of course de Tocqueville was well aware of the American Revolution, but he saw it less as a total transformation of society, such as occurred in the drawn-out and bloody dialectic of revolution and reaction in France, than as the expulsion of foreign rule.  The relative ease of American liberation, and the relative equality of its people in the new age of the American republic meant that there was no need to develop anything like a strong class consciousness against an existing aristocratic elite.  In the absence of feudal inequities to be thrown off, there was no strong development of working people’s class-consciousness, and no corresponding movement of reaction by an elite, developing their own class-consciousness, as a group having to legitimate their status by, say, military leadership or paternalism toward workers or as guardians of a state religion or whatever.  So things developed on the model of individualism, for better and for worse (slavery and the race-based politics of liberation are the obvious exceptions).  And this meant — again, for better and for worse— that there was very little by way of a tradition of radical or revolutionary collectivism.  As Hartz puts it, America

…lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition…and this being the case, it lacks also a tradition of reaction… and becomes as indifferent to the challenge of socialism in the later era as it was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism in the earlier one.

What socialist or workers’ movements there were in America were never as strong as they were in Europe, in large part because of America’s different tradition, and the circumstances that gave birth to it.

I really do mean it when I say there are reasons to be grateful for this.  Despite some very repressive moments in our history — the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare — we have avoided the kind of violent revolutions that occurred in so many European countries.  But there’s a downside, too: the classical liberal tradition has meant that it has been very difficult for Americans to find a way to effectively express frustration with what has been happening to them.  They’ve been economically undermined by a whole host of forces — the globalization of capital, the rigging of laws to chip away at unions, the end of meaningful oversight over banking — you name it.  But with the exception of Wisconsin, most protest seems to be individual, inchoate, and aimed at the government rather than the plutocrats who use the government to further enrich themselves at the expense of small businesspeople, workers, the middle class, and the poor.  It can be violent, but it is utterly ineffective — a man smashing his small airplane into an IRS building, to take one example from not so long ago, is an instance both horrifying and pathetic.

It’s not like the people who wage a kind of class war against the majority of Americans don’t understand that there’s anger out there.  In fact, they’ve been very savvy about harnessing that anger and allowing it to be vented at safe targets.  The billionaire Koch brothers’ funding of the allegedly grassroots Tea Party movement is one example of a plutocratic funneling of populist rage into a safe channel.  Glenn Beck’s big rally in Washington, which took anger and through a kind of alchemy converted it into schmaltz, is another.

I don’t know whether the classical liberal tradition will continue to keep Americans from finding ways to act together to protect themselves against the very rich, who continue to wage a distressingly successful class war against the rest of us.  And I’m not keen on the prospect of cars burning in the streets, either.  I do wish we could find our way to something like the situation Germans and Scandinavians have found for themselves, though: situations where high-wage, industrial, export-based economies flourish without the brutal inequities we see in America today.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ambiguous Pronouns Are Hot: Notes on Rae Armantrout's Money Shot

They're sexy
because they're needy,
which degrades them.
So begins "Soft Money," one of the best poems in Rae Armantrout's new collection Money Shot.  It's representative of many other poems in the book for several reasons: it connects to sex and the body, it connects to money (the "money shot" of the title refers to the male orgasm in pornography  — but you knew that, didn't you?) and it can be a bit slippery about just what it refers to in the world.

One of my favorite things about "Soft Money" is the way it really exploits the ambiguity of reference.  Who, one wonders, are "they," those sexy, needy people?  It's easy to read the poem as a piece of gender politics, with the "they" as either men yearning, sexually, for women, or as women, yearning to be noticed by the male gaze.  In either case, the poem seems to say that there's something nasty going on: either women looking on men's neediness as pleasing because it puts women in a position of power, or men looking on the way women deck themselves out for the male gaze and settling smugly into their position of superiority, as the catered-to gender.  And these are just the hetero- readings.  So already we've got a kind of broad statement about how the field of sexual attraction is a place where desire is bound up with power, and people are more than willing to enjoy their positions of superiority over the self-degrading other.  It's a nasty view of the world, hard and cold, but it's delivered with a kind of abstractness and deadpan matter-of-factness that makes it read very differently than, say, the works of the Marquis de Sade.

The poem continues by working variations on the theme announced in the opening stanza.  Check it out:

They're sexy because
they don't need you.

They're sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they're lying,
which degrades them.

