Monday, June 21, 2010

`The Principle That Is Hid'

In our encounters with some things we feel attraction and repulsion in virtually equal proportions: pâté, pink, Pound’s poems. There’s no precise word in English for this state – ambivalence is nebulous and over-emphasizes repulsion. That’s a shame because with some things indifference is not an option but neither is hearty endorsement. We’re venturing into terrain Henry James mapped, where discrimination is measured by the nuance, and shades of gray, that misunderstood color, are numberless.

Take the snail. While carrying trash to the bin I saw it on the wall of the shed – the spiraled shell gray-brown and wider than a nickel, its “stomach-foot” marbled with more grays and browns. I see their mucous trails on the patio at the back of the house but most days the snails disappear with the dawn. This one trailed glue, foot and eye-tipped tentacles extended, moving in perfect perpendicularity to the roof line. Its life-saving coat of snot is repugnant. So are fantasies of its foot suction-cupped, Alien-fashion, to one’s face. But the shell is exquisite, a marvel of calcium carbonate, Fibonaccian perfection (see Paul Valery’s Sea Shells), even this drab little specimen. In “To a Snail,” Marianne Moore never mentions its beauty, repugnance or, thank goodness, its proverbial slowness:

“If `compression is the first grace of style,’
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, `a method of conclusions’;
`a knowledge of principles,’
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.”

Is “feet” here a unit of prosody? The quoted phrase in the first line is from On Style, a treatise by Demetrius, the Greek critic from the third century B.C., though in her notes Moore identifies the author as Democritus. She names Duns Scotus as the source of the other quoted material. Her interest is aesthetics not natural history. The snail’s strategy, like the poet’s, is clandestine.

An hour later, the sky still low and gray, the snail was gone, leaving only a dry glistening trail.

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