Tuesday, June 21, 2016

`Valuable Because Strictly Incomparable'

An outsider sometimes sees things close to home that leave us blind. C.H. Sisson’s literary culture was deep and wide. He translated Virgil and Catullus, Dante and Racine. His debt to French thinkers – Montesquieu, Péguy, Maurras – was profound. We might call him a pan-European writer if he were not so indelibly English and had he paid more attention to the great Russians. But except for his Modernist models, Eliot and Pound, Sisson devoted little critical attention to the literature of the United States. One suspects not ignorance or snobbery but indifference. Like most writers, Sisson was most attracted to what he could use. He devoted more print to Ford Madox Ford than to James Joyce, a preference that seems increasingly right.

In “Some Reflections on American Poetry” (The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, 1978), an essay he published in 1978 in Parnassus, the American poetry journal, Sisson took a rare look at his American cousins. His early reading sounds similar to our own: Poe, Longfellow, Whitman, Emerson, Whittier. A sorry lineup, except for some of Longfellow, but Sisson expresses qualified admiration for Poe – for “To Helen” and “The City in the Sea” -- as some of us did when we were young:

“[They] are unlike anything to be found elsewhere in the English language, for the technical novelty . . . and the piercing quality which is the joint force and full result of it all. One has to swallow hard at certain phrases, even in this handful of poems, but the degree of addiction which they can give carries one over theses and one is left with something which is valuable because strictly incomparable.”

I knew the Poe addiction when I was eleven or twelve, and once recited “The Bells” in class from memory. With puberty I came to my senses, at least in regard to Poe. Today his stories and verse appear clunky and rancid, and I couldn’t reread them on a bet. Sisson concludes that his indifference to most of the nineteenth-century Americans was a result of their time, not their place:

“The lack of impact on me of most American poets of the nineteenth century needs no special apology. I cannot say that either Tennyson or Browning ever made themselves at home in my mind, or at any time took on the look of essentiality. I have never been an academic and happily have not had to read very far in poets who do not interest me.”

That’s an expression of gratitude I share, but Sisson is just warming up. Next in the docket is Whitman, a poet I persisted in admiring well into adulthood. His poems are spottily interesting, usually at the level of phrase or line (Randall Jarrell called his revisionary essay “Some Lines from Whitman”), and I admire the way he volunteered to nurse Union soldiers during the Civil War, but Whitman spawned the line of Big Babies who litter American literature (Roethke, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the rest). Here’s Sisson:

“One can see that this loud, untidy writer demands a place somewhere. He is a sinister portent of worse to come. But loudness and untidiness were not what one felt needed encouraging, and one was better employed among the elegancies, and less mouthy livelinesses, of earlier centuries.”

Sisson is brusque and disappointing when it comes to Dickinson, saying only that “she has to be read with, and judged against, Christina Rosetti, herself a writer of great unevenness.” To be kind, we might observe that all of us suffer from periodic bouts of blindness. Sisson is more encouraging when it comes to Melville, whom he calls a “minor poet – if major prose-writer.” He writes:

“. . . he manages to thrust through the imperfections of his technique a quality of liveliness, a sense that it is a real world that he is celebrating, and that he cares for the people he is celebrating – and not the idea of people, like the decadent Whitman – which produce an absolute conviction.”

Halfway through his essay, Sisson announces he is reviewing The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976), edited by Richard Ellmann. Of Lowell, Berryman, Creeley, Plath, Merwin & Co., Sisson says that “it would have made no difference to me if they had not written.” About Wallace Stevens he is deliciously unfair, calling him “one of the Great Names whose work I have never been able to stomach . . . I would go so far as to say that I think his work pernicious. He writes like a man determined to be subtle, a pseudo-Mallarmé, sometimes a decorator like that other inventor of gee-gaws, Edith Sitwell.” I enjoy this immensely because it helps assuage the guilt I feel over having never understood or enjoyed most of the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

1 comment:

Mudpuddle said...

i want to say: "my sentiments exactly." except that might be a bit gauche... still, it's refreshing and agrees with my perceptions; except that i would have added Hemingway to the Big Baby category, even though he's not a poet i'd still like to get him in there...