Thursday, April 27, 2017

`The Words Are Pouring'

“You loved the monosyllable and it / Runs through your music.”

Short words, like clusters of consonants shorn of vowels, slow things down. They feel hard and pebble-like, almost punctuation. Longer words are likelier to flow, often briskly like water in a shallow, rocky stream. Together they make music, otherwise known as the English language. In the passage above, Elizabeth Jennings celebrates a seventeenth-century forbear in “For George Herbert” (Tributes, 1989). A Roman Catholic, Jennings praises the example Herbert set as an Anglican priest:

“You’d understand the gratitude I feel,
My need to tell it too.”

Jennings is one of poetry’s great thanks givers. The title of the quoted volume is typical. In the same collection, along with Herbert she honors Philip Larkin and Charles Causley, Goya and Caravaggio, her father and Alec Guinness. To Herbert she says:

“When I’ve been low I’ve felt your deference
To all that dogs mankind
And all that also gives him happiness.”

In Herbert, poetry and spiritual consolation mingle. In perfect iambs, Jennings puts it like this: “It is within your words.” Herbert’s emphasis, she says, “. . . Is on the drama lived in each man’s soul, / His battle with his flawed / Aspirations and you make him whole . . .” The stanza closes with a bold statement: “No one wrote like this before.” The next line is the one cited at the top about the preponderance of one-syllable words in Herbert’s verse. It recalls “The Pearl,” in which the final line of each stanza is strictly monosyllabic: “Yet I love thee” in the first three, “To climb to thee” in the last. The effect is one of conviction and finality. Consider Herbert’s essential lexicon: “love,” “heart,” “life,” “death,” “praise,” “God.”

Herbert’s poem carries the epigraph “MATTHEW xiii,” in which Jesus relates seven parables, two of which refer to a valuable pearl, as in Matthew 13:46 in the King James Version: “Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Crudely put, “The Pearl” is the story of a reasonably successful man who, nagged by a sense of emptiness, mends his way. The poem concludes:

“Yet through these labyrinths, not my groveling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.”

Here is the conclusion of Jennings’ poem, addressed to Herbert: “You have released my spirit, sent it on / Audacious flights by what you’ve said and done.”

In Jennings’ poems, words often become animated, even personified, and move about the world like discrete beings. In “The Words are Pouring,” from Praises (1998), she writes:

“The words are pouring. Listen to their sound,
Their implications, weather, strength and cry,
Let dictionaries shout against the wind
And lyricism find its weather there.”

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