Wednesday, October 17, 2012

`Betrayed By What Is Wild'

It’s a happy day for readers as we celebrate the birthday of two poets in the truest possible fashion -- by reading their work. Yvor Winters was born on this date in Chicago in 1900, and Les Murray in Nabiac, New South Wales, Australia, in 1938. First, let’s address their apparent differences. In the 1929 essay “Notes on Contemporary Criticism” (Uncollected Essays and Reviews, 1973), Winters distills his mature thought and alienates almost everyone who fancies himself a writer or reader of poetry:

“The basis of evil is in emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood.”

Among others, Winters probably has in mind Hart Crane, a poet egregiously self-indulgent with emotions. Winters described his erstwhile friend as “a saint of the wrong religion,” and critics have subsequently caricatured Winters as a super-rational despot, some even accusing him of pushing Crane to suicide. Seemingly in contrast to the American, Murray, whose son is autistic, says in an interview:

“A lot of modern art is very autistic. There is this arbitrary law that you're not supposed to be sentimental or have any feelings. What the bloody hell is that but autism, pretending to be some kind of automaton?”

In the same interview, Murray diagnoses himself as “a high-performing Asperger,” odd in a man whose poetry is Shakespearian in its deployment of every emotion known to humans. Here’s a test for both poets. If any subject invites sappy sentimentality, wallows in whimsy, it’s dogs. Their extreme poetic admirers want to be admired for their love of canines. To address the subject in poetry without falsity or self-admiration means swimming against the warm fuzzy tide. Winters raised and showed Airedales. Here is his “Elegy on a Young Airedale Bitch Lost Some Years Since in the Salt-Marsh” (Before Disaster, 1934):

“Low to the water's edge
You plunged; the tangled herb
Locked feet and mouth, a curb
Tough with the salty sedge.

“Half dog and half a child,
Sprung from that roaming bitch,
You flung through dike and ditch,
Betrayed by what is wild.

“The old dogs now are dead,
Tired with the hunt and cold,
Sunk in the earth and old.
But your bewildered head,

 “Led by what heron cry,
Lies by what tidal stream?--
Drenched with ancestral dream,
And cast ashore to dry.”

That Winters loved his dogs is inarguable and probably irrelevant. Here he is writing a poem, not telling us how much he loved his young Airedale bitch. The poem’s operative phrase is perhaps “Betrayed by what is wild.” Beware of what is wild, in nature and in poetry. I find Winters among the most emotionally rich of modern poets precisely because he mediates emotional expression, transmutes it and makes it memorable through form. Murray is another dog lover. Here is “A Dog’s Elegy” (Conscious and Verbal, 2001):

“The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
to make speech-like sounds to his humans
lies buried in the soil of a slope
that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

“He hated thunder and gunshot
and would charge off to restrain them.
A city dog too alive for backyards,
we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

“but now his human name melts off him;
he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
the coral tree and the African tulip
will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

“Our longhaired cat who mistook him
For an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
And teetered in top twigs for eight days
As a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

“The cattle suspect the Dog lives
but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
eared gazing wigwams of fur.”

Asked to distinguish between the sentimental and the not sentimental in the interview cited above, Murray says: “I think it's probably in not telling lies. There's always something false about the sentimental. When it's feeling without lies, it's terribly scary, but it's not sentimental.” Murray has an eerie gift (one formerly possessed by fiction writers) for inhabiting other beings in his poems (an odd talent for a self-diagnosed proto-Asperger), including other species, as in his 1994 collection Translations from the Natural World. In the hands of another poet, capitalizing “Dog,” reading the minds of cattle and interpreting kangaroo behavior might be dubiously sentimental. Not here. In his foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947), Winters defines a poem as “a statement in words about a human experience,” and later in the same book says “special pains are taken with the expression of feeling.” He writes of “special pains,” not exclusion.

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Aspies have as wide a range as any other type. Moreover, upbringing can make a lot of difference... the degree to which the child is socialized as an infant and small child.

My opinion is that the luckiest writer is one who has what is called "a splash" of Asperger's, enough to introduce a certain new freedom of thinking...