Sunday, August 31, 2014

the subject is simply preaching



I wasn't slack in my speeches, he says, in parliament – you were sharp, I agree, you were the opposite of yourself as a poet, relaxation, sweetness, psht, you were impatient: “Preaching on the subject is simply preaching, whether the thing be worked up in the best infernal patterns and coloured with brimstone, or full of sympathies and sentiment and graceful mournings for what is holiest and loveliest in woman,” you said when you were talking about prostitution in 1859, but poetry is like a different species to you, you let it erase so much of you – it's a place to be beautiful, he says: it's the right outlet pipe or dwelling place for beauty and peace. I'm going to find someone who disagrees with that, I say (of course there are people who disagree, he says, but they didn't write my poems).

What about Dora Wilcox (1873 - 1953), in the same anthology as you?

Why Dora Wilcox? he asks – we were talking about nostalgia and I thought of her, I say. In London (1905).

When I look out on London's teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
My courage fails me, and my heart grows sick,
And I remember that fair heritage
Barter'd by me for what your London gives.

Then she describes the past; she recalls details --

   Nor shall I hear again
The wind that rises at the dead of night
Suddenly, and sweeps inward from the sea,
Rustling the tussock

She grieves. Then she examines her grief.

Yet let me not lament that these things are
In that lov'd country I shall see no more;
All that has been is mine inviolate,
Lock'd in the secret book of memory.

Then she decides that there is another purpose for memory, it is not only there to make her “heart feel sick,” it is a point of access; she can use it. She gets her courage back. (“My courage fails me.”) She had a little focus, one person standing or sitting still, looking at the road and thinking, but now she has a large focus, going, finding, “walking unconstrained,” accompanied by sympathetic presences, though in London she is not accompanied by anyone, “speech seems but the babble of a crowd” in London.

… walking unconstrained
By ways familiar under Southern skies;
Nor unaccompanied; the dear dumb things
I lov'd once, have their immortality.
There too is all fulfilment of desire:
In this the valley of my Paradise
I find again lost ideals, dreams too fair
For lasting; there I meet once more mine own
Whom Death has stolen, or Life estranged from me, --
And thither, with the coming of the dark,
Thou comest, and the night is full of stars.

Your point? he says -- that she is using her poetry unpeacefully to pursue, like an eagle, and you are using yours to perpetuate a stasis or present moment with music and with soft opposites that cancel one another out more or less: the lovers then the “field of slain,” these two given such similar weight that neither one exists and they fray apart under the pressure of being the same thing; in her the “teeming” crowds are less important than a convolvulus, and the nightingale is not as beautiful as the bellbird. We can't all be Dora Wilcox, he says.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

baby's fading bloom



I tell him that I still don't respect Song for the Night. But you read De Quincey, he says. Yes I say, but we like different things in him; De Quincey's eccentricity (which is attention) led him to unusual convolutions or crevices (On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth) but you are the opposite, look, you write glosses, “her baby's fading bloom,” nostalgia for younger days at the nanny's knee … do you know how many poets in this anthology are suffering from nostalgia, I say: it's an epidemic – don't blame me for Bertram Stevens' taste in poems, he says, and don't tell me there's not nostalgia in the poems being published in your lifetime.

No, that's true, I say; I was reading the Island interview with Gwen Harwood earlier today and she said that she was “nostalgic even for five minutes ago.” When did she die? Nineteen ninety-five. And how many poems have I read about a living poet's dead father. But you can be suspicious of nostalgia, the way Geoffrey Hill is, or measureful, you can mediate between the past and the present (books mediate between the past of the writer's writing and the present of the reader's reading, say that writers themselves are measuring nostalgia), you can be Harwood and regard the past as if it's a courtroom where you go to be condemned in the present --

Good angel
give me that morning again
and let me share, and spare me
the shame of my parents' rebuke

she writes in Class of 1927 (I can't replicate her layout; the "good" should be over to the right) -- or

Anguish: remembered hours

when she recalls her mother in Mother Who Gave Me Life -- or you can have a more holistic grief, like the one that Cyril Connolly published in The Unquiet Grave, which is one of the books, Harwood says, that brought her towards poetry --

When I contemplate the accumulation of guilt and remorse which, like a garbage-can, I carry through life, and which is fed not only by the lightest action but by the most harmless pleasure, I feel Man to be of all living things the most biologically incompetent and ill-organized. Why has he acquired a seventy years life-span only to poison it incurably by the mere being of himself?

