Thursday, April 24, 2014

`We Have a Network Instead'

One reader, in Virginia, reminds me of Dickinson’s poem (285): 

“The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune —
Because I grow — where Robins do —
But, were I Cuckoo born —
I’d swear by him —
The ode familiar — rules the Noon —
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom —
Because, we're Orchard sprung —
But, were I Britain born,
I’d Daisies spurn —
None but the Nut — October fit —
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit — I’m taught —
Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie — to me —
Because I see — New Englandly —
The Queen, discerns like me —
Provincially —” 

And another, in Scotland, reminds me of Guy Davenport’s closing lines in his essay on Eudora Welty, “The Faire Field of Enna” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981): 

“An anecdote about Faulkner relates that once on a spring evening he invited a woman to come with him in his automobile, to see a bride in her wedding dress. He drove her over certain Mississippi back roads and eventually across a meadow, turning off his headlights and proceeding in darkness. At last he eased the car to a halt and said that the bride was before them. He switched on the lights, whose brilliance fell full upon an apple tree in blossom. 

“The sensibility that shapes that moment is of an age, at least, with civilization itself.” 

Both remind us of the centrality of the provincial – Dickinson in Amherst, Ma., Faulkner in Oxford, Miss. Only by rooting in the local does an artist blossom into something universal. One needn’t live in Brooklyn or San Francisco to write well. Think of how many move to those putative literary meccas only to write badly or not at all (which might be a blessing for the rest of us). In another essay, “Jonathan Williams,” Davenport writes: 

“There is no American capital; there never has been. We have a network instead. A French poet may plausibly know all other French poets by living in Paris. The smallest of American towns contains major poets, and all other kinds of artists. In no other country does such a distribution of mind appear.” 

Davenport lived for forty years in Lexington, Ky. My Virginia reader likes the idea of Dickinson seeing “New Englandly,” and writes: “I suppose E.A. Robinson and Frost [and Richard Wilbur] did also. One might say, and I suppose it’s been said, that a great poet can transcend geography. I wonder, though, whether all of us, even if in the most subtle ways, don’t manifest our provinciality. When we are and where we are, no doubt, affects us. And yet I can’t think of a less provincial poet than Dickinson, no matter what she says. She’s a New England spinster the way Faulkner was just a Mississippi farmer.”

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