Monday, June 24, 2013

`Recorded in Faultless Words'

From “Thoreau the Thorough Impressionist,” published by Jacques Barzun in the spring 1987 issue of The American Scholar (collected in The Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002): 

“Why, then, do I call Thoreau a poet? The answer comes down to what I have called visions. A poet’s vision is not anything fanciful or vague. It is an actual sight with a glow and a hard edge. The glow comes from the fusion of the material core of sensation with any number of associations—emotional, intellectual, spiritual; present or remote; fleeting or permanent. In a word it is a vivid image, recorded in faultless words; I see in Thoreau the earliest and greatest of American Imagists.” 

Thoreau wrote much poetry, enough to fill a substantial volume, and all of it unreadable. It’s fair to say he was most a poet when writing prose, and not “poetic prose” or that deformed mutant form, “the prose poem.” He was most a poet when most a naturalist and least a Transcendentalist crank.  I can’t think of another writer who so often wrote so well in spite of himself, who misjudged his gift with such regularity. In a recent review in The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein referred to “those old bores Emerson and Thoreau,” and with some justice in regard to Emerson, that blowhard of feel-good bromides. Thoreau must be read skeptically, for his prose mastery and not for adolescent politics or crackpot philosophizing. Here is sharp-eyed, non-gaseous Thoreau in his journal for June 22, 1851, with nothing to prove or complain about: “The blue-eyed grass, so beautiful near at hand, imparts a kind of slate or clay blue tinge to the meads.” Barzun writes: 

“A journal, in particular, must not sound like what the French call apprêté – all dolled up. Too periodic a style would suggest concern with the effect rather than the record. And since Thoreau’s aim is to match in words the fluidity of his own impressions, his sentences are mostly short; they follow each other as if in a hurry to keep up with Nature and memory. But the paragraphs are often long, for the same reason of continuity. If now and then a sentence is long, it is in fact a chain of descriptive portions, each moving from subject to predicate.” 

Barzun reminds us to pay attention to Thoreau’s prose, his way with commas, paradoxes, abrupt changes in sentence structure, the way “we read along innocently and are suddenly whipped around a corner.”

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