Friday, July 25, 2014

`Art Endures, or So the Masters Say'

Like the rest of us, poets are egotists, only more so. Most you would never invite to dinner, loan money or leave alone in the company of your children, so we’re gratified to hear the story of a poet behaving selflessly or generously. This is even truer when the recipient of the kindness is another poet. 

The poems of Agnes Lee (1868-1939), a native Chicagoan, were never widely read even during her lifetime. In 1903 she published a translation of Th√©ophile Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, and five volumes of her own poems followed. She was associated with Poetry magazine from its earliest days, and Yvor Winters, also born in Chicago, was a friend and admirer. In the September 1939 issue of Poetry, Winters published a remembrance of Lee who had died July 23. As we would expect of Winters, the tribute is generous but whitewashes nothing. Winters was congenitally allergic to bullshit, even when writing a eulogy. The Gautier translation, he says, “is not successful, but the task of translating Gautier must resemble that which a foreigner would encounter in rendering Herrick: it is really hopeless.” Then he singles out one of her poems, “A Statue in a Garden,” for praise, saying it contains “unyielding grandeur,” and goes on: 

“This quality is characteristic of all her best work, and sets her off sharply from all the women poets of our time whether good or bad. It is not that her work was unfeminine, but that it was impersonal and absolute. She was a great lady, and would have been at home in the court of Louis XIV.” 

This is extraordinary but believable praise for a minor poet, and not unique in Winters’ criticism (Tuckerman, Daryush). He raises the stakes by adding that, “among American writers, regardless of medium, her spiritual quality seems to me closest to that of Mrs. Wharton.” As always, Winters’ judgments are careful, shrewd and blunt: 

“She is the author of a handful of separate but beautiful poems, an anthology poet, essentially, but one of the finest. No American poet of her generation except Robinson is comparable to her.” 

Keep Winters’ evaluation in mind as you read Lee's “Convention”: 

“The snow is lying very deep.
My house is sheltered from the blast.
I hear each muffled step outside,
I hear each voice go past. 

“But I'll not venture in the drift
Out of this bright security,
Till enough footsteps come and go
To make a path for me.” 

Clean lines, no muddle or posturing, echoes of Robinson and Frost. The poem honors tradition, our dependence on forebears. None of us writes without first reading. We’re not blazing trails but following paths. The poem is homage, not an admission of weakness. To “A Dedication in Postscript,” Winters, a deeply tradition-minded writer, adds as a subtitle: “Written to Agnes Lee shortly before her death”: 

“Because you labored still for Gautier’s strength
In days when art was lost in breadth and length;
Because your friendship was a valued gift;
I send these poems—now, my only shift.
In the last years of your declining age,
I face again your cold immortal page:
The statue, pure amid the rotting leaves,
And her, forsaken, whom Truth undeceives.
Truth is the subject, and the hand is sure.
The hand once lay in mine: this will endure
Till all the casual errors fall away.
And art endures, or so the masters say.”

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