They're beneath you
and it's hot.
The first proposition here takes the sexualization of power that we saw in the opening stanza and reverses it: those who turn away from us are sexy, because they're so above us.  We seek them out because, we think, their lack of neediness for us indicates that they're something special.  Desire is inflamed, Petrarch-style, by inaccessibility.  Interestingly, this is just as plausible as the opposed proposition of the opening stanza.  But just as we're about to settle into this new version of events, Armantrout undermines it: they only pretend not to need us, these ambiguous people (women? men?).  And their "I don't need you" act is a sign of how much they really do need us, how they're trying to intrigue us.  Which means they're in some sense beneath us — and once again Armantrout uses the strong term "degrades" to indicate this beneathness, and suggests that we're attracted to people when they make us feel like we're in the superior position.  It's all a bit like the old Hegelian master-slave dialectic, with its co-dependency of the slave (who fears and labors for the master) and the master (who needs the recognition of the slave to maintain his sense of himself as an empowered agent in the world).

At this point, I suppose, we should say something about the title of the poem, which both re-enforces and undermines a reading of the poem as being about the politics of sexual desire.  The poem's title, "Soft Money" re-enforces that meaning best when we read it against the title of the book, Money Shot.  If the money shot of the book's title indicates masculine sexual performance, "Soft Money" would seem to imply a kind of failure of that kind of potency — a masculine disempowerment that plays into reading the referent for the word "they" as "men" (who are, in this reading, desiring but disempowered — which would make the speaker of the poem a bit of a power-tripping misandronous figure, whether female or male).  Such a reading is certainly available, but the poem can't be reduced to just that.  The title-based reading is suggestive rather than definitive.  One could still read the speaker as a smug male figure gloating over the power of the male gaze to make women objectify themselves.

But even these readings, in tandem, are too limited — because soft money is also something specific in the realm of politics.  It's the common term for the unlimited monetary donations rich people and corporations can make to American political parties (as opposed to individual candidates).  And this opens up a whole new way to read the poem.  Suddenly, we can read the needy people as the political class, and the speaker as the corporate class, "the loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires" (to use Paul Simon's line) that buys the deference and loyalty of politicians from both major parties.  And now the smug speaker looks on the politicians as "sexy" because "needy" — a kind of condescending attraction. And when we read the degradation of that ambiguous "they" as the degradation of the elected officials of what is nominally a republic, we feel the degradation as a betrayal of what the politicians should be — representatives of the people.

The middle part of the poem introduces something new:

They're across the border,
rhymes with dancer —

they don't need
to understand.
I like these lines, in part because of the rhyme, in part because they can be read as a kind of comment on the interpretive possibilities the poem has already laid out for us: "border" is a political term, "dancer" is more connected with eros and desire, and the two "rhyme" — that is, in the context of this poem, they've got some deep similarities.  The political and erotic readings are both available, and the poem shows us the kind of smug attitudes that can come with being empowered in either realm.  As for "they don't need/to understand" — well, that's got a nice double-edge to it to, don't you think?  On the one hand, it could be read as an expression of the (politically? erotically?) empowered person condescending to the disempowered people.  On the other hand, it could be read as something like "they don't go around needing us as a rational thing, as a means of understanding — it's all more primal than that."

The next bit riffs on the old Archibald MacLeish poem "Ars Poetica," with its famous contention that "a poem should not mean but be":

They're content to be
(not mean),

which degrades them
and is sweet.
Read in terms of the "this is a poem about eros and power" paradigm, these lines seem to say something about the disempowered people in the equation being mere objects, not subjects who have opinions and might "mean" something.  That sort of lines the poem up with a male speaker, looking on "them" as self-objectified women, the kind of people who'd hang around high-status men and be ornamental, rather than being full participants in a conversation.  But when we come to the next stanza, where the disempowered people are described as "sweet," the speaker's idiom is more feminine — "sweet" is a word some women apply to men who do things for them to ingratiate themselves without much hope of any kind of reciprocation.  So the ambiguity of who "they" are continues to allow us to see the speaker as either a smug male or a smug female in a position of erotic superiority.  But there's also the political way of reading the lines, the "soft money" paradigm for reading the poem.  Looked at this way, the lines can be read as a condescending statement from those in the realm of economic power toward their political subordinates, who are happy to walk around being people with titles like "senator," but who defer to their funders in matters of opinion and policy and don't mean to have any opinions of their own.

