Sunday, February 13, 2011

`By One Single Electric Shock'

In a letter to Allen Tate in 1927, Yvor Winters writes:

“My belief is that it is possible to touch certain obvious physical facts of existence in such a way as to invoke -- or evoke -- or expose -- as by one single electric shock an entire existence or phase of existence.”

The date is pertinent. Winters was abandoning his use of Imagist techniques and adopting more traditional forms, willing himself into being a major poet, and soon he would write “The Marriage,” “The Journey” and “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills.” Later in the letter he tells Tate:

“If there is any perfection in [my] poems it is, I fear, the product of labor rather than dexterity. It is only recently…that I have felt myself to move neatly and freely. The rest is an infinitely slow and painful accretion -- I cannot begin to tell you how painful -- sheer agony.”

What's most interesting about Winters’ letter is his mention of “one single electric shock,” the power that rare poems possess to evoke “an entire existence or phase of existence.” As examples he cites Dickinson’s “The last night that she lived,” Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” and Williams’ “To Waken an Old Lady” (Sour Grapes, 1921) and “By the road to the contagious hospital” (Spring and All, 1923). The Dickinson is a marvel, a novel in twenty-eight lines. The second stanza:

“We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as ’twere.”

The poem justifies Winters’ judgment of Dickinson in In Defense of Reason: “But except by Melville, she is surpassed by no writer that this country has produced; she is one of the greatest lyrical poets of all time.” Of course, Winters judges poems, not poets. In the same essay, he writes:

“Her meter, at its worst—that is, most of the time—is a kind of stiff sing-song; her diction, at its worst, is a kind of poetic nursery jargon; and there is a remarkable continuity of manner, of a kind nearly indescribable, between her worst and her best poem.”

True of Dickinson, and of Melville, both home-schooled American prodigies and eccentrics. Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” is a great solemn moment, a poem made to be memorized and grown into. As to the Williams’ poems, I partially dissent, as Winters himself often did. When he reviewed Sour Grapes in Poetry in 1922, he judged “To Waken an Old Lady” “as perfect and final as Herrick.” I don’t see it (where’s the wit, the music?), though in “By the road to the contagious hospital” Williams successfully evokes existence: “One by one objects are defined.” Most of Williams’ poems are too anemic to evoke anything other than the words on the page.

Inevitably, one is tempted to think of poems that pass Winters’ “single electric shock” test. A few nominees: George Gascoigne's "Soone acquainted, soone forgotten," Fulke Greville’s “In night when colours all to black are cast,” Edgar Bowers’ “Autumn Shade,” Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” Wallace Stevens’ "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm” and Winters’ “A Summer Commentary.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I love the six "electric shocks" you've chosen significantly more than the death-fixated ones Winters chose. Yours have more metrical oomph, more grieving, more closely held secrets. Dickinson's is a dutiful, journalistic account of all the things that we all know happen at these times. The Hardy is an almost cliched poetic moment rendered with great virtuosity and brauvara. As for the Williams, puh-leez, "The Yachts" these are not.

But it would be hard to single out poems that give actual electric shocks. I suppose my tastes in this matter run toward things like this uncollected fragment of Rilke's (tr. Stephen Mitchell):

"Being arches itself / over the vast abyss
Ah the ball that we dared, / that we hurled into infinite space
doesn't it fill our hands / different with its return:
heavier by the weight / of where it has been."