Sunday, January 15, 2012

`Eternity Is Here'

Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade is a literary novelty with serious intent, a treat for seasoned readers of Nabokov’s novel. Gingko Press of Berkeley has extracted the 999-line poem by the fictional John Shade, printed it in chapbook format with facsimiles of the index cards on which Shade (like his creator) composed his poem, and a booklet with essays by Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd and poet R.S.Gwynn. All of this is handsomely boxed and illustrated by Jean Holabird, who conceived the project. Earlier, Holabird created Vladimir Nabokov — Alphabet in Color, a visual realization of the novelist’s much-celebrated synesthesia.

Beyond its novelty appeal, the project’s serious intent is its defense of “Pale Fire” as a poem and Shade/Nabokov as a poet. Boyd writes in his essay: “We have not paid Shade and his poem the respect, the care in reading, they deserve.” When I first read Pale Fire in high school more than forty years ago, the critical consensus seemed to be that the poem was little more than doggerel, a pretext on which to hang Charles Kinbote’s mad reading. I was confused because I liked the poem, starting with its instantly memorable opening couplets:
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

I was also moved by the sad story of Hazel Shade, the poet’s daughter, and even then I could hear echoes, admiring or parodic, of Pope, Eliot and Frost. For me, a teenager drunk on literature, the poem and surrounding apparatus seemed like great fun. In his essay “`And if my private universe scans right’: `Pale Fire’ and Its Creative Context,” Gwynn considers the unpromising state of American poetry half a century ago when Nabokov published his novel – the confessional school, Beats, and so forth. Gwynn writes:

“Nabokov was a spirited observer of and sometime combatant in various literary skirmishes, and I contend that `Pale Fire’ represents a counterpoise between the academic orthodoxy of Eliot and the assault of the poetic barbarians who Nabokov doubtless felt were at the gates. Its full stature as a poem of its times has not, I feel, been appreciated, for it has often been seen by critics as merely another Nabokovian conceit, a literary `excuse’ for Kinbote’s fantastic commentary.”

Gwynn goes on to make an intriguing suggestion: Nabokov may have modeled Shade, at least in part, on the poet-critic-teacher Yvor Winters. The novelist and his wife Véra met Winters and his wife, the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, in 1941 (the year Lewis published her finest novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre). Nabokov had come to teach Russian literature and creative writing at Stanford University, where Winters had arrived as a graduate student in 1927 and would remain as a professor until his retirement almost forty years later. Gwynn describes their “cordial social relations,” and suggests why they may have remained friends:

“…they were both fluently multi-lingual, both somewhat displaced in their respective academic departments, both politically liberal but aesthetically conservative, and both firmly married to lifelong partners. Both also wrote important treatises on English prosody. Like Nabokov, Winters made statements about his contemporaries that were sometimes brutally candid, and he did not hesitate to refer to the shortcomings of fellow writers with whom he was personally friendly, among them Hart Crane, Allen Tate, and Malcolm Cowley.”

Gwynn devotes three pages to his conjecture, judging Winters “a plausible choice” as a model for Shade: “The most striking confluence between the real poet and fictional one is to be found in their scholarship and use of meter and form.” Winters, he notes, became  “a serious metricist who worked in the couplet, quatrain, and sonnet until the end of his career. The heroic couplet became his form of choice, and some of his best poems employ it.”

Gwynn quotes lines from a poem Winters composed around 1930, “The Marriage,” and cites others. In one of the last poems Winters ever wrote, “A Song in Passing,” dating from the early nineteen-fifties, I hear echoes of the themes Shade/Nabokov will weave into “Pale Fire” a decade later:

“Where am I now? And what
Am I to say portends?
Death is but death, and not
The most obtuse of ends.

“No matter how one leans
One yet fears not to know.
God knows what all this means!
The mortal mind is slow.

“Eternity is here.
There is no other place.
The only thing I fear
Is the Almighty Face.”

It's a comfort to think of two literary masters of the last century becoming friends, and remaining so in the fictional realm. Gwynn concludes:

"It is easy to see why Nabokov may have found [Winters] compatible both socially and aesthetically, and I have little doubt that some elements of John Shade's life and biography honor the memory of this encounter of like minds."

1 comment:

George said...

The first stanza sounds a bit like a knockoff of Emerson's Brahma, but with Nabokovian dexterity.