The next lines are even better, and work with some Kantian or Sartrean philosophical language:

They want to be 
the thing-in-itself

and the thing-for-you —

Miss Thing —

but can't.
The disempowered people (men? women? politicians beholden to moneyed interests?) want contradictory things, here.  They want to be independent ("the thing-in-itself") but they also want something from the erotically or financially empowered, and want it so bad they would change who they are to get it (becoming the "thing for you").  Those dashes — the most ambiguous form of punctuation — are great, because they allow "Miss Thing" to function in two different ways.  "Miss Thing" (a slang expression for the sexually provocative and desired woman) can be the person the disempowered people, men, want: they become the thing-for-you, with you being "Miss Thing."  But "Miss Thing" could also be the disempowered woman, the self-objectifying person, the one who became a "thing-for-you."  Good stuff!  

But not as good as the ending:

They want to be you
but can't,

which is so hot.
There's the stuff.  The disempowered want to be the empowered, but can't, and this pleases the empowered, because they get to experience themselves as in an enviable position, a position they find arousing.  I love that the final line echoes Paris Hilton's characteristic phrase, since it comes off as nasty, shallow, self-indulgent, and privileged — which works well for any of the myriad interpretations the poem proposes.  Which is hot.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Equine Sublime: Edwin Muir's "Horses"

Imagine my surprise when, a week or so ago, I found myself in an unlikely argument about just who was the most under-appreciated poet from the Orkney Islands.  My contender was Edwin Muir, my worthy opponent, John Matthias, supported George Mackey Brown for these dubious laurels.  Matthias may well be right: after all, it’s not like either of us has a Poetic Appreciation Meter we can wave in the air to take measurements — “Richard Aldington at 10.3, Abbie Huston Evans barely registering at .04…” etc.  In the aftermath of the dispute I went searching in my bookshelves for my copy of Muir’s poems, only to discover (and perhaps this is evidence for my side of the dispute) that I didn’t have one.  I ordered a copy posthaste from Amazon, and when the sharp-looking old Evergreen Press edition of the Collected Poems arrived I turned to what I thought would be Muir’s best-known poem, the post-apocalyptic nightmare “The Horses,” not his best poem but the only one anyone seems to read any more.  What I found, though, was another, much earlier poem, called simply “Horses.”  I’d never read it before, but I think it’s worth discussing since it shows some of Muir’s best qualities.  It appeared in the book First Poems in 1925, when Muir was 37, and it starts like this:


Those lumbering horses in the steady plough, 

On the bare field - I wonder, why, just now, 

They seemed terrible, so wild and strange, 

Like magic power on the stony grange. 

Perhaps some childish hour has come again, 

When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain, 

Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill 

Move up and down, yet seem as standing still. 

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down 

Were ritual that turned the field to brown, 

And their great hulks were seraphims of gold, 

Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

Not long ago Steve Burt made a useful distinction between foreground and background rhyme — rhyme that asks to be noticed and rhyme that barely registers.  The rhyme here is pretty insistent, being full, often monosyllabic, and coming in couplets without any significant enjambment.  You can have pretty heavy rhyme in a poem and still have it stay in the background (as in, say, Philip Larkin’s “Mr. Bleaney”) but that’s not what’s happening here.  Not everyone nowadays is going to stand for this kind of fulsome rhyme, but that’s a matter of presentist bias, and I’m with David Hume on this issue when he says:

The poet’s ‘monument more durable than brass’ must fall to the ground like common brick or clay, were men to make no allowance for the continual revolutions of manners and customs, and would admit of nothing but what was suitable to the prevailing fashion. Must we throw aside the pictures of our ancestors because of their ruffs and farthingales?

So I’m a farthingale-retainer, not a farthingale-despiser, and I’d urge anyone who doesn’t want to be narrow-minded to be the same.  But we’re missing all the real action in the poem, which takes place in the relation of the speaker to the horses.  We begin with a couple of different moments in time: the present, when the speaker suddenly sees some ordinary “lumbering” farm horses in a new aspect, as something “terrible” and “wild and strange,” like a “magic power.” 
 This isn’t just the common or garden variety of defamiliarization, people: it’s the unheimliche: the uncanny moment when something is familiar yet at the same time alien.  Trust me on this: when I was gooned on Oxycontin for a few weeks after breaking my leg, the whole world had that feel, as if it was an exact yet unaccountably malevolent copy of the real thing.

Of course in the case of Muir’s poem the unheimliche nature of the horses isn’t unaccountable. The speaker immediately develops a hypothesis about why those horses seemed so strange and terrifying: they open up a kind of sense-echo with his own past experiences, playing a kind of chord on time.  This is our first clue that we’re poaching on Wordsworth’s poetic territory, where the present experience of a place or thing can open out into a memory of the prior experience of that thing (think “Tintern Abbey,” where Wordsworth contrasts his present, abstract experience of his old haunt with the immediacy of his childhood experience of the place).