-- or you can say just, “Oh, nostalgia, alas,” as if it's one-dimensional and not part of you, and you were one of the ones who said, “Oh, nostalgia, alas.” You're slack.

I still have form in my poem, he says: which is a subspecies of ruthlessness, or a slaughterhouse, like memory. (Touché.) You keep ignoring that. I did mention music, I mutter; I said the whole purpose of the poem was music – then why are you criticising it for sticking to its bones? he asks, if you've already said that the bones were the point?


Sunday, August 24, 2014

brought about by that power of gentleness



Reading over Daniel Deniehy again I imagine him coming back at me like this (but in his own words, not these): “That's not true. My Song for the Night doesn't exist for 'no reason.' Night is sweet and charming and I love those things, I value those things, I have dedicated myself to kindness” (tears seriously in his eyes), “kindness and fairness – no hereditary aristocrats! I argued in parliament when Wentworth wanted to create a peerage in Australia. 'It is yours to offer them a land where man is bountifully rewarded for his labour, and where a just law no more recognises the supremacy of a class than it does the predominance of a creed,' I said. Bountifully rewarded. People will be good if you're good to them; we should offer education to all adults in the Mechanics' Institutes, but you teachers, don't patronise the students.

'As if two-thirds of those who never rank themselves at all with what is specially termed “the working classes” are not as thoroughly illiterate, in every true and deep sense, as the most culture-lorn mechanic who planes cedar or hammers leather; and as if every human being is not going through a course of education from the cradle to the grave.

'I was educated in sorrow myself, as I got older: 'she whom De Quincey called ‘Our Lady of Darkness’ has laid her awful hand upon my heart,' I told my wife in a letter, and we should fight back against that 'Mater Tenebarum,' as he calls her: 'she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all;' my fight is so little – my weapon is so little – poor Night. Leigh Hunt, another weapon of mine.

'There was too much boyish goodness and sweetness in him to sympathise very heartily with the fiercer struggles of men. At his heart was for ever the whispering consciousness that things might be better brought about by that power of gentleness of which he has sung with a grace more delicate than the graces of the Sicilian muse he so loved. He was right, if men would only look upon the thing as the loving poet did. But, meanwhile, Leigh Hunt had philosophy as well as pleasure on his side. “Nothing,” says Goethe, “is an illusion that makes us happy.”


'Suggestive mysticism, that's what Night is, not time-wasting, and if Wordsworth thought it was worth it then so do I. 'One of the best things in the essay is a defence of Wordsworth's suggestive mysticism against Jeffrey's unfair demand for absolute definiteness and perspicuity in poetry,' I said in my review of Walter Bagehot's Essays. Read my poem Love in a Cottage. I respect the simple pleasures that suggest a larger principle at work: 'A cottage small be mine,' that's the crux of everything; my wife in To His Wife might be pretty or she might not but I don't talk about it because the important thing is her kindness. She is 'solace for this wrung and rifted heart' from go to whoa.

'For me, who for this thronging world’s hot strife
A prize hath brought to be
Among the known—but sweet too dearly earned;
Ah, pray for me.

