Friday, August 19, 2016

`Perhaps the Larger Part of Life'

The meaning of certain words always eludes me. All are rare, if not extinct, and have an exotic sound that attracts my attention, like a mockingbird in full improvisational mode, and promptly loses it. Such words are too rich for use, and soon forgotten. A recent example is "lagniappe." I was confusing it with la mordida (a notion I learned from Malcolm Lowry). While looking up its meaning I was reacquainted with Mark Twain’s usage (“a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get”) in Life on the Mississippi. Even better, I stumbled on a 1975 interview in the journal Crazyhorse with the poet Turner Cassity (1929-2009), who uses “lagniappe” deftly: “I had no way of knowing I should acquire such impeccable Old Africa Hands qualifications as to be a veteran of the Transvaal Provincial Administration, but lagniappe is perhaps the larger part of life.”

Cassity’s conversation is so arch and richly convoluted I won’t even try setting up the context of that remark. He always makes amusing company. Like his verse (the word he prefers), Cassity’s conversation is a model of craft and wit. What follows is a sampler drawn from the interview. Lauding the removal of the poet from the poem, he says: “From the first, poetry has been for me a medium for conveying information, like prose or like a mathematical formula—more concise than the one, more immediate than the other.” Cassity’s understanding reminds me of the narrator’s in Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957): “He regarded his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself to be used and judged by others.” After blandly stating that “99 percent of the poems written today are pure drivel,” Cassity adds:

“I shall not rail against free verse and loose forms, as these are not really the problem. I have no theoretic objection to free verse; some of it I find very beautiful, though I could not possibly write it. The problem is simply that the ninety and nine have trivial minds, which, unaccountably, they wish to psychologize. I am afraid that few of us are so complicated that what we are is not brilliantly apparent in what we do. Psychology is mostly wasted effort, and serves no real purpose except as a crutch for the unobservant.”

Truer today than forty-one years ago. Left alone with language, trivial minds produce trivial poems (and prose): “By and large we have poems written in the first person about personal emotions.” Cassity calls Edmund Spenser “the great disaster” in English poetry, and prescribes George Crabbe as the cure – “but no one reads him.” He recommends Robinson and Stevens, who are “full of devices for removing the poet from the poem.” And this, a refreshingly right judgment: “The poem half of Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the best long poem written since the death of E.A. Robinson.” Think of all the erstwhile candidates for that title Cassity so casually dismisses. He concludes with excellent career counseling:

“Arrange your life as if you were not a poet and then be one. Espouse the viewpoint not your own, forbid yourself to write in the first person, pick the subject least amenable to poetic treatment and treat it.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I worry about the death of poetry. There are a million or three million poets publishing today and only a few people who read poetry. I don't mind the "trivial" poems if they give me a moment of insight, of pleasure, of feeling a part of the human species or getting to that poignant pang of finding myself experiencing a moment of kinship with something other than my fingernails. I doubt that we have a George Crabbe today and probably not anyone who approaches Wallace Stevens, but there are people worth reading.