What’s different from Wordsworth, though, is the way that the journey back to one’s own childhood perception is also a journey back through historic time.  That is, when Muir remembers the horses of his childhood, he doesn’t just remember the way they looked to him when he was little and impressionable.  He sees the horses as if they were manifestations of previous historical eras.  First he sees them as parts of early industrialism (when “Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill 
/Move up and down, yet seem as standing still”) where you can really see those black, greasy, cast-iron pistons.  Then he sees the horses as part of something even further back, as part of the pre-industrial agrarian past, when their “conquering hooves… trod the stubble down.”  Since this is described as a “ritual” and the horses “great hulks 
were seraphims of gold,” we get a sense of something pagan, pre-monotheistic, and truly archaic.

This sense of the evolving state of both the individual mind (the child who sees horses as terrifying versus the grown man who barely notices the lumbering beasts) and of the nature of civilization (from pagan agrarian through early industrial to modern) is typical of Muir.  In some ways it is typical of his generation — born in 1887, he inherits both the Romantic sense of the developing individual’s bildung and the late-Victorian sense of historical belatedness.  It is also something he, in some meaningful sense, lived through.  He was born to a family of small-time farmers in the Orkney islands who were run off their land by a rat-bastard of a landlord and moved to industrial Glasgow, where both of Muir’s parents and two of his brothers soon died, such being the condition of the working class in that time and place.  So his personal experience includes different phases of socio-economic development, and his sense of personal developmental time and civilizational time are often conflated.  The poet and critic J.C. Hall put it best when he said Muir “is deeply implicated in the labyrinth of his past, which is the past of all mankind.” Hall also said “the aim of all spiritual endeavor is to find a way out of this labyrinth towards the light, to rediscover the ‘drowned original of the soul” — but more about that later.  Here’s some more of the poem:

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done, 

They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun! 

The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes; 

The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes. 

But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home 

They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam, 

And warm and glowing with mysterious fire 

That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire. 

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night 

Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light, 

Their manes the leaping ire of the wind 

Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

There’s the stuff.  The broad-breasted horses in the light of the setting sun, the light coming off of them in flakes, the steaming nostrils, the smoldering heat of their bodies in the cold mud: it’s specific, and has the feel of the truly-observed.  It’s like Moortown Diary-era Ted Hughes, and every bit as good.  Maybe better.  And  it’s not just physical description, either: the snake-like furrows prepare us for the Biblical imagery of the “cruel apocalyptic light” (and for the Fall from Innocence coming soon after this passage).  The whole effect is a kind of sublimity, in that old Kantian sense of fearfulness-without-fear.  That is, we feel in the horses a physical force greater than us, something that we could not resist if it were to turn against us — but we also feel that we aren’t in direct danger, that these creatures probably don’t mean us harm.  And in standing next to something that could terrify us, but doesn’t quite make us run away, we feel not only the greatness of the external force, but also the power of something in us, something that isn’t afraid, but can appreciate the beauty of the powerful force of the horses.  We overcome our own fear, and our own sense of self-preservation, just a little bit, and experience the world from a position greater than our base interest in self-preservation.  That’s ex-stasis, or standing-outside-oneself — the ecstacy of the sublime.  You don’t find it every day.

But about that Fall from Innocence: we get it in the last stanza: 

Ah, now it fades! It fades! And I must pine 

Again for the dread country crystalline, 

Where the blank field and the still-standing tree 

Were bright and fearful presences to me.

Here the idiom is pretty heavily Romantic, both in the superficial sense (the “ah” and those explanation points) and in the profound sense of a Wordsworthian feeling for the loss that comes with age, a loss of immediacy in perception.  To rediscover this lost kind of perception is, as J.C. Hall put it, to "rediscover the 'drowned original of the soul.'" Indeed, it is for Muir as it was for Wordsworth, in  that our older, more immediate perception can be recovered only in the memory of our earlier selves, and the best way to trigger that earlier memory is to see something — an old ruined Abbey, a lumbering horse — that punctures the distance between past and present, and allows for the spontaneous overflow of a powerful feeling.  Muir contains within himself this Romantic set of conventions, the Victorian sense of historical belatedness, and a modern emphasis on presentation in images rather than talky discursivity.  We would do well, I think, to contain within our own rather different poetics a sense of a poetry like Muir’s.