Monday, October 05, 2009

`What Might Be There Beyond the Scrim'

“The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.”

Alice Quinn, the editor of Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, tells us the poet wrote this in the late fifties or early sixties, in a notebook entry that begins “Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural.” Bishop praised one of her three “`favorite poets’” (“favorite in the sense of one’s `best friends’”), George Herbert, for the “naturalness” of his language, and cites the opening of his “Love Unknown”:

“Dear Friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad:
And in my faintings, I presume, your love
Will more comply than help. A Lord I had…”

I associate Bishop’s trinity of poetic virtues -- Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery – with a handful of poets, including Herbert and Bishop’s other “best friends,” Baudelaire and Hopkins, not to forget Bishop herself. This level of accomplishment is always rare, and no poet sustains it in every line of every poem, not even Shakespeare or Donne. Among living poets the remnant is pitiably small – Geoffrey Hill, of course. Who else? I would suggest David Ferry, who is 85 this year and writing excellent verse. My sense is that Ferry is better known for his translations of Gilgamesh, Horace and Virgil than for his original poetry, which is a shame. Consider the recent “Street Scene,” which I wrote about last month. On Sunday I received an e-mail from Prof. Ferry, in which he generously says he learned things about the poem from my reading of it:

“…especially that some of the language towards the end does justify entertaining the notion that the speaker is `quite mad,’ sending poor old Mr. Wrenn and his pug dog off to the Underworld. I do think there’s something uncanny, maybe crazy, but not certifiable, in the experience (I think it’s an experience we all have) of imagining that things that just happen in the world we look at are actually caused to happen by our looking at them in our own way. Of course we know all along that that’s not the case. I guess I was thinking of the poem as a kind of reading of Sonnet 15. I guess I thought of Mr. Wrenn and his dog vaunting in their not very youthful sap, just out there, being looked at, wearing their brave state out of memory, and Shakespeare rather desperately promising to perform some kind of magic (by writing the poem): `As he takes from you I engraft you new.’ Crazy to say that. In my smalltime way it’s crazy to say I can send Mr. Wrenn and his dog to the Underworld, just because I turned my attention to something else, stopped looking out of the window, etc.”

He’s not buying my reading but neither is he dismissing it, and that’s gracious of him and gratifying for me. I’m touched by Prof. Ferry’s identification with Mr. Wrenn and his dog (who remind me of a Saul Steinberg drawing), and by the implication that he and Shakespeare are magicians of a sort, and possibly crazy. “Street Scene” embodies Bishop’s notion of “Mystery.” In another recent poem, “Scrim,” Prof. Ferry writes:

“The words are like a scrim upon a page,
Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim.”

My Webster’s Third tells me scrim is “a durable plain-woven fabric usu. of cotton woven loosely with fine to coarse meshes and given various finishes for use in clothing, curtains, building trades and industry.” The origin of the word remains unknown.

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