Saturday, June 30, 2012

`The Momentary Beauty is Attendant'

“Centuries from now, should our ancestors sort through the ephemeral artworks that rubbished the last century and, moreover, should they observe how even the truly lasting work seemed disproportionately obsessed by the ephemera and detritus of our culture (The Waste Land syndrome), they may wonder: Was there any poet who examined our world—regarding its weaknesses, imperfections, and evils—and fashioned the kind of  permanent statements that the lyricists of the English sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the Italian thirteenth century, or the epigrammists of Classical Rome, crafted out of and for their own?”

Clear-sightedness, unclouded by fashion, vulgarity, politics and narcissism, is so rare as to be almost extinct, certainly among academics. Posturing posing as poetry is among the “smelly little orthodoxies” of our day. To suggest that Olson, O’Hara and Olds, strictly speaking, were never truly poets, is to risk the loss of almighty hipness. Poetry has been euthanized by its practitioners, with assistance from critics, professors and readers, and few have the will to point out the stinking corpse.

“If they do so inquire, that will be a very good thing—and for two reasons. It will mean, of course, that poetry has survived the complicated (not to say sophisticated) nihilism and materialistic hedonism of our literary and artistic culture during the last century, despite all the odds. Furthermore, it will be in that light that [Helen] Pinkerton’s work shows to its best advantage. Too quiet and rational to attract the attention of the loquacious emotivists crowned evanescent monarchs in our media age, Pinkerton’s work holds up well in a higher standard of judgment with a longer historical sense. She compares well with John Donne and George Herbert, while between her work and that of the likes of Lynn Hejinian, David Antin, John Ashbery, or Mebdh McGuckian there is no intelligible comparison at all.”

The polemicist happily at work here is James Matthew Wilson, a poet, assistant professor of humanities and Augustinian traditions at Villanova University and an editor at Front Porch Review. From him I ordered his recent monograph, Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line Press, 2012), and Four Verse Letters (Franciscan University of Steubenville Press, 2010), and he threw in a reprint of his “From Being to Faith: The Poems of Helen Pinkerton,” published in the spring issue of the journal Renascence. The consecutive quotations above are drawn from the latter.  In 2009, Wilson published “The Realism of Helen Pinkerton” in Christianity and Literature. Almost single-handedly, Wilson is celebrating Pinkerton’s small body of poems, some sixty of them collected in Taken in Faith: Poems (2002), drawn from more than half a century of work. He writes:

“In her handful of poems, Pinkerton has provided American literature a number of masterpieces in several poetic genres; some of her lyrics stand up among the most accomplished, and certainly the most intellectually sophisticated, of meditative poems of the last century.”

One feels almost hopeful again when a young scholar draws sensible conclusions. In our midst is a great poet ignored by the self-appointed arbiters of poetry. Here is one of the masterpieces, to use Wilson's word, a poem he doesn’t discuss, “Visible and Invisible”:

“In touching gently like a golden finger,
The sunlight, falling as a steady shimmer
Through curling fruit leaves, fills the mind with hunger
For meaning in the time and light of summer.

“Dispersed by myriad surfaces in falling,
Drawn into green and into air dissolving,
Light seems uncaught by sudden sight or feeling.
Remembered, it gives rise to one's believing

“Its truth resides in constant speed descending.
The momentary beauty is attendant.
A flicker of the animate responding
Shifts in the mind with time and fades, inconstant.”

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