Reading Evan S. Connell's Points for a Compass Rose I began thinking about tautness in poetry -- why? -- because I was trying to work out why this poem (book-long, but that wasn't the reason) seemed so idle, and why my attention kept floating away while I was reading it.
Oddly, it's a busy poem on the surface -- a full, full poem. Connell, American, who published the Compass Rose in 1973, has taken his cues from Pliny and Robert Burton* and chocked the work full of historical anecdotes, quotes, facts, for example, "Eggs laid by the roc, or Aepyornis, / measure 13" in length, 9" in width, / each shell holds two gallons of fluid" or "truly ancient bronzes, / those which have lain in the earth for centuries, / acquire a pure blue color like that of the kingfisher" or "The Derbikkai who inhabit the Caspian littoral / punish every crime with death, according to Strabo" or "William II of England felt a cold wind pass through his side; / the next day Tyrell's arrow killed him" or "Jean Fouquet / commissioned to paint the king's mistress, Jeanne Sorel, / depicted her as the Virgin Mary with an aureole / of angels," and so on. I can open to any page and find four or five or six interesting stories. So why (I wondered) am I not riveted?
I thought the answer might lie with his narrator, who is a chatty man, prissy, with a habit of summoning your attention. "Look," he says, or, "Listen," or
Now come closer. Sit next to me.
What would you like to hear?
I deal mostly in mysteries and fables
The prissiness, or aloofness, or verbal self-protection, comes through in his throwaway words and phrases: "indeed," "You may know or you may not," "I don't presume to know," "I must say," "Quite a few years," "What I'm getting at," "If it pleases you / to believe them, very well," "I consider," "Permit me," "I would perhaps suggest." He has a personal story too: he is American, the Vietnam war is on, he is afraid that his son is going to be called up, and he is angry at the politicians and journalists who are promoting the war. Here, perhaps, is a reason for his self-shielding language, which acts like a verbal padding: he is hurt and depressed, as well as learned, and so his agitation expresses itself pedantically.
"The character," you might say, "feels overwhelmed by the past and the present, and so he tries to control the only thing left to him, which is speech. "I consider strict control essential," he says at one point. (Here his creator is poking fun at him: the rest of the poem lets us know that strict control is impossible.) He refines his meaning by qualifying it; at the same time he makes it baroque with stock phrases. Perhaps he is numbing himself with these cushions. Perhaps he is full of self-doubt. He sees the massive complications of the past, and its viciousnesses, and he says to us, Look! Listen! We do this over and over again. Vietnam is the contemporary version. He tells us about Mongols who slaughtered their enemies, and about ridiculous instances of humankind trying to identify an enemy so that it can be punished -- "A host of beetles that ravaged the vineyard / of Saint Julian were commanded to appear in King's Court" -- and then stories about witches hanging themselves in their cells, and about German soldiers carrying bat wings to protect themselves from harm, and from this he concludes that people are irrational, volatile, and superstitious."
But this is nonsense, the character feels nothing and does nothing, he is being written by a poet, and the poet is overdoing it -- overdoing the interjections, I mean; there are too many of them -- or (I think now, remembering Ezra Pound's Cantos) underdoing it, in other words, he is not utilising the possibilities of the character as a character. When Pound brings in a voice that takes the long way round, as Connell's narrator does, he gives the roundaboutness a comic point. He exaggerates the fussiness.
So far as I can concerned, it wd
Give me the greatest possible pleasure
or be more acceptable to me,
And I shd. like to be party to it, as was promised me,
either as participant or adherent.
As for my service money,
Perhaps you and your father wd. draw it
And send it on to me as quickly as possible
Under all the politeness we're talking about money. (It's interesting, as an aside, how writers who acknowlege the power of money -- Christina Stead, Balzac, Pound here -- are often so meaty and funny as well as acid, despairing -- look, they say, people have such elevated pretensions, but living thwarts them. Money to these authors is like food in Rabelais, it's an earthy, dirty need.)
And looking at Pound I think of something else about Connell: he doesn't have the puns and wordplay of other poets -- he lacks the basic element of surprise, an elementary pleasure. Les Murray in his recent short poem The Conversations draws on the same mass storehouse of folk tale and Aubrey-fact, but he does it brusque and crisp:
A full moon always rises at sunset
and a person is taller at night.
Many fear their phobias more than death.
The glass King of France feared he’d shatter.
Chinese eunuchs kept their testes in spirit.
The heart of a groomed horse slows down.
A fact is a small compact faith,
a sense-datum to beasts, a power to man
even if true, even while true—
we read these laws in Isaac Neurone.
In "The glass king of France" and "Isaac Neurone" I see the creator's alert joy-with-words that I was expecting from Connell (my brain saying, "This is a poem, therefore it will be like this …" an expectation that comes from exposure to other poets besides Murray and Pound -- opening the Selected Gwen Harwood I find her punning -- "Dad the Impaler!" -- and opening the Selected of Geoffrey Hill I find him riffing on "lilies of the field" with "lilies of the veldt." Opening Milton I see him rrrolling on words like a fat seal on a rock: "Restore us, and regain the blissful seat," "To mortal men, he with his horrid crew"). There are moments when his train switches tracks from one thought to another -- surprises there -- but these moments are softened by the long relaxed feel of the thing, those throwaway "indeeds" and "If you wills," and other words that have nothing to do with the character of the narrator, but seem to be there for no reason at all, like this "countless" and "the very finest:"
In Peru is an aquaduct of hewn stone and cement
Extending countless miles across sierras and rivers. .
There is also an artificial garden whose soil
Is composed of the very finest flakes of gold
Prose can cope with that kind of chatter (the reader more likely to expect expansion and length), but in poetry even a small unnecessary word is a roadbump. "Poems are short fast religions," says Murray, and "In expressing the inexpressible poetry remains close to the origins of language," says W.S. Merwin, but those null-words and stock phrases are something other than the origin of language, perhaps they are a return to a state of pre-origin -- for if words were invented to describe objects and state intentions then those throwaways do neither; they establish empty space, describe nothing, state no intention, and fill the role of grunts and ums, pre-language space-fillers and gropings -- and the brain of the character seems introverted; it shrinks back and flops its hands out in despair.
* He mentions both of them, and Herodotus too I think. Here's his Burton:
What next? Burton asked leave to establish before us
a stupend, vast, infinite ocean of incredible madness
and folly -- a sea of shelves and rocks, sands, gulfs,
Euripuses and contrary tides clogged with monsters,
uncouth shapes, roaring waves, tempests and Siren calms,
Halcyonian seas, unspeakable misery, such Comedies
and Tragedies, such preposterous ridiculous feral and
lamentable fits that he knew not whether they were more
to be pitied or derided, or be believed