Monday, July 13, 2015

`Fair Words Enough a Man Shall Find'

In an email on Saturday, the poet, editor and publisher R.L. Barth noted the recent publication by Pleiades Press of Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master. Until now, Davis (1924-2002) as a poet has hardly existed. Cynthia Haven tells some of her story here. Davis studied with Allen Tate, J.V. Cunningham and Yvor Winters – a peerless pedigree. I’ve read only some of her early poems, written squarely in the sway of the Stanford School, and they are excellent:  “After a Time.” Barth has a larger point to make: 

“I saw the comments some woman `poet’ made about the recent Catherine Davis book. She dismissed (clearly didn't understand) the plain style poems. Granted, she was ignorant, had to look up the word `acedia’ and thought it meant `apathy.’ Such is the state of poetry. What would she make of [George] Turberville [c. 1540-c. 1610], (or the great plain stylists)?: 

“I thee advise
If thou be wise
To keep thy wit
Though it be small; 

“’Tis rare to get
And far to fet,
’Twas ever yit
Dear’st ware of all.” 

“She probably wouldn't understand this either. Probably have to look up `wit’ in the dictionary and decide it meant comic or something similar. But since the poets themselves have brought poetry to this state of affairs, I admit to a perverse delight in watching its pathetic, slow death by auto-asphyxiation.” 

See the shamelessly stupid comments Bob refers to here. He doesn’t mention it, but the Turberville verse, “To the Reader,” serves as one of the two epigraphs to Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969), edited by Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields. This was a valedictory effort by Winters, who died in 1968. The other epigraph is by Thomas Wyatt:

“Throughout the world, if it were sought,
Fair words enough a man shall find;
They be good cheap, they cost right nought,
Their substance is but only wind.
But well to say, and so to mean,
That sweet accord is seldom seen.”

As Fields writes in the introduction to Quest for Reality: “Such triumphs of language are always rare and necessarily emerge from a great deal of unsuccessful writing. And if the exceptional poem is a rare occasion, so too is its appreciation.” Not coincidentally, Helen Pinkerton, who helped edit an earlier, unpublished edition of Davis’ poem, also wrote to me over the weekend about the new Davis volume:

“As part of the `Unsung Masters’ series I hope that it gets some attention. On the whole I think it is a worthwhile production, mainly because it does include her best (the early) work. However, I dislike the emphasis of the biographical memoirs on her sexual life . . . Those epigrams (`Insights’), and nearly all the earlier poems are as choice as the best work of any 20th-century poet, and better and more worthy of lasting than most of the poetry published in her day.” 

How sad that a poet must be marketed demographically, not on the merits of her finest work. Winters and Fields included Davis’ “Insights” in Quest for Reality. In their introduction they write: 

“The kind of poetry which we are trying to exemplify does not consist in a specific subject matter or style, but rather in a high degree of concentration which aims at understanding and revealing the particular subject as fully as possible….in selecting our anthology we have tried to find writers whose attitude toward their art resembles Ben Jonson’s, as we see it in one of his best love poems:

“`And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune gives the grace,
Or the feature, or the youth;
But the language and the truth…’”

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