Wednesday, October 30, 2013

`One of the Great Pleasures of Reading Him'

“The best poems of combat have been written by those who experienced it (was Homer blind or blinded?), but the best poems of military life, the best in English, at any rate, were written by a war correspondent.” 

And who might that be? Rudyard Kipling, according to Turner Cassity. Thanks to R.L. Barth and Dave Lull, I tracked down “He the Compeller,” an essay by Cassity collected in a volume with an unpromising title, Politics and Poetic Value (University of Chicago Press, 1987), edited by Robert von Hallberg. As critic and poet, Cassity is always amusing and provocative, and he reminds us that one of our finest writers, even during his lifetime (1865-1936), was condemned as politically incorrect. Cassity’s objective is not merely to remind us of Kipling’s greatness as a poet. For anyone who takes the time to read the poems rather than ventriloquize inherited opinion, that’s self-evident. Rather, Cassity suggests that we learn to read (and write) poetry in a new way that, in fact, is quite old: 

“…Kipling became a political poet because he preferred writing in the second or third person to writing in the first person. In the 834 pages of the collected poems there is exactly one lyric written in propria persona, and that is the final one [“The Appeal”]…The poems give delight frequently, but they also raise disquiet. To read them (as to read Crabbe) is to suspect that meditation and the first person have rather paupered English poetry. The hermetic lyric of personal emotion and its sloppier successor, the psychological self-search, account for an appalling percentage of all verse.” 

Of course, Cassity is recasting Kipling into his own image of what a poet ought to be – not a sensitive plant or navel-gazer but an observer of the real world. Poems have subject matter. They are about something other than the poet and his precious feelings. Part of the explanation might be that Kipling was a rare example of a writer equally gifted at prose and verse. Prose is – well, prosaic. If about nothing, it is nothing. Cassity compares Kipling to those earlier multi-taskers, Melville and Hardy, and judges him “the most ambidextrous among them.” He praises Kipling’s “Piet,” about a Boer solider in the second Anglo-Boer War, especially the phrase “the bullet-sprinkled breeze,” and says of the conflict’s impact on Kipling: 

“When the Boer War broadened the army’s base, far from celebrating democracy, he approached his subject as an amalgam of trade guilds, each with its own arcana: sappers, artillery, `jollies,’ mounted infantry. He understood the degree to which exclusion attracts us and was at his very best in dealing with hangers-on. His water carrier [“Gunga Din”] has become his signature figure, and his bureaucrats, animal handlers, medics, musicians, barmaids, publicans, and officer-club whores convince as individuals and as types.” 

See the way Cassity contrasts Kipling’s “The Dykes” with Yeats’ “An Irish AirmanForesees His Death.” Of the latter poem he writes, “for Yeats, it is refreshingly without claptrap.” Of Kipling’s reputation as an imperialist warmonger, Cassity writes: “Critics of three generations have distrusted Kipling because he does not say that war is hell. He said what Homer says: some of war is hell. Either might have agreed that civil strife is total hell.” Some of Cassity’s lines, like good jokes, are too good not to pass along: 

“The least infusion of the sublime into description will cause us not only to skip but to skip eight and ten pages at a time. Goethe and Shelley are barely readable; or rather, instantly readable.” 

“Whatever our own opinion, we must defer to Kipling’s in matters of ships and the sea. He wrote more poems about seafaring life than he wrote about India. I have made an actual count. The figures, if you are interested, are seventy-one for the Raj and eighty-two for the Jolly Roger.” 

“As Americans we too seldom have the frisson of seeing a man hit when he is down. We have our own version of that old lie the public school ethos. Kipling does not hesitate to hit below the belt. It is one of the great pleasures of reading him.” 

And this, a footnote that would have amused Kingsley Amis: “One might mention in connection with shore leave that Kipling is the supreme poet of hangover. He treats it at length in `La Nuit Blanche,’ `The Shut-Eye Sentry,’ and `Cells.’”

1 comment:

George said...

I'd be inclined to vote for David Jones, though he had briefer experience and wrote less.

Kipling was "was condemned as politically incorrect"? If this is to say that anyone not British is allowed to be either clever or brave, never both, well, he can leave that impression.