'Be moved by me: I drank myself to death in Bathurst. 'Occasionally, at night, I feel more depressed and wretched than I think any human being, in Australia at all events, ever before felt. I keep at home, not going out or visiting anywhere, entering no hotels, and if from intense depression I take a little brandy, it is only in my own room at night,' is what I wrote to my wife fifteen days before I vomited blood and collapsed in the street. I was promising, I was witty, I was charismatic; they still remember me today when they use the words, 'bunyip aristocracy.' My phrase! 'Few would recognise the once gay and genial Member for Argyle in the poor, broken, prematurely aged man, tottering with feeble steps and staggering gait along the least frequented paths of the city where his bright, hopeful boyhood had been passed.' (E.L. Martin in Life and Speeches of Daniel Henry Deniehy (1884) quoting a character sketch by 'an impartial and kindly eye-witness — the Hon. Geoffrey Eagar.') De Quincey in Levana: 'Therefore it is that Levana often communes with the powers that shake a man’s heart: therefore it is that she dotes on grief.'”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

choose, fair ones, to rove



Daniel Deniehy the “graceful singer” admired the work of Charles Harpur (1813 - 1868), an early Australian poet who, like Fowler, gave J. Sheridan Moore a stab in the guts. “I was further induced to take the course I have followed, in consequence of the recent reproduction, in an obscure sectional weekly newspaper, of an illiberal criticism, by Mr. CHARLES HARPUR, on one of my poems, a criticism which I hope that gentleman will yet have the honesty and manliness to modify, and which, I am sure, the public will never endorse.” So he published Spring-Life. Where's that criticism now? I can't find it anywhere but Spring-Life has been uploaded as a .pdf by the University of Sydney. Left there like a sort of dropping deposited by the criticism.

He seems to have been easy to stab, Moore, a reactive and critical person, one who wanted standards applied, and hence his involvement with the Month, a literary journal that was supposed to set a nice tone in the colony, bringing him up against the will of Charles Harpur. "Moore was esteemed by some but condemned as a charlatan by the native-born members who distrusted him and F. E. T. Fowler because of their snobbish emigré valuation of literature propounded in the Month" (from The Austraian Dictionary of Biography).

Bertram Stevens puts him in a group with Deniehy and a few other poets. “D. H. Deniehy, Henry Halloran, J. Sheridan Moore and Richard Rowe contributed fairly good verse to the newspapers.” Bad praise but he added him to the Anthology anyway.

O the Night, the Night, the solemn Night,
 When Earth is bound with her silent zone,
And the spangled sky seems a temple wide,
 Where the star-tribes kneel at the Godhead's throne;
O the Night, the Night, the wizard Night,
 When the garish reign of day is o'er,
And the myriad barques of the dream-elves come
 In a brightsome fleet from Slumber's shore!
      O the Night for me,
      When blithe and free,
Go the zephyr-hounds on their airy chase;
      When the moon is high
      In the dewy sky,
And the air is sweet as a bride's embrace!

(from A Song for the Night)


Four verses Deniehy spends messing around like that before he gets to the punchline.

      Wide is your flight,
      O spirits of Night,
By strath, and stream, and grove,
      But most in the gloom
      Of the Poet's room
Ye choose, fair ones, to rove.

In between you have a dying baby and “heaps of slain” “on the battle plain,” which, if you take the poem seriously, should be disquieting, this poet bouncing past corpses so that he can climax with imaginary spirits in his room. They “rove,” they fly, they pass, they do nothing concrete; they are flâneurs but not interesting flâneurs since they see nothing with their own eyes; they are an atmosphere and Song for the Night is a prose atmosphere. The deaths are there because he has already mentioned lovers, “Love in their eyes, | Love in their sighs,” and the key to Night is metamorphosis, “sacred Night,” “charming Night,” “wizard Night.” There is love, then there is death; it is a dramatic contrast. The purpose of this poem is to make you wait while it goes past; it is like a piece of music with “night” as a motif. There are no lovers, there are no babies, the writer and the reader have to tacitly agree that none of these things exist, they are not even honestly suggested to have existed, they are nothing but a passing impression of flavour or smell; they are a bit of coloured dye in clear water. The words are supposed to sing, not mean and the challenge for the author is a strange kind of pure aesthetic challenge: can he detain a piece of your time for virtually no reason; can he demote or muffle boredom?


Sunday, August 17, 2014

many brave soules losd



I search for old examples of the word "song" together with "poetry," in order to prove my own point to myself or to somebody else (then wondering why and who but pausing too briefly over it and pushed along by my own momentum, which has to be partly anxiousness stimulated by the sight of a thin old man pulling a Subway wrapper out of a bin – there are too many – like the children of Jude the Obscure, “The children were past saving, for though their bodies were still barely cold it was conjectured that they had been hanging more than an hour“ -- there are so many "past savings" here, mad, mad, lying on shirts, rocking on top of electrical boxes -- the box was under a mesquite tree -- in a desert at a hundred and ten nobody is mad enough to sit in the sun; you would have to be sane and stubborn --) -- that the conflation of poets with singers used to be normal and now it isn't.

“Sing, Heav'nly Muse,” says Milton in 1664, “I thence | invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song.” He abducts, with the word “Heav'nly,” the pagan Muse from Homer and upgrades it to a new technology of worship, a habit that Alexander Pope continued after him in 1715 when he translated the opening lines of the Iliad: “Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring / Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!”

Milton could read his Homer in Greek but if he had looked at a translation then it would probably have been Chapman (c. 1559 - 1634), who starts his own Iliad with the more commanding word “resound.”

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.

His Muse, in the opening lines of the Odyssey, will not sing, she will inform. “The man, O Muse, inform.” "Inform" is sort of accurate according to the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither, author of A Nearly Literal Translation of Homer's Odyssey Into Accentuated Dramatic Verse (1869), who chooses “tell.” “Tell me, oh Muse.”

The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;
That wandered wondrous far, when he the town
Of sacred Troy had sack'd and shivered down

Alliteration, I think as I look at those lines, is the sign of oral transmission. In prose it is like a pawprint from an animal that has gone past. Chapman's Muse doesn't sing but his poet sings. “To hear a poet sing the sad retreat | The Greeks perform'd from Troy.” Why does his “sack'd and shivered” town sound familiar? The anonymous Pearl Poet used the same seesaw before him in Gawain and the Green Knight: “troye […] brittened and brent.”

(Adrian West recently blogged about the artistic excitement of women being hurt. Troy, too, beaten, bashed, always popular.)

In 1961 Robert Fitzgerald brought the opening of the Odyssey closer to Milton -- “Sing in me, Muse” -- an observation that, if you take it on its own, with no other examples around to modify the idea, contradicts the point I was trying to make earlier; and the substitution of the word “sing” for “make poetry” has not been falling out of use for at least the past hundred years, because, look, it was being used in 1961 while Bigge-Wither in 1869 completely ignored it. John Donne, in The Triple Fool (1633), distinguishes between poems made silently and poems sung aloud.


    I am two fools, I know,
    For loving, and for saying so
        In whining poetry ;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
        If she would not deny ?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
    Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
    Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

    But when I have done so,
    Some man, his art and voice to show,
        Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
        Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

his quiet way



There is an abundance of evidence that singer and sing can be synonymous with poet and write, but when was the last time I saw anyone praise a poet by calling them a graceful singer, which is the phrase that The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907 – 21, in eighteen volumes) uses to describe the Australian poet Daniel Deniehy (1813 – 1868)? The same History says that J. Sheridan Moore (1828 – 1891) “sang in easy style of Australian scenes;” and the writer himself asserted that it was his duty to “sing” -- Vignette --

Vignette.

In the shining day —
In the shadowy night —
On his quiet way —
'Mid the world's fierce strife —
Where the flowers bloom —
Where the forests fade —
When his soul's in gloom —
When in light arrayed —
The Poet, to his instinct true,
Sings: — 'TIS THE WORK HE IS CALLED TO DO

-- is the first piece in Spring-Life: Lyrics (1864), which might be his only poetry collection, “an honest and affectionate, if not very valuable, contribution to the Literature of Australia,” as he tells you in the preface, “I am no poet, in the high and true sense of the word,” he says; I am a man who has written some incidental verses and sold them to “newspapers, or the pages of magazines.” One of the pieces was going to be set to music. “When I first wrote them, it was my intention — and I had hopes at the time of being able — to issue a series of Australian Songs, with appropriate music by some of our best composers. […] I hope I may yet be able to accomplish my first purpose, and issue a series of Australian Songs, which, both as regards Music and Words, will do us no discredit in the judgment of those who form the highest tribunal of Art-Criticism in London.”

