Tuesday, July 24, 2012

`A Single Perfect Line'

“Sometimes a single perfect line can make an entire otherwise undistinguished poem memorable.”

So writes Helen Pinkerton in an email, pointing out something I’ve often thought but never articulated.  Even mediocre, middling, inept, fashionable and over-inflated poets can pull off noteworthy lines or phrases. Consider the conclusion of “To a Dead Journalist” by William Carlos Williams: “beneath the lucid ripples / to have found so monstrous / an obscurity.” And Whitman, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “I too knitted the old knot of contrariety.” And Pound, from “Canto XXXVI”: “He draweth likeness and hue from like nature / So making pleasure more certain in seeming.” In each case, sound and sense are pleasing and memorable, counter to their authors' customary practice, though one must grope through the surrounding murk to find such illuminations.

This shouldn’t surprise us. With mathematics and musical composition, no human endeavor is so difficult, no gift so rare, as the poetic art. (Prose is a little more forgiving.) Two or three first-rate poets per generation represent a bumper-crop, as do two or three first-rate poems per poet across their lifetimes. Dreck is the default mode, genius the scarcest of exceptions, a reality aggravated by the standards of an age in which anything goes. Art is the least democratic and most ruthless of masters. It doesn’t recognize sensitivity, fairness or anyone’s good intentions – writer’s, reader’s, critic’s. Nothing else, only the work, counts.

3 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Yes, poetry is a particularly ruthless art to its practitioners. Few are called, fewer are chosen. But if one loves the art form, or any art form, it’s easy to forgive the “dreck”, for it’s all part of the same yearning, the same voice. Mathematically speaking, the commonalities between artists are far greater than the differences, but it is in the nature of tyrannical readers (and egotistical writers) to pretend otherwise. It’s one thing to reduce T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to four readable short lyrics, say, or limit my appreciation of Richard Wright’s haiku to the ones that involve rats, those are things done out of love; quite another to dismiss Hart Crane because he was a drunk or deny William Carlos Williams’ music because he was a political radical or pretend against all reason and morality that Edward de Vere wasn’t writing about his life when he penned what are universally considered the greatest poems in the English language. This reveals an ignorance of how ruthless the art really is, it is the province of parasites and wanna-be’s.

marly youmans said...

Sure art's ruthless, and that is as it must be. But all those now-forgotten souls: surely many of them were the more beautiful and larger on the inside because of the pursuit of truth and beauty. One can't claim that after modernism because so many artists are after something other than beauty and truth...

Comment on the first comment: I believed in Edward de Vere as Shakespeare for about six weeks in high school when I was arguing in favor of my English project. The Earl of Oxford and I were quite thick for a time.

People devoted to that idea ought to contemplate the power of living an observant, word-and-muse-loving life--that combined with the presence of some patrons and stimulating people following one's own vocation, plus a bit of education and the ability to pick up what one needs for the work like a magpie snagging silver. And then who needs the aristocracy to explain Shakespeare?

William A. Sigler said...

Marly Youmans-

At least you got six weeks of De Vere in high school! My experience was one long unrelenting tribute to the inscrutable duck-man who sprung fully formed out of the head of Zeus to write plays of unimaginable passion and wisdom as some abstract exercise in imaginative penmanship, who shot straight up through stratified Britain to stage enough intricate and true court espionages to make even Moliere fear for his head, and who signed his will with an X to give among a blizzarding array of non-literary items (that some hapless students undoubtedly still have to memorize) his second best bed to his wife. God knows what damage it did to my emerging critical sensibilities, not to mention my sense of logic and evidence. The Stratford theory is just ridiculous beyond belief, and the fact that anyone chooses to hold on to it with all that’s emerged in the past 20 years is astonishing and a testimony to the seemingly endless ability human nature possesses to hold on to entrenched beliefs no matter how outrageous or moribund (Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions comes to mind). Truer than truth (Shakes-peare) was the De Vere family motto, and his plays were written for the most intensely personal and autobiographical reasons: to play out the vicarious enjoyments, to exact the most acute justice, to vent the emotions, passions and spleen of a man frustrated, unfulfilled and truly out of time – out of position – out of favor, one seemingly with all the luck in the world on the surface but none of it in reality, a towering poetic genius trapped, in of all the personages and places on Earth, in an aristocrat’s body at the Elizabethan court, a ward and son-in-law of one of the most cunning political operatives in documented human history (whose actual speeches were put into Polonious’ mouth in Hamlet). I could go on with facts so numerous and references so striking but why is this still something to be debated? It sickens me that we have collectively wasted so much time fooled by Ben Jonson’s little riddle instead of enlarging the shine and scope of the work itself with the reflecting lights of De Vere’s own amazing and tragic life. There are generations of scholars ahead with untold riches awaiting. You apparently will be s.o.l.

Bill