Wednesday, January 28, 2015

`Hard Accents I Will Carry to My Own'

We’re nothing without the dead. Spontaneous generation is a myth, like originality. With every word we echo someone, and it’s only proper that we acknowledge them and give thanks. Geoffrey Hill puts it like this in CXIX of The Triumph of Love (1998): 

“By understanding I understand diligence
and attention, appropriately understood
as actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement
of what is owed the dead.” 

Seasoned readers carry in their mental libraries a generous anthology of poems honoring departed forebears, starting, in my case, with Auden’s “At the Grave of Henry James.” My newest entry is Henry Taylor’s “At the Grave of E.A. Robinson” (Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, 1996): 

“Decades of vague intention drifted by
before I brought small thanks for your large voice–
a bunch of hothouse blooms and Queen Anne’s lace
and four lines from `The Man Against the Sky.’
My poems, whatever they do, will not repay
the debt they owe to yours, so I let pass
a swift half hour, watching the wind distress
the fringes of my fragile, doomed bouquet. 

“I beg your pardon, sir.  You understood
what use there is in standing here like this,
speaking to one who hears as well as stone;
yet though no answer comes, it does me good
to sound aloud, above your resting place,
hard accents I will carry to my own.” 

Robinson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Gardiner, Maine, his childhood home and the model for his fictional Tilbury Town. The poem Taylor mentions, “The Man Against the Sky,” was published by Robinson in 1916 in a collection of the same name. The speaker sees the title character and speculates on his identity, and contemplates both suicide and the possibility of faith: “All comes to Nought,— / If there be nothing after Now, / And we be nothing anyhow, / And we know that,—why live?” The poem’s faintest offering of hope comes some eighty lines earlier: 

“Where was he going, this man against the sky?
You know not, nor do I.
But this we know, if we know anything:
That we may laugh and fight and sing
And of our transience here make offering
To an orient Word that will not be erased,
Or, save in incommunicable gleams
Too permanent for dreams,
Be found or known.” 

This is why Taylor acknowledges that visiting Robinson’s grave and addressing “one who hears as well as stone,” despite its common-sense futility, “does me good.” Taylor is making a contract with the dead, upholding his end of the bargain. He is also closing another circle and silently returning to his own apprenticeship as a poet. In Taylor’s first collection, The Horse Show at Midnight (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), he includes “Things Not Solved Though Tomorrow Came,” which carries an epigraph from Robinson, “four lines from `The Man Against the Sky’”: 

“For whether lighted over ways that save,
Or lured from all repose,
If he go on too far to find a grave,
Mostly alone he goes.”

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