Thursday, November 19, 2009

`Covert Emotion'

Thanks to Bill Sigler for passing along a link to “Ancient Chills,” a recent essay published at “Poetry Daily.” In his accompanying note Bill writes:

“It's by Eric Ormsby, someone you turned me on to (thank you), who is just about the most incredible poetry critic I've ever read (as you can probably imagine, this is not the kind of praise I give out easily). What's amazing about the essay is that his compelling case for why Elizabeth Bishop is important works equally well for someone like me who doesn't think she's important.”

Unlike Bill, I set Bishop on a lofty perch among 20th-century poets but I endorse his evaluation of Ormsby. The poet-critic’s nominal review of two recent Bishop titles is a model of how an excellent essay, in the proper hands, can be spun from anything. A review-as-essay absorbs the books at hand – and many more – and disregards the Consumer Reports approach to criticism. It aspires to be at least as well written as its subjects and represents a mingling of minds, a mingling that seems most fruitful when the minds are sympathetic. To use his word, Ormsby’s poetry is “gaudy” – like Stevens’ and Moore’s --and Bishop’s is not, yet the two poets are alike in their attention to the details of the world. Ormsby is very good on what Robert Lowell called Bishop’s “famous eye”:

“…Bishop in fact depicts things sketchily. The details out of which she assembles her sea- and landscapes are prosaic, unobtrusive, dowdy…On the evidence of her best work, this was a matter of aesthetic—and perhaps even moral—principle. There was a prim, almost Shaker simplicity to her eye. If her peculiar way of seeing became `famous,’ that was not because it was conspicuously acute, but because it was chaste. Hers was a renunciatory eye. It scoured objects of superfluity with the force of a solvent.”

Ormsby’s gloss on Bishop’s method might apply to Chekhov, a writer she prized. There’s no showing off, nothing superfluous (not even a self-conscious minimalism), nothing tacked on from the outside as ornament or artistic ego-booster. Sound is sense and a poem is an animated job of work. Ormsby is not an uncritical admirer of Bishop’s work, but it’s not her eye he questions:

“Accuracy is in fact of the essence in any consideration of Bishop's poetry. Those of her poems that fail—and there are a surprising number of such failures preserved in the Library of America edition—do so more often than not because they're imprecise in matters of tone and feeling.”

I’m pleased to see Ormsby dismiss Bishop’s most overrated poem, “One Art,” as “shameless bathos.” On Wednesday, after reading Ormsby’s essay, I returned to a play I happened to be reading earlier in the day and found this passage:

“A barren detested vale, you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
O'ercome with moss and baleful mistletoe:
Here never shines the sun; here nothing breeds,
Unless the nightly owl or fatal raven:
And when they show'd me this abhorred pit,
They told me, here, at dead time of the night,
A thousand fiends, a thousand hissing snakes,
Ten thousand swelling toads, as many urchins,
Would make such fearful and confused cries
As any mortal body hearing it
Should straight fall mad, or else die suddenly.
No sooner had they told this hellish tale,
But straight they told me they would bind me here
Unto the body of a dismal yew,
And leave me to this miserable death…”

The lines are spoken by Tamora in Act II, Scene 3, of Titus Andronicus, the pulpiest of Shakespeare’s play. She’s accusing Lavinia and Bassianus of luring her to this forsaken place, and trying to provoke her sons into killing them. I chose these lines because (1.) They’re not King Lear. (2.) They are middling lines from inferior Shakespeare. (3.) I’m rereading the play for the first time in almost two years (after watching Titus, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role), and didn’t remember this passage. They are certainly “imprecise in matters of tone and feeling,” though that sums up most of the play. They are filled with detail, almost nothing but detail, but it’s all a matter of surface, like a cheesy set in a horror movie. Like “One Art,” but unlike “Cape Breton” (a great Bishop poem examined at length by Ormsby), we remain untouched and unconvinced. Ormsby writes:

“Though Bishop’s descriptions appear to be plain and direct, almost documentary in presentation, they’re freighted with covert emotion [again, as in Chekhov’s stories], though it isn’t always obvious what the emotion may be.”

Ormsby’s evaluation of Bishop's work is admirably even-handed, though not in the wishy-washy fashion of soft-headed reviewers. He writes of the “unpublished poems and drafts” originally collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox (2006) that they “contain quite forgettable poems; indeed, most of them are rather awful, and one can see why Bishop refrained from publishing them. While these poems don’t damage her reputation, as some have feared, they don’t enhance it either, except perhaps by demonstrating just how hard Bishop worked to perfect the work she did make public.”

That may be the highest praise one poet can pay another: She worked slowly and hard, seldom published inferior work and was her own severest critic. If only this were true of more poets.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

No, the highest praise a poet can give another poet is to steal shamelessly, followed by stealing furtively, followed closely by acknowledging in public another poet's existence. I suppose praising a poet's “restraint” for not writing much in a literary journal like Parnassus might be fourth.

There's a certain tyranny, I think, to the cult of the tongue-tied in poetry, the tendency to worship every scrap written by poets so careful and self-critical they found themselves unable to publish much. The readings become as overwrought as the writing, silences praised where in another they would be ignored. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that most – if not virtually all – poetry is bad poetry, and it is a colossal annoyance to have to read it* – better to polish off the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and feel you have a solid grounding in Eliot than be overwhelmed by the daily weaving of worlds-upon-worlds like a kaleidoscope around a central idea, pulling in past, present and future, as one would see in, say, Whitman.

Speaking of “sprawling on a pin,” I feel as if I have to add my own voice to your shout-out vis-à-vis Bishop. First off, I acknowledge that for someone who followed Berryman almost literally to the cold rails of the (later collapsed) Minneapolis bridge, there’s a psychic necessity in valuing Bishop. But I find her too artificial for my tastes; her careful constructions of surfaces too-often seem to me like walls to hide behind. I loved your Charles Lamb quote about an actor ennobling a stage chair into a rarefied presence. The great ones do that (Nabokov?), but there is also room for just showing us the chair in all its humbleness and rickety splendor, as Chekov does, saying “this is the real; there is no other.” My issue with Bishop is that she doesn't really want us to see the chair at all, because it is too painful to look at:

“He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

"Yes . . ." that peculiar
affirmative. "Yes . . ."
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means "Life's like that.
We know it (also death)." (Bishop, from “The Moose”)

This is big stuff purposely made small. I prefer the small stuff roughed large:

“I knew a clean man
But he was not for me.
Now I sew green aprons
Over covered seats. He

Wades the muddy water fishing,
Falls in, dries his last pay-check
In the sun, smooths it out
In Leaves of Grass. He’s
The one for me.” (Lorine Neidecker)

* The same, of course, cannot be said for reviewers, who we need daily to keep our own juices flowing.