Tuesday, October 21, 2014

`That Is the Land of Lost Content'

Much of my earliest literary education was conducted with the assistance of anthologies, the gift and curse of the autodidact. Gift, because an industrious anthologist does half the labor, gathering work that is rare and forgotten, at least to us. Curse, because we’re encouraged to read without context, with a scrambled chronology and little sense of who read whom in the work-in-progress that is literary history. Of course, concealed within the curse is another gift: prejudice-free enjoyment–reading for pleasure. The rest of our reading life is about filling in the pencil sketch with oils. 

The first and probably most formative of my anthologist-instructors was Oscar Williams, a minor poet but a world-class collector of others’ work (Oct. 10 was the fiftieth anniversary of his death). I bought Immortal Poems of the English Language and A Pocket Book of Modern Verse – small box-like paperbacks from Washington Square Press with galleries of author portraits on the front and inside the front and back covers. In them I first read Donne, W.S. Gilbert, Pound and Karl Shapiro, among dozens of others. His anthologies were like Whitman Samplers, and I savored them for years, including the samples from Whitman. Later supplements to my education came from such anthologists as Louis Untermeyer, Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields, W.H. Auden, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. 

I’m reading Larkin’s again, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), and recalling what an eye-opener it was. Larkin’s aim was at once scholarly and provocative. In his preface, he defends his selection as “wide rather than deep representation.” When dealing with the post-1914 generations, Larkin says his “loyalty turns perforce to poems rather than to individuals.” Thus, he includes “This Houre Her Vigill,” a poem by the marvelously named Irish diplomat Valentin Iremonger (1918-1991), whose work I have otherwise never read. The same is true of K.W. (Karl Watts) Gransden (1925-1998), represented by “An Interview,” a mordantly comic poem that appeared in Any Day (1960) but seems unavailable online. These are poems and poets little known even to English readers, I suspect. Minor? Yes, but also out of fashion, or never in fashion, and wonderful to read. Both poets write as though Modernism had not happened, which, of course, would have been just fine with Larkin. Art is not about marching with the mob but doing what one does best. Both Iremonger and Gransden give their attention to the dailiness of our days and remind me of an observation made by the late D.G. Myers in an email from May 2013: 

“I've been thinking how much of life is absorbed with `small cares’ that seem overwhelmingly important at the time--or at least disabling--which are forgotten in the sequel: the headaches, stomach aches, the traffic jams, the appointments which are late. Don’t these take up the majority of our time? They almost never make it into literature, and in fact literature seems an unstinting propaganda on behalf of the dramatic occurrences of human life. I may try to write about the `small cares,’ but I'm not sure yet what I want today.” 

This reminds me of nothing so much as the gallant letter Larkin wrote to his publisher, lobbying for publication of Barbara Pym’s novels:  

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.” 

Anthologies serve another function. They can rip familiar poems from their familiar contexts and make them new. What could be more familiar than A Shropshire Lad, poems we’ve known from childhood in the austere, title-less confines of Housman’s volumes? Larkin selects eight of them, including “XL”:  

“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those? 

“That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.” 

The line retained in memory was “blue remembered hills.” This time, “the land of lost content” seemed charged full of extra meaning. “Yon far country” echoes with a war undeclared for another two decades. Who would expect “happy highway” in a Housman lyric?

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