Wednesday, November 24, 2010

`Witty, Eternal, and Eternally Available'

“Byron once suggested that `the end of all scribblement is to amuse.’ Auden retorts, in his Letter to Lord Byron, `Art, if it doesn’t start there, at least ends, / Whether aesthetics likes the thought or not, / In an attempt to entertain our friends.’ The notion of such a conversation, witty, eternal, and eternally available, is what I think of as the meaning of civilization.”

This comes from the preface to Epic and Epigram: Two Elizabethan Entertainments (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), a mock-epic poem by David R. Slavitt and his free translations of Latin epigrams by John Owen (ca. 1563-1622). I felt at least on the margins of civilization on Tuesday during a half-hour telephone conversation with the poet Helen Pinkerton, who has been reading Ezra Pound, of all people. She quoted one of Pound’s more influentially pompous injunctions -- “Make it new!” – and said, “That’s one of the worst pieces of literary advice ever uttered. Think of the damage it’s done.”

Not “Make it good!” or even “Make it excellent!” Instead, encourage novelty as an end in itself. Pinkerton writes sparingly, with an eye on the masters – Jonson, for instance, and Melville, and such friends as Yvor Winters, J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers. We spoke at length of Bowers, of the impacted beauty of his early poems and how some of them defy us after decades of reading, though we keep returning to them. She noted the frequent mention of journeys and friends in Bowers’ later work, and wondered if it derived, in part, from the poet’s reading of Horace. Here is Pinkerton’s elegy “For Edgar Bowers” (Taken in Faith, 2002):

“I heard that you were dead, Edgar, and wept.
I thought of times at Miramar we watched
The sun go down, the southern stars emerge,
Hearing the long roll and the crash of surf,
While we sat talking, laughing, drinking till dawn.

“Your ashes lie now by the western sea,
Quiet as those of Winters and Valéry.

“Your poems live, the spirit’s breath and seed.
Hades, who would take all, spare them his greed.”

Conversation again. Pinkerton adds, below the title, “After Callimachus,” a reference to the third-century-B.C. Greek poet. I hear an echo of lines from a Callimachus poem titled “On Himself” in The Greek Anthology (translated by Peter Jay, 1973). The poet was born in Cyrene, in modern Libya, and sometimes called himself Battiades, “son of Battos,” after the mythical founder of Cyrene:

“You're walking by the tomb of Battiades,
Who knew well how to write poetry, and enjoy
Laughter at the right moment, over the wine.”

Pinkerton and I agreed “Autumn Shade” (The Astronomers,” 1965) ranks among Bowers’ finest poems: “Thinking of a bravura deed, a place / Sacred to a divinity, an old / Verse that seems new, I postulate a man / Mastered by his own image of himself.” Bowers’ title recalls Pinkerton’s “Autumn Drought,” an elegy for Winters, her teacher and friend.

Like any civilized person, Pinkerton suggested books to read and said she would mail another packet of essays and poems. Why is Pinkerton so little read? I know at least three readers who have ordered her book based on my enthusiasm, but for each of them hundreds read the brand-name poets whose poems are unreadable. Perhaps John Owen, Shakespeare’s contemporary, had the answer. Here is David Slavitt’s translation of “To My Readers—II, 1”:

“You write for fools if you write to please everyone.
These poems of mine are not meant for the mob.
If I have a few readers, that’s good. If I have
One, that’s even better. And if no one at all
Glances at what I write?
That’s fine and dandy.”

[“Ne placeant stultis, quorum sunt Omnia plena,
Carmina non multis nostra placer volo.
Sat mihi sunt pauci lectores; est satis unus:
Si me nemo legat, sat mihi nullus erit


Eric Thomson said...

'Si nemo me legat, sat mihi nullus erit'. I don't know about the 'fine and dandy' bit, but 'nulli lectores' is just about what Callimachus' friend Heraclitus now has for his work, as only one short epigram of his survives.

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
But I just wondered who you were, and what it was you said.

Guy Hanlon parodying William Johnson Cory's famous translation of Callimachus XXXIV G-P (=A.P. 7.80):

THEY told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
 I wept as I remember'd how often you and I
 Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

In the last line of Pinkerton's elegy, 'Hades, who would take all, spare them his greed', affirmation is wisely modulated into prayer. Perhaps you have to be writing 'after Callimachus' to know that books too can become handfuls of grey ashes. Heraclitus wasn't spared, nor was the Library of Alexandria, catalogued of course by one Callimachus of Cyrene (not fifth-century B.C., by the way, but third).

William Snyder said...

Mr. Kurp,

I believe the second line of your quotation from Mr. Owen's epigram is lacking an e at the end of the word placer. That word needs to be placere (second conjugation infinitive) in order for the line to scan. No doubt a lapsus digitorum. Thanks for bringing this nice little poem to my attention.

Bill Snyder