Saturday, January 02, 2016

`People Who Have Done Nothing Spectacular'

With his plainspoken diction and deceptively conversational rhythms, Edwin Arlington Robinson ranks high among the memorable and readily memorizable poets. Like a benign virus, his poems invade one’s imagination and replicate their host, turning his stories into our memories. (We all know Richard Cory and Miniver Cheevy.) The best of Robinson’s work has the virtues of good fiction. He writes not about stylized heroes and villains (which would include self-serving poets) but men and women we recognize in their modesty and fallibility. Even their eccentricities seem familiar, not campy or cartoonish. Here is “The Clerks” from his first collection, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896): 

“I did not think that I should find them there
When I came back again; but there they stood,
As in the days they dreamed of when young blood
Was in their cheeks and women called them fair.
Be sure, they met me with an ancient air,—
And yes, there was a shop-worn brotherhood
About them; but the men were just as good,
And just as human as they ever were.
And you that ache so much to be sublime,
And you that feed yourselves with your descent,
What comes of all your visions and your fears?
Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.”

We first notice the profusion of monosyllables and their iambic regularity, until the final three lines. Robinson is a master of applied technique, reinforcing sense with sound. In each of the concluding three lines, he inverts the first foot. Without resorting to grandiloquence he lends a sense of dignity to modest lives and emphasizes it with those inverted feet that read at first like hiccups. Among Robinson’s early models was George Crabbe (1754-1832), about whom he wrote a sonnet in which lauds the Englishman’s “plain excellence and stubborn skill” – a good self-description. “Alnage” in the final line may be unfamiliar. The OED gives “the action of formally determining whether woollen cloth conforms to particular standards of shape and quality, as required at various times under British law” -- an appropriately homely image. In his biography of Robinson, Scott Donaldson reminds us of the poet’s love of language, a quality not always recognized because of his plain, anti-flowery style. “Robinson loved the English language—he often read in the dictionary as a warm-up for writing—and sometimes became so taken with a word that he would write a poem to put it to work.” Thus, “alnage.”

The final two lines of Robinson’s poem might have been written by Philip Larkin. “The Clerks” reminds me of the gallant letter Larkin wrote to his publisher, lobbying for publication of Barbara Pym’s novels:

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.”

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