The poem that foretold modernism

Mallarmé and modernism — "Consider its title. Bloch points out that Jamais (Never) is out of sequence for an ordinary French sentence, where it would conventionally follow the verb. What then motivates this terrible “Never,” with its abnormal, jarring priority? What is this extreme of negativity that cannot be gainsaid?" (The New Republic)

T.S. Eliot on Dante, contra Valery

From The Sacred Wood — ...if it be maintained that the older poetry has a “philosophic” element and a “poetic” element which can be isolated, we have two tasks to perform. We must show first in a particular case—our case is Dante—that the philosophy is essential to the structure and that the structure is essential to the poetic beauty of the parts; and we must show that the philosophy is employed in a different form from that which it takes in admittedly unsuccessful philosophical poems.

Ian McEwan on the novella

"I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers... "The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel...

"The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel (even if we could begin to agree among ourselves on what comprises a good sentence). The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life. It doesn’t need or look for perfection. “Great” novels are not perfect novels. You might improve “Anna Karenina” by altering the clumsiness of the description of the station master’s peaked cap—a much-discussed example. And I always want to take a blue pencil to Emma Bovary’s overextended death throes (it makes me suspicious that Flaubert wept over her), though I never doubt the novel’s greatness..."

Published in the New Yorker

"For Nature daily through her grand design breathes contradiction where she seems most clear..."

For Nature daily through her grand designBreathes contradiction where she seems most clear, For I have held of her the gift to hear And felt indeed endowed of sense divine When I have found by guarded insight fine, Cold April flowers in the green end of June, And thought myself possessed of Nature's ear When by the lonely mill-brook into mine, Seated on slab or trunk asunder sawn, The night-hawk blew his horn at summer noon; And in the rainy midnight I have heard The ground sparrow's long twitter from the pine, And the catbird's silver song, the wakeful bird That to the lighted window sings for dawn.

(Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, sonnet 26)

The original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished."

Charles Rosen in an essay titled "The Frontiers of Nonsense," published in The Frontiers of Meaning: If getting used to music is the essential condition for understanding, it is hard to see just what purpose is served by writing about it. A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art itself teaching us how to understand it, and makes the critic not merely parasitical but strictly superfluous. This is not an unprecedented dilemma but one in which the critic of literature found himself at the end of the eighteenth century, when the function of criticism as an act of judgment crumbled before his eyes. The accepted criteria that had served so well for centuries began to seem the heritage of an alien culture; it no longer required any courage, or provoked any surprise, to question the authority of the classics, and it became almost commonplace to assume that the models given by Homer, Virgil, and Horace were no longer relevant to the literature of contemporary Europe. With the realization that absolute standards were not valid for new civilizations and different cultures, critics were compelled to derive their measures of evaluation from each culture in turn, and then from each individual author, and finally from each work. Standards could no longer be imposed from outside or in advance, and critics finally recognized that a new work was capable of establishing its own system of values. Here is the basis for Wordsworth's famous affirmation that an original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." The more traditional, straightforward exercise of judgment was left to journalists. Critical evaluation was transformed into understanding, and criticism became not an act of judgment but of comprehension.

This is the legacy of Romanticism, and critics who would like to maintain or return to absolute standards have been protesting it without much success for almost two centuries. Whether there is, in fact, anything constant or invariant about aesthetic appreciation is irrelevant -- even if there is, it must be on a level of such generality that it can never help us in any given instance. Our sensuous appreciation of the world and of the works created by man has, no doubt, a biological foundation, one shared by all human beings, but that is no use to us when we try to evaluate a Bach fugue or a Dostoevsky novel -- or even the simple experience of a landscape, as our delight in the view of a mountain or a waterfall is also determined by the traditions of our culture. The coexistence of different criteria of judgment is, in any case, by now a fact of life. Beethoven cannot be judged or even understood by the standards of Mozart, however much he may have continued them, nor Berg by the standards of Wagner or Richard Strauss, nor Elliott Carter by the values of Ives and Stravinsky. A work of music can be only partially integrated into history, although that partial integration may be inescapable: it also demands to be listened to as if nothing had come before it and nothing was to come afterward.

The paradox was stated explicitly in that manifesto of Central European Romanticism first published in 1799, the Athenaeum, at the beginning of the section of book reviews:

"Excellent works generally criticize [characterize, or review] themselves, and in this respect it is superfluous for another to perform yet again the very task that the author has doubtless already done. If such a criticism, nevertheless, is a work of art (as it always ought to be), then its existence is anything but superfluous; but it stands entirely for itself and is as independent of the written work criticized as this itself is independent of the material treated and described within it."

This proclaims the independence of the critic, which may here be equated with the freedom of the artist; and it must be recognized that a small degree of irresponsibility is necessary for a critic with any self-respect. Without that irresponsibility the work of criticism is indeed superfluous. If the principles of judgment are to be drawn from the work of art itself, it is clear that its creator has already done that, even if only implicitly.

"No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief..."

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief? My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing — Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling- ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."'

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Heine and forgiveness

As quoted in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: "Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies -- but not before they have been hanged."

"...at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction."

"Don't be too harsh to these poems until they're typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction; in ordinary mss. they look as if they might be altered at any moment." (Dylan Thomas, in a 1938 letter to John Davenport.)

Mallarmé: Homage to Richard Wagner

The silence now funereal of a pallSpreads more than one fold on this furniture Which must with lack of memory bestir A collapsing of the central pedestal.

Our old triumphal sport of the magic book, Hieroglyphs exciting many still To spread with wings a too familiar thrill! -- Bury it rather in a cupboard-nook.

From smiling loathed original uproar To those of mighty splendors has sprung forth In temple courtyard for their image fashioned,

Loud golden horns aswoon on vellum, the god Richard Wagner glittering consecration Ill silenced even by ink in sibylline sobs.

Wittgenstein and poetry

Garrett Caples at the Poetry Foundation — "I came to poetry fairly late; that is, I was probably a senior in college before I could read it with anything like enthusiasm. This was a direct result of studying Wittgenstein with James Guetti, an eccentric, disgruntled professor of English at Rutgers University. Jim’s passions seemed to be gambling (horses, cards, dice), fishing, writing, and drinking. (A former football player at Amherst College, he also loved sports, but you didn't bet on sports, because that was unsportsmanlike.) Yet somewhere along the way—after 1980, to judge by his published work—he added Wittgenstein to the mix of his obsessions, culminating in his 1993 book Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, whose publication fortunately coincided with the period during which I studied with him. Would I have become a poet without encountering this man and, through him, Wittgenstein? I’m inclined to say no."

Georg Trakl's "Soul of Life" (1913)

Decay, which gently darkens the foliage,Its wide silence dwells in the forest. Soon a village seems to incline ghostly. The sister's mouth whispers in black branches.

The lonely one will soon slip away, Perhaps a shepherd on a dark paths. An animal steps quietly from the arcade of trees, While the eyelids widen before divinity.

The blue river runs beautifully past. Clouds appear in the evening; The soul also in angelic silence. Transient shapes go under.

"Dank fens of cedar; hemlock-branches gray..."

Dank fens of cedar; hemlock-branches grayWith trees and trail of mosses, wringing-wet; Beds of the black pitchpine in dead leaves set Whose wasted red has wasted to white away; Remnants of rain and droppings of decay, — Why hold ye so my heart, nor dimly let Through your deep leaves the light of yesterday, The faded glimmer of a sunshine set? Is it that in your darkness, shut from strife, The bread of tears becomes the bread of life? Far from the roar of day, beneath your boughs Fresh griefs beat tranquilly, and loves and vows Grow green in your gray shadows, dearer far Even than all lovely lights and roses are?

(Sonnet VI of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman)

From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Byron)

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society where none intrudes, By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less, but Nature more, From these our interviews, in which I steal From all I may be, or have been before, To mingle with the Universe, and feel What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean--roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the earth with ruin--his control Stops with the shore;--upon the watery plain The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own, When for a moment, like a drop of rain, He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

His steps are not upon thy paths,--thy fields Are not a spoil for him,--thou dost arise And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields For earth’s destruction thou dost all despise, Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies, And send’st him, shivering in thy playful spray And howling, to his gods, where haply lies His petty hope in some near port or bay, And dashest him again to earth: —there let him lay.

Dylan Thomas, man and myth

"I suspect that there is another factor that has somewhat complicated the reception of Dylan Thomas and still complicates his reputation in this centenary year of his birth; and that is embarrassment – a degree of cultural and political embarrassment to start with – over a writer whose near-total indifference to politics is still startling and whose attitudes to women are likely to win few allies today. But there is a deeper embarrassment yet. For so many male readers, he is the quintessential poet of adolescence. How many of us were convinced on reading him that this was what poetry was really like, heady, incantatory, obsessively sensual? How many proceeded to write terrible imitations of him in the back of school notebooks? That is what people wince over: the young Dylan, with his off-the-peg bohemianism, his obscure, symbolically coded resentments, his wild and frustrated sexuality, can look, to the literary (male) adult, like the fearful caricature of a half-forgotten self. And that embarrassment reinforces the element of caricature in depictions of him. Even the recent BBC drama about his last days in New York, with its splendid performance from Tom Hollander, reached for the mythological dressing-up trunk."

Musicians (Jan Zwicky)

I pass a bunch of musicians in the street.
It’s about 12.30, rehearsal just over, they’re
standing around outside the side door of the church.
A good rehearsal; and it’s April. They’re laughing,
horsing around, talking about shoes, or taxes, where
to go for lunch, anything
except what their heads are full of.
It’s a kind of helplessness, you can see
they’re still breathing almost in unison, like people
the searchlight has passed over
and spared, their attention
lifts, swerves, settles; even
the gravel dust stuttering at their feet is coherent.

Jan Zwicky, Musicians

Sonnet XVII (Frederick Goddard Tuckerman)

Roll on, sad world! not Mercury or Mars
Could swifter speed, or slower, round the sun,
Than in this year of variance thou hast done
For me. Yet pain, fear, heart-break, woes, and wars
Have natural limit; from his dread eclipse
The swift sun hastens, and the night debars
The day, but to bring in the day more bright;
The flowers renew their odorous fellowships;
The moon runs round and round; the slow earth dips,
True to her poise, and lifts; the planet-stars
Roll and return from circle to ellipse;
The day is dull and soft, the eave-trough drips;
And yet I know the splendor of the light
Will break anon: look! where the gray is white!