Thursday, June 16, 2016

`To Be Left Alone with an Old Book'

“. . . cooled by reflection and time, I came to see that perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the writers we most care about receive their `due.’ Only the living need praise. Writers like [Edwin Arlington] Robinson survive in their work, appreciated by readers who aren’t afraid to be left alone with an old book.”

At first I recoiled from the idea. Contemporaries come with built-in cheerleading squads. They don’t need our rah-rah. Visit Barnes & Noble, browse, and there they are, “row after row with strict impunity,” new books at our service. But Irving Howe is probably correct. You can’t seduce or intimidate someone into reading Henry James. He’s always there, solid and inviting like a new appliance with a lifetime warranty, awaiting first-time and seasoned readers. A great writer is his own reward, and his very existence invites great (or at least passable) readers. He flatters us with his availability.

Howe, of all people, celebrates Robinson, not the first poet you might expect a socialist to admire. I grew up reading Howe and retain a fondness for his treatment of such writers as Henry Roth, Sarah Orne Jewett, György Konrád and Arnold Bennett, because I can usually ignore the absurdity of his politics. The essay “A Grave and Solitary Voice: An Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson,” written in 1970 and reread by me in A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe (ed. Nina Howe, 2104), is an enthusiastic defense of an underrated poet who remains in a class with Dickinson and Frost. A “culture in decomposition,” Howe writes of late nineteenth-century New England, “offers special opportunities for moral drama to those who can maintain their bearing.” He might be writing of our age, where decomposition has accelerated beyond any writer’s full understanding.

Howe acknowledges that Robinson wrote too much, and that his longer poems, in particular those with Arthurian themes, are nearly unreadable. But among his short poems are perhaps two dozen that rank among the best in the language. Howe suggests an impressive anthology, including “The Clerks” (“a powerful statement about the weariness of slow defeat”), “The Pity of the Leaves,” “Luke Havergal,” “Eros Turranos” (“one of the greatest poems about the tragedy of love in our language”), “Hillcrest,” “Isaac and Archibald,” “Aunt Imogen” and “The Poor Relation.” As Howe writes, Robinson was “the first American poet of stature to bring commonplace people and commonplace experience into our poetry.” No, Whitman doesn’t count: He “invoked such people and even rhapsodized over them, but as individual creatures with warm blood they are not really to be found in his pages.” That nearly defines the difference between a fraudulent poet and a real one. The former gushes over windy generalities; the latter gives us a sovereign human being, as inimitable as you or me. In an 1894 letter to his friend Harry de Forest Smith (Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905, 1947), Robinson writes:

“There is more in every person’s soul than we think. Even the happy mortals we term ordinary or commonplace act their own mental tragedies and live a far deeper and wider life than we are inclined to believe in the light of our prejudices.”

Howe’s proletarian heart warmed to Robinson’s humanity. I mean that less snottily than it may sound. In his literary work, he most often focuses on fiction writers. The three books he devoted entirely to individual writers took as their subjects Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. Poets are rare in Howe’s work, though he co-edited A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (1969). In Robinson’s poems, Howe found not empty experimentalism and self-indulgent obscurity but the ordinary lives his favorite novelists explored. In fact, we read Robinson for some of the same reasons we read good novels. Howe quotes with approval the sestet of Robinson’s “George Crabbe”--

“Whether or not we read him, we can feel        
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame   
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel       
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.”

--and writes: “In my own experience Robinson is a poet who grows through rereading, or perhaps it would be better to say, one grows into being able to reread him. He will never please the crowds, neither the large one panting for platitude nor the small ones supposing paradox an escape from platitude.”

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