Saturday, October 30, 2010

`All Is Order There, and Elegance'

Today is the birthday of Paul Valery (1871-1945) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972), neither of whom I wish to write about except to note that Eugenio Montale, a greater writer than either, said of the former that he was “a poet who is not of today, but who remains contemporary,” and of the latter that he gave the impression of “a man who had not grown up” (both from The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays, 1982). Rather, I want to write about my friend working for a relief agency in Sudan who, as a birthday present, sent me nine pages of the commonplace book he has been keeping since taking the job in Africa. He writes:

“In Kay Ryan's `That Will to Divest,’ she talks about how hard it is to stop divesting oneself of things once you start. I have found that even with a few pages of excerpts from my favorite literature I seek constantly to cut those excerpts down to the essential words, sometimes ruining the poetic whole; thus you'll see a lot of ellipses.”

I understand the culling instinct. Reading is distilling and discarding, boiling down to essentials, dispensing with the ephemeral, especially as we get older. Like other animals, as winter nears we gather only energy-rich sustenance. I know Gary’s tastes pretty well, so I’m not surprised to find Auden, Baudelaire, Frost and Larkin in his commonplace book, but William Tecumseh Sherman (Memoirs, 1875) was unexpected:

“I would define courage to be a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it.”

So too is a song from John Dryden’s blank-verse adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1679). Gary quotes only lines two through five of the second verse but I’ll give the entire song:

“Can life be a blessing,
Or worth the possessing,
Can life be a blessing if love were away?
Ah no! though our love all night keep us waking,
And though he torment us with cares all the day,
Yet he sweetens, he sweetens our pains in the taking,
There's an hour at the last, there's an hour to repay.

“In ev'ry possessing,
The ravishing blessing,
In ev'ry possessing the fruit of our pain,
Poor lovers forget long ages of anguish,
Whate'er they have suffer'd and done to obtain;
'Tis a pleasure, a pleasure to sigh and to languish,
When we hope, when we hope to be happy again.”

The song is sadly and happily erotic, and says something about desires of all sorts. And then I think about Gary working in so punishing a place, knowing he would point out the rewards of living there, and then I think of the passage he cites from Baudelaire’s “L'Invitation au voyage”:

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté

In Richard Howard’s translation:

“All is order there, and elegance,
Pleasure, peace, and opulence.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I don’t imagine you intended this, but you’ve taken back the mantle of the modernist spark from the likes of Pound – a Dryden in disguise – to Baudelaire – a Dryden undisguised. A love of tradition can lead to bitter reaction and mutation but it can also lead to a vision of the primitive as the utmost in order and elegance.