Friday, September 07, 2012

`In Naked Sunlight, on a Naked World'

As the epigraph to his second novel, Butcher’s Crossing (1960), John Williams uses the final seven lines of “The Journey,” subtitled “Snake River Country,” by Yvor Winters: 

“Outside, the bare land stretching far away;
The frame house, new, fortuitous, and bright,
Pointing the presence of the morning light;
A train’s far screaming, clean as shining steel
Planing the distance for the gliding heel.
Through shrinking frost, autumnal grass uncurled,
In naked sunlight, on a naked world.” 

Winters wrote “The Journey” around 1930, when his transition from experimentalism to traditional iambic meter and prosodic forms was well under way. The change was not a “sudden intellectual or religious conversion,” Winters later said, but started because he could not use Imagism to write poems comparable in quality to those by the poets he most admired -- Baudelaire, Valéry, Hardy, Bridges and Stevens. According to his student Helen Pinkerton, “The Journey” is based on the four-day train trip Winters made in 1925 between Boulder, where he graduated from the University of Colorado, and Moscow, where he taught for two years at the University of Idaho. 

In Butcher’s Crossing, a young Harvard graduate, Will Andrews, journeys west in the 1870s and stops in Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, where he meets two men who seek their fortune hunting buffalo in the Colorado Rockies. The subsequent scenes of butchery and gore make for uncomfortable reading, what Winters in “The Journey” calls “a mortuary dream.” We can understand why Williams chose the passage, even beyond the geographical overlap: “In naked sunlight, on a naked world.” “Naked” is a uniquely complex word, implying both innocence and its opposite. A “naked world” is at once Edenic and vulnerable, Adam waiting to fall. The Oxford English Dictionary offers, among its forty-nine gradations of meaning, “bare, destitute, or devoid of something,” “unfilled, unoccupied, clean” and “lacking or defective in some quality, skill, etc.; esp. lacking in rhetorical art.” 

Winters favored the word during this transitional period. In “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills” he refers to “the naked salty shore, / Rank with the sea, which crumbles evermore,” and in “John Sutter” he writes: “Across the mountains, naked from the heights, / Down to the valley broken settlers came.” Winters never uses the word to describe a person, only places, and only in “The Journey” is “naked" so freighted with meaning.

No comments: