Saturday, February 07, 2015

`The Merest Nothings in Human Affairs'

“The poems are an attempt.” 

Say the final word in French—essayer—and remember its English roots in Montaigne. Michael Schmidt is writing of C.H. Sisson in Lives of the Poets (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). As founder of Carcanet Press and editor of Poetry Nation Review, Schmidt provided Sisson and his work with appreciative homes. Sisson’s poems are trials, testings, experiments, but not in the sense of improvised gestures or willed carelessness. Sisson, no nihilist, inhabits a radically uncertain world. Schmidt quotes a passage from an early poem, “On a Troopship”: 

“I, whose imperfection
Is evident and admitted
Needing further assurance
Must year-long be pitted
Against fool and trooper
Practising my integrity
In awkward places,
Walking until I walk easy
Among uncomprehended faces.” 

Approvingly, Schmidt writes “the humility of the lines is exemplary.” Isn’t most of life about “Practising my integrity / In awkward places?” Experience trumps theory, plans and expectations. Life is awkward, seldom graceful, except, occasionally, in retrospect. Schmidt launches his own mini-essay: 

“The social urgency of Sisson’s satire knows that the cause is lost. The material basis of `values,’ the erosion of traditional and theological views of `self,’ `person’ and `identity,’ the triumph of the golden calf he will not accept. It is a sham deity, for we possess nothing; we cannot even be said to possess memory. We are possessed by existence, and by God; and whether we will or not, by history and our historical institutions which we do well to accept, explore and perfect. We are only in relation to them, in all their ramifications.” 

In 1997, Carcanet published an edition of Ford Madox Ford’s The English Novel: From the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad (1929), edited and introduced by Sisson. Surveys risk the dullness of potted list-making, but Ford is almost never dull, and his text is salted with practical notions: 

“You must therefore write as simply as you can – with the extreme of the simplicity that is granted to you, and you must write of subjects that spring at your throat. But why subjects appeal to you you have no means of knowing. The appeal of the subject is nevertheless the only thing that is open to your native genius – the only thing as to which you can say: `I cannot help it: that is what appealed to me!’ You must never, after that, say: `I write like this because I want to,’ but you must say: `I write like this because I hope it is what the unspoiled reader likes!’” 

Ford lets words, not a head of steam, do his work, as does Sisson. “Unspoiled” possesses at least two meanings, both pertinent: not rotting and not pampered. Sisson, one suspects, paid special attention to Ford’s following paragraph: 

“Your `subject’ may be just the merest nothing in the way of intrigue or plot—but to the merest nothings in human affairs all the intrigues of the universe have contributed since first this earth swung away, a drop of molten metal, from the first of all principles. Your `subject’ might be no more than a child catching frogs in a swamp or the emotions of a nervous woman in a thunderstorm, but all the history of the world has gone to putting child or woman where they are and up to either subject you might lead with an epic as thrilling in its end as that of `Othello’ or an episode as poignant with absolute relief as came to the world on the eleventh of November 1918.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Hear hear to that last paragraph from FMF. All is significant. That's a religious statement in itself.