Monday, April 06, 2015

`This Is Bedrock'

“Concision gave way to curiosity, and curiosity to copiousness.” 

True, but with qualifications, the first being that the Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets is Dr. Johnson’s crowning achievement, his most readily rereadable work after Rasselas, and that concision and copiousness need not be incompatible. His Lives work on the micro end of the literary scale, not the grandly theoretical macro. His pages are peppered with memorable insights and epigrammatic turns of phrase. In his cranky “Life of Milton” he observes: “Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.” Of Swift he writes, to the surprise of admirers and detractors alike: “His delight was in simplicity.” And here is Johnson on Dryden’s verse, much of which he admires: “Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had been rarely attempted; we had few elegances or flowers of speech: the roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble or different colours had not been joined to enliven one another.” I remember that single line more vividly that any written by Dryden, whose work I also admire. 

The line quoted at the top is fromWhere there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. Colin Borrow’s review of the three-volume Yale edition of Johnson’s Lives published in 2011. I liked it enough to copy it into a commonplace book, though I remember nothing else about the review. I also know nothing about Burrow except that he crafted one sentence that is likely to remain in memory. He wrote concisely about concision.  That’s a theme woven through Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language (Liveright, 2015) by Clive James. Like Johnson, James is a micro-worker and happy to praise a poet who made even one memorable poem, line or phrase. Memorability is chief among the poetic virtues he celebrates, along with concision, qualities embodied in Samuel Menashe’s “Beachhead” (New and Selected Poems, 2005): 

“The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds”

James writes of it, “That’s the whole poem, and there is a whole war in it.” It’s the one Menashe poem I know by heart. Nine indelible words, written by an infantry veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. James notes that Menashe, like fellow World War II veterans Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, “must have seen terrible things, but none of them is evoked directly in his poetry.” James goes on: 

“Yet he wrote about the helmet in the sand, and somehow his wealth of sad experience is in that single tiny haiku-like construction. It makes his war a nation’s war. The deeper consideration is that he was one among many, and, unlike too many, he lived to speak. That he speaks so concisely is a condition of his testament: consecration and concentration are the same thing. This is a world away from the expression of the self. This is bedrock.”

1 comment:

vertex said...

I'm going to have to disagree with James on this one. That tiny construction is more like detritus than bedrock. McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" blows it away.

If you want real bedrock, gaze at the photograph "Raising The Flag on Iwo Jima".