“…the superficial, that is to say, the subject matter.”
Sometimes it takes less than a sentence to wake up a reader. R.L. Barth roused me late Tuesday evening as I was reading his preface to The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis. Barth defends his description of Lewis as a “domestic poet,” citing her frequent references to “gardens, housework, children, domesticated animals.” He also calls her an “occasional poet” because she writes about “quarrels between friends, birthdays, friendship.” Then he moves in:
“Let me be honest, though: such adjectives – whether applied to war poets, domestic poets, or whatever kinds of poets – merely address the superficial, that is to say, the subject matter. Any perceptive reader recognizes immediately that, whatever their domestic subject matter, the themes of many of the poems transcend the merely domestic: love, death, memory, acceptance. We must not confuse the subject matter with the themes.”
For some reason I had not read Lewis’ poems before though I know the work of her husband, Yvor Winters, and some of his students, particularly Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn and Donald Justice. The loss is mine because her poems have an appealing clarity, directness and absence of “poetic” ornamentation. Lewis (1899-1998) was born the same year as Hart Crane and outlived him by 66 years. She wrote and published poetry for more than 70 years. One senses the example of Imagism but not its slavish imitation. Here’s an early poem, “Fossil, 1919”:
“I found a little ancient fern
Closed in a reddish shale concretion,
As neatly and as charmingly set in
As my grandmother’s face
In a round apricot velvet case.”
Selected Poems is brief – 83 poems – but I read it straight through as though it were a novel. The cumulative impact of reading her consecutively and at one sitting – something I’ve almost never done – was therapeutic. I mean that in the sense of encouragement. Lewis handed me what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” I don’t talk about poetry or any writing that way very often but following Barth’s suggestion, I think Lewis is a poet whose subject matter will never be confused with her themes, which are big, even eternal. Here’s another early poem, “October Morning”:
“The pump froze, the trees
Were hoar with mist.
In the plumed branch
Of white pine
Near the woodshed door
Were dozens of honey bees.”
In part because I had been reading Keats and writing about him earlier in the day, I thought of “To Autumn.” The season is right. “Hoar” is a Keatsian word, one he used in “Endymion,” “Hyperion” and “Lamia.” And at the close of his first stanza, he mentions bees and their “clammy cells.” So how pleasing it was the next morning to visit About Last Night and read Laura’s close reading of Keats’ final ode. She rightly calls it “a perfect and magical piece of writing, with effects that resonate and evolve for a lifetime.” Laura deprecates her reading as “amateur observations,” but we all know the etymology of amateur.
My history with the poem is also long and devoted, a sort of marriage, but my fondest association dates from the fall of 2002. I had returned to college after dropping out in 1973, at the end of my junior year. I needed only another four classes to graduate. One of them was independent study in my major, English, and I chose to write about Henry James. My thesis adviser was an English-born professor who had studied under the late Tony Tanner. Like Tanner, she loved James. We met weekly to discuss my reading and review potions of the thesis.
One afternoon in early October we were seated in her third-floor office. The campus, in upstate New York, is dense with red, black and white oaks, and her windows were filled with their copper-colored leaves, burnished by the late sunlight. One of us brought up “To Autumn” and I mentioned that Nathan Zuckerman quotes from it in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Together we began saying the poem, piecing it together from memory. We had the first stanza complete. The others were patchier, like the lyrics to an old song without the music. There was competition between us but also mutual aid, and we carried on through “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Both of us were laughing and had tears in our eyes, and I’ve never enjoyed a poem so much with another person.