Friday, May 18, 2007

`A Stubbornly Conservative Mind'

Thanks to Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti for telling me about David Solway, a Canadian poet I had not heard of before. In an email on Tuesday Gilleland wrote:

“Have you ever read any of David Solway's poems? He's in the news these days because of his unfashionable political views, but apparently he also writes equally unfashionable, traditional verse. I can't find much of his poetry online.”

Nor could I, but fortunately my university library has one volume of his poems, Chess Pieces, and two collections of essays: Lying About the Wolf: Essays in Culture and Education and Random Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism. The poetry collection, published in 1999 and blurbed by Peter Davison and Richard Wilbur, is devoted entirely to chess, a game that possessed me briefly and violently when I was 12. Solway’s poems are memorable for their clarity, generosity and elegance of design. He is interested equally in human nature and his craft, and a casual player’s knowledge of chess will suffice for enjoyment. Here is “Handling the Chess Pieces,” dedicated by Solway to his father:

“From handling of the chessmen you infer
the secret springs of human character.
To pluck the enemy chessman between
your fingers and replace it with your own
reveals the cultivated, well-bred
killer who cannot stand the sight of blood;
knock the chessman over with a small click
of wood on wood tells of an aesthetic
craving for the fatal instrument,
of one more passionate than violent;
to push the piece from its intended square
is signal of aggressive character
and plainly indicates that power
is the motive for committing murder;
some will hold the captured piece and caress
it nervously: these kill from cowardice;
those who seem apologetic, taking pawns
reluctantly, kill for noble reasons;
and he who clears the board with one great sweep
of his hand will kill from lack of hope,
defeated by the prospect of defeat,
as did my father only death could mate.”

I like the patient logic of the poem, its wittiness and insight into human nature. Gilleland’s right: These are deeply unfashionable qualities, but there’s nothing fussy about Solway’s devotion to the rigors of form. His poems are tight yet relaxed, lapidary yet conversational. Had Montaigne written poems, they might have resembled Solway’s. A pleasant subsidiary surprise was learning that the estimable Eric Ormsby, poet and critic, wrote the introduction to Random Walks. The piece is available online, but I want to quote Ormsby’s words at length:

“It may seem gratuitous to call attention to Solway's prose. There is scarcely a sentence in Random Walks that does not call attention to itself, sometimes slyly but sometimes in the most bravura fashion. Solway's prose, like his marvellous poetry, never resembles the inert, exiguous, virtually comestible sentences of his contemporaries who write a prose so vapid that it dissolves as it is read and, like junk food, leaves neither taste nor nourishment behind. Solway's prose, by contrast, is memorable; it is also lithe, mischievous, shapely, impudent, and ceremonial. His is a style that manages to be magisterial and agitated, in equal measure and at the same time. In my view, this is because Solway presents the distinctive intellectual phenomenon of a stubbornly conservative mind incessantly drawn to risk itself. In Solway's risk-taking, it is form - the shape of a sentence, the shape of a poem - that rescues and exposes him at every moment. This concatenation of such disparate tendencies within a single sensibility lends a sense of danger to his writing.”

How rare the pleasures of beautiful prose devoted to anatomizing the beautiful prose of another. Much neo-formalist poetry seems constipated, uncomfortably seized up by form, but Ormsby is precise in his description of Solway’s “stubbornly conservative mind incessantly drawn to risk itself,” which might also be said of Henry David Thoreau. Solway apparently has been in the news of late because of his most recent book, The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, a chronicle of his political and moral transformation since the 9/11 attacks. I haven’t read it yet but learned much about it from a recent interview Solway gave the online journal FrontPage Magazine, which was also new to me. Here’s a passage from near the end in which he sounds like a latter-day Samuel Johnson:

“The road to Heaven-on-earth passes through Hell and never re-emerges. This is the great lesson of the 20th century. All Utopian thought is deeply flawed, rooted in the Arcadian prepossession of the Western imagination, always sailing to Cythera and breaking up on the shoals. But the issue is even larger than this. The human mind is shadowed by mortality and wishes only to escape its condition, sometimes through the medium of love, sometimes through the promise of faith, most often through one or another form of forgetfulness—drugs, entertainment, even war. We kill because we have to die.

“As for the Utopian passion, it is only a reflection of this need for pyschic manumission. And, plainly, all such efforts are ultimately bound to fail. We cannot transcend our inherent debilities. Cruelty, fear, loneliness, aggression, envy, the temptations of authority are mitochondrial givens. For the fact is that whatever `human nature’ may be, it cannot be radically transformed, only to some extent modified. Politically speaking, barring the introduction of a new molecule into the gene plasm, we will have to make do with humility, a sense of limitation and a healthy dose of self-distrust. This does not mean that we cannot take sides—indeed, we must if we are to defend our nation, community, family or, for that matter, our very integrity—but we should always be ready to reconsider and adapt when new circumstances announce themselves or new information comes to light.

“Devotion to a cause does not preclude the retention of a certain cognitive flexibility. And in terms of social and political advocacy dedicated to improving the life of society, Karl Popper was absolutely correct when he wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies that beneficial and enduring social change can only occur through a process of `piecemeal social engineering.’ To rephrase Alexander Pope’s aphorism, we must not rush in where only angels do not fear to tread.”

I’m impressed with Solway as a writer of deep learning, honesty and common sense. The FrontPage interview is a rare public display of a man admitting his mistakes without, in the predictable manner of politicians and other celebrities, proclaiming his own victimization while reveling in the kudos he gets for "brutal honesty." David Warren, a writer for the Ottawa Citizen whom Gilleland also led me to, devoted a recent essay to The Big Lie. Here’s a sample:

“The larger truth he serves is the realization that we will get nowhere against the psychopathic, Islamist enemies of our civilization so long as we allow them to thrive parasitically on our own vacuous and craven left-liberalism -- parrying each new threat against us with evasion, conciliation, sophistry, and equivocation. (And on a point of honour both Christian and Jewish, the existence of Israel within defensible borders is non-negotiable.)”

How peculiar that the common sense of self-preservation should have been so anathematized. I owe a debt to Mike Gilleland for having introduced me to Solway and Warren. As I told him in an email, I feel Columbus-like, having discovered a new wonder-filled continent. In Chess Pieces, published two years before the 9/11 attacks, Solway includes a poem eerily prescient of his coming disillusionment and rebirth as a realist, titled “The Next Crusade”:

“So, returned from the wars,
few trophies, many scars;
have made obeisance
to my phlegmatic prince
and shuffled from the hall
blessed by the cardinal.
(The queen was rather brief,
gave me her handkerchief.)
The great lords risked little,
kept their tents in battle,
kept their heads to the last
and filled the treasure chest.
Nor have I love to spare
for all these cavaliers:
some went for adventure,
and others, I am sure,
because they loved to kill,
some to display their skill
at graceful caracole
or dye a lady’s shawl
in rich Saracen blood.
The common soldiers shed
some cold retreating sweat
but now have little doubt
of valour in the field.
I swear at times I’m filled
with treasure of contempt
to think that I have camped
with cowards, parasites,
shirkers, lordlings, prelates
and all that scurvy brood.
Just wait. The next crusade
I’ll hear a different drum,
enter Jerusalem –
but as a captive knight
and loyal proselyte.”

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