Saturday, February 19, 2011

`A Presence of Palpable Reality'

Asked in a 1983 interview with The Southern Review (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, edited by Cynthia Haven) what he looked for in a good poem, Czesław Miłosz replied:

“I look for a considerable dose of reality. Not subjective states, feelings, emotions of a persona or a poet. But something palpable, a presence of palpable reality.”

As examples, Miłosz cites Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter” and Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” The Pole’s criterion is not rigorously critical but every honest reader knows what he means, though we might dicker over which poems best render reality. There’s some in Whitman’s paean to the locomotive (“black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel”) but his gushing tone and the proliferation of “thy’s” scuttle the effect. Cavafy’s poem is an inspired choice, one I’ve always thought Miłosz’s fellow Pole, Zbigniew Herbert, had in mind when he wrote “Report from the Besieged City.”

After a prolonged rereading of Louis Zukofsky in preparation for writing a review, I needed to rekindle my taste for poetry and turned to Marianne Moore, among others. Witty, elegant, learned, allusive, morally attuned, tough-minded -- all characterize Moore’s best work, but she also delighted in the sheer buzzing variety of the world. She was no dreamer or fantasist. Her poems are anchored in and render the “palpable reality” prized by Miłosz. Here’s a passage from her 1920 poem “England”:

“…America where there
is the little old ramshackle victoria in the south, where cigars are smoked on the
street in the north; where there are no proof readers, no silkworms, no digressions;

“the wild man’s land; grass-less, links-less, language-less country—in which letters are written
not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand
but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!”

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