Thursday, June 27, 2013

`Have They Legs & Eyes?'

Ron Smith isn’t much of a poet but I have to be grateful to any writer who, for at least a few lines, can make me laugh out loud. In Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), “The Southern Poet Reads Emerson” begins: “When he reads Emerson, / he smells shit…” And it concludes: 

natural facts are symbols
of particular spiritual facts.’
Bullshit, he thinks. Still,
he smiles.” 

The line quoted is from the fourth chapter, “Language,” of Nature, in which Emerson goes on to write: “Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” Well, no, it’s not. Sorry, Ralph, but we’re just not that central to creation. A Southerner confronting the spectacle of a nineteenth-century New England Unitarian Neo-Platonist has much cause for grievance and contemptuous laughter. Look at what Emerson wrote at age nineteen, after graduating from Harvard, to John B. Hill, a friend teaching in a school near Baltimore: 

“What kind of people are the Southerners in your vicinity? Have they legs & eyes? Do they walk & eat? You know our idea of an accomplished Southerner – to wit – as ignorant as a bear, as irascible and nettled as any porcupine, as polite as a troubadour, & a very John Randolph in character & address.” 

In 1844, in his journal, Emerson writes that South Carolina excludes “…every gentleman, every man of honour, every man of humanity, every freedom from its territory. Is that a country in which I wish to walk where I am assured beforehand that I shall not meet a great man? that all the men are cotton gins? where a great man [like Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance?] cannot live, where the people are degraded, for they go with padlocked lips, and with seared conscience?” Here, anti-slavery sentiment turns into old-fashioned Yankee bigotry. Emerson’s Southerner is a smugly drawn caricature. 

Few sensations are so satisfying as seeing the arid and pompous knocked down a peg or two, even if the humor is a little adolescent. Emerson had a gift for fine phrases, and he was not a stupid man, but “Bullshit” is a fitting epitaph for his inveterate high-mindedness. Such irreverence is healthy-minded. I think of Tom Disch’s “At the Grave of Amy Clampitt,” published six years before her death, and of his “The Art of Dying” (Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poems, 1989): 

“Mallarmé drowning
Chatterton coughing up his lungs
Auden frozen in a cottage
Byron expiring at Missolonghi
and Hart Crane visiting Missolonghi and dying there too 

“The little boot of Sylvia Plath wedged in its fatal stirrup
Tasso poisoned
Crabbe poisoned
T.S. Eliot raving for months in a Genoa hospital before he died
Pope disappearing like a barge in a twilight of drugs 

“The execution of Marianne Moore
Pablo Neruda spattered against the Mississippi
Hofmannsthal’s electrocution
The quiet painless death of Robert Lowell
Alvarez bashing his bicycle into an oak 

“The Brownings lost at sea
The premature burial of Thomas Gray
The baffling murder of Stephen Vincent Benét
Stevenson dying of dysentery
and Catullus of a broken heart”

1 comment:

Pavonine99 said...

"Such irreverence is healthy-minded."
Perhaps I'm misinterpreting you, but I don't understand how dismissing someone long dead and possessed of genuine talent with "bullshit" merely because his view of reality did not conform to your own constitutes "healthy-mindedness".
Also, while Emerson's comments were more than a little distasteful, claiming they smack of "Yankee bigotry" suggests a great deal of resentment, which I'm sure was not your intention. The bigotry was Emerson's, not "the North's."