Wednesday, June 21, 2017

`A Mode of Writing I Did Not Understand'

“Poets are more tiresome than entomologists.”

Lousy or mediocre poets, that is, though even some of the good ones prove tedious when speaking ex cathedra. Entomologists devote attention to the small and easily overlooked. Nabokov, poet and entomologist, spent years taxonomizing butterflies according to the arrangement of their genitalia. In such minds, art and science, mutual reflections, converge. In 1990, the journal Salmagundi devoted its summer issue to the work of poet Ben Belitt (1911-2003), best known for translating poems by Pablo Neruda, winner of the Stalin Peace Prize. Among the contributors to the Festschrift is C.H. Sisson (1915-2003), who writes about Belitt’s “The Hornet’s House.” Sisson begins by retelling an anecdote related by the great French entomologist and writer Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) in The Mason-wasps (1914). Sisson writes:

“The insects come and go, and we are at the start of one of those marvellous series of observations which the modest schoolmaster recorded so lucidly, seated at his minute writing-table. This is the advancement of knowledge, in its least questionable form: one might speak of objectivity, without risk of being misunderstood.”

Sisson next quotes a passage by Fabre regarding the “fierce hornet,” Vespa crabro (or Vespa maculata), and concludes this is the species Belitt writes about in his poem. In it, Sisson sees “an element of objective hardness,” adding: “It is a compliment one would not pay to a poet concerned only with his own subjectivities. Belitt is evidently the artist for whom the visible world exists.” Sisson is probably remembering Pound’s Canto LXXXIII: “Brother wasp is building a very neat house.” He makes a rare admission for a critic: “it was less clear than with Fabre what [Belitt] was doing.” He quotes the first stanza of the poem:
“Upside-down on their millstone, the hornets had already begun
That labor for slaves, oblique
Under balancing weights, where their universe hung by a wick,
Till the will of their species was done.”

Belitt has probably observed hornets building nests. “Wick” is precisely chosen and he understands the relation of individuals to colony among social insects (a state known to biologists as “eusociality”). “Belitt seems to wish to enter a strange world, but he cannot do so without carrying with him the recollection of another strange world, that of human beings.” Belitt, we can conclude, is not a member of that that dubious species, the nature poet. “One has the impression,” Sisson writes, “that he is all the time trying to pull back the curtains of the visible [Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.”], as if he could discover more proximate purposes, and in doing so finds himself somewhere nearer to human intelligence.”

Sisson confesses ignorance of the science (“my amateur entomology”), and suspects it may hinder his understanding of the poem. Such humility before a work of art is unusual and thrilling. Sisson isn’t too proud to admit, “I like this poem but I’m not sure I thoroughly understand it.” Sisson’s humor, characteristically, is self-deprecating:

“I, certainly, am under-informed. Perhaps the poem needs notes. All poems may need notes, at a certain distance in time and/or culture, but should it need such notes? This is not, as some questions are, a disguised assertion. Perhaps it is only my pride, as an Englishman who knows nothing of vespa maculata, that is injured. And that is itself only a face-saving hypothesis.”

Too often critics usurp the artist’s role, asserting a sovereignty not theirs. Seasoned readers admit they often feel attraction or even love for poems long before they understand them, if ever. Art trumps critique. Sisson, one of the great and under-appreciated poets and critics of the last century writes:      

“I am not, habitually, an explainer of poems -- as may be only too evident to those who are practised in the art -- and one of the considerations which led me to accept the editor’s invitation to join in this celebration of Ben Belitt’s work was the consciousness that here was a writer, obviously of great talent, who had plodded through the world for a mere three years longer than I had myself and with, apparently, something of the same prolonged interest in poetry and in translation, and who had arrived at a mode of writing I did not understand.”

No comments: