Tuesday, August 07, 2012

`The Murmur and Hum of Their Morning, Forever'

In the April 1928 issue of The Dial, the influential arts and literary magazine she was editing, Marianne Moore printed a brief review of The Wheel in Midsummer, a 21-page collection of poems by Janet Lewis. It was Lewis’ second book, published by The Lone Gull of Lynn, Mass. Moore’s review, which like many of her poems is composed mostly of quotations, is brief enough to quote in full: 

“Extensile, hair-fine sensibility informs these poems, and their subject matter—safely imperceptible to the profane—is to be reverenced; `violets minute and scarce where the great ants climb,’ `dear among the withered asters,’ `fish paler than stones,’ the badger’s children creeping sideways out,’ `sunlight and daylight fading upon the air like sound.’”

Moore’s review (reprinted in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, 1986) is almost poetry, with vocabulary borrowed from Henry James. “Extensile” I associate with spiders and their webs. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us “capable of being stretched out; extensible” and, for its second meaning, “of the tongue, a tentacle, etc.: Capable of being protruded.” One thinks of a feeding frog or lizard, though the first sense might apply to the extensile filament of James’ late prose. All citations for “extensile” in the OED date from the nineteenth century, but a little reflection brings up Eliot on James’ sensibility: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” This gets quoted as a punch line or comic putdown. In fact, Eliot, writing in The Little Review in 1918, is complimenting the novelist. Eliot’s preceding sentence reads: “James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence.” Among the poems included in The Wheel in Midsummer is “Remembered Morning”:

“The axe rings in the wood
And the children come,
Laughing and wet from the river;
And all goes as it should.
I hear the murmur and hum
Of their morning, forever.

“The water ripples and slaps
The white boat at the dock;
The fire crackles and snaps.
The little noise of the clock
Goes on and on in my heart,
Of my heart parcel and part.

“O happy early stir!
A girl comes out on the porch,
And the door slams after her.
She sees the wind in the birch,
And then the running day
Catches her into its way.”

Lewis has already moved beyond her earlier Imagist manner. She uses rhyme. She enacts “a baffling escape from, Ideas.” Not that ideas are absent; rather, they suffuse the language, and there’s no need to hammer them home. In his preface to The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000), R.L. Barth rightly describes her as a “domestic poet,” citing her frequent references to “gardens, housework, children, domesticated animals.” He also calls her an “occasional poet” because she writes about “quarrels between friends, birthdays, friendship.” Barth precisely characterizes Lewis’ “hair-fine sensibility”:

“Let me be honest, though: such adjectives – whether applied to war poets, domestic poets, or whatever kinds of poets – merely address the superficial, that is to say, the subject matter. Any perceptive reader recognizes immediately that, whatever their domestic subject matter, the themes of many of the poems transcend the merely domestic: love, death, memory, acceptance. We must not confuse the subject matter with the themes.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...


Your comments on Janet Lewis's poems, added to Bob Barth's acute observations, have given me new insights into the beauty of her "domestic" poems. Who else has caught those perceptions of daily life as memorably as she has?