He is so apologetic that he seems actually ashamed of the book and not just modest, but he will publish anyway because other people have been stealing his poems. “I allude more particularly to the cool and skilful appropriation made in Texts for Talkers (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860), where extracts from pieces of mine are given as the productions of one OAKFIELD.” Once Spring-Life is published they will not be able to steal from him any more and OAKFIELD will not steal anyway for OAKFIELD is dead, “beyond the reach of praise or censure,” and OAKFIELD never existed, you realise, when Moore writes about “a sly hint ... elsewhere prefixed [in Texts for Talkers], to the effect that “OAKFIELD” and the author of the “Texts” are identical” -- then who was OAKFIELD? -- if he was “the author of the “Texts”” then he was Frank Fowler, a British journalist who lived in Sydney between 1855 and 1858, a man that Moore was “familiar” with, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. “Well known, if not universally popular, in Sydney's literary milieu, Moore was familiar with such men as N.D. Stenhouse, Richard Rowe, James Lionel Michael, Daniel Deniehy, W.B. Dalley, Henry Kendall, John Woolley and Frank Fowler, and edited the Month.” Fowler co-founded the Month.

When Fowler went back to London he published a memoir in which he seems to praise Moore, not by name but with a piece of code that the Sydney gang would have understood, when he opens a list of “The weekly press, in Sydney” with the words “a carefully-edited Catholic journal.” That journal was named Freemans and Moore was the editor from '56 to '57. Fowler's memoir, Southern Lights and Shadows, was published in 1859. He died four years later at the age of thirty.

When I remember that Texts was published in 1860 and Moore made his accusation in the preface only one year after his colleague was dead, I wonder if the news of the death had acted on him like a word of permission.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

imagine singing



What about the other poets in the Anthology?

The first time I read Bertram Stevens' choice I came away with a quick impression of softness and grandness or quietness and grandness, the language of grandness (“gold,” and “purple” objects, verbs happening “oft”) without royal aggression: here were people who would rather talk about roses than say anything satirical, here nostalgia was the fad, never comedy – and even on a second and third look it's not a funny book, Stevens not a man who cared about humour in poems (see his selection from Banjo Paterson -- nature things and Clancy of the Overflow), and Walter Murdoch in 1918 wasn't mad keen either, in The Oxford Book of Australasian Verse – still, the different level of attention in the second and third go-arounds penetrated that first impression and now I realise that a few poets like John Farrell (1851 – 1904) had the impatience that I smelt faintly, faintly when I was reading Bathgate's Sydney.

“The noisiest find quiet graves,” is the way he sums up the deaths of British adventurers abroad in Australia to England (1897), which may not look like much but when I saw him write in close phrases through the whole poem I thought that here was a poet whose ideas came to him so vividly that they came as song.

“I imagine singing I imagine | getting it right,” wrote Geoffrey Hill once, and Paul Muldoon, talking about T.S. Eliot in 2011, said, “He has a great ear, a rarer and rarer commodity these days, even among fairly highly regarded poets.” Ezra Pound is an advocate of song in The ABC of Reading. It's possible that Hill, who admires Pound, was echoing the ABC when he associates “singing” with “getting it right.” But Hill is hard on himself and uses absolutes. Not “getting it acceptable” but “getting it right.” “Either the thing moves, RAPMASTER, or it | does not,” is what he believes* in Speech! Speech!, the enjambment reminding me of the same before the word “mute” in Wordsworth's There was a Boy, which I would not have thought of if Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git hadn't written about it in July.

The moment of silence before the admission of incapacity, that's what I'm looking at, does not speak in one case, does not work in the other. “Hopefully, RAPMASTER, I can take stock | how best to oút-ráp you.” There's always something to live up to. (The Moldovan bots have overtaken the Russians in my stats.)

* He challenges the value of movement ("I disclaim spontaneity, | the appearance of which is power") but not the fact of it. "I wíll | mátch you fake pindaric for trite | violence, evil twin."