Wednesday, December 16, 2009

`Crags Cranks Climb'

Every day from here in the city I see mountains. All summer I marvel at snow glowing on the summits. Born in Cleveland, I never lived within sight of vertical rocks until I was 32 and had moved to the mostly flat stretch in upstate New York between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. In the Midwest, the horizon is plane geometry; in the Pacific Northwest, fractals. Both have their charms but I find mountains best appreciated from a comfortable distance – from my backyard or the seat of my car. I have vertigo and prefer the understated to the emphatic. Majesty can be overbearing.

I’ve come across works by two writers who liken mountains to the work of two other writers whom they admire. For Basil Bunting, the Alps suggest the grandeur and unavoidability of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Here is his 1949 ode “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos”:

“There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et l├ęger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

“There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!”

For Bunting, modern poetry is unimaginable without Pound’s example. Even Philip Larkin had to acknowledge the Cantos, if only to dismiss their pretentiousness and incoherence. I suspect Larkin never went “a long way round” Pound’s work. He quickly deduced it was irrelevant to his purposes and went to work, as did Auden, Bishop, R.S. Thomas, Gunn, Bowers, Cunningham, Hecht, Justice and other major non-Poundian poets. To his credit, Bunting includes scree – heaps of rock fragments – in his alpine inventory.

In a chapter devoted to John Wesley, Ronald Knox writes in Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion:

“We do not form a just appreciation of Shakespeare if we think of him as an isolated phenomenon, a lonely meteor flashing through the skies of post-Catholic England. We have to see him in relation to a background; some acquaintance with Johnson, Webster, Ford, Massinger, and those other clients of the Mermaid is necessary before we can fix him in his right niche. He is not a solitary peak, but the summit of a range.”

Knox’s image is less vivid than Bunting’s and probably reflects a less personal, more accurate literary assessment. Imagine if, with identical words, Bunting were writing of Shakespeare and Knox of Pound. Both judgments would probably be inarguable and thus less interesting. There’s no avoiding Shakespeare. Pound, despite Hugh Kenner, is one among many Modernists. It’s easy to get lost in the mountains, which is one of many reasons they’re best appreciated from a comfortable distance.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I love mountains, and I love the dueling mountain quotes, and what they suggest about Pound and Shakespeare, the writer without a text and the text without a writer, respectively.

Pound, as Bunting points (ha-ha) out, is forbidding, incongruous, dangerous to know, but, in terms of the Modern Tradition, he can safely be said to have discovered it, and to evade that fact is to miss much of what was important in the 20th century – for example Frost, Eliot, Williams, Yeats, Joyce, Moore, Stein, Hemingway, Zukofsky, Olson, all of whom would probably be unknown today if not for Pound. His centrality to things (like the Alps) is what forces us to have to contend with the Cantos – incomprehensible and deeply personal hieroglyphs of a mind ever-hurtling between peaks of genius and insanity, apogean vision and narrow-minded prejudice (like a billy goat, I suppose).

Shakespeare is an entirely different animal altogether, perhaps an eagle that can see great distances and speak clearly of what he has seen, for all of us. While I agree with Knox that we turn Shakespeare into a God perfectly formed from the head of Athena too easily, Knox’s associations are complete bullsh**. Is he a scholar or some kind of prankster?

We can only focus, in all this personality jive, on the text itself:

The Poem That Took The Place Of A Mountain - Wallace Stevens

“There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactness
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.”