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?

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