Thursday, July 13, 2017

`What Was He, and What Was He Not?'

“And speaking of what so many critics had found to be a `philosophy of failure’ in his poetry, he said, `I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. The fat, sleek, successful alderman isn’t interesting.’ He smiled and, said again, `He isn’t interesting.’”

In August 1929, Winfield Townley Scott (1910-1968) went on pilgrimage to the MacDowell Colony to meet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Scott was nineteen, an undergraduate at Brown, and worshipful. He brought with him five of Robinson’s books, hoping the poet would autograph them. He also brought “a largely ecstatic essay” he had written about Robinson for publication that fall in a magazine at Brown. He was genuinely admiring but Scott was also an ambitious operator, busily “networking,” seeking “face time,” as some would say today. In 1956, twenty years after Robinson’s death, Scott published a brief remembrance of their meeting, “To See Robinson,” in New Mexico Quarterly. Scott says he was impressed by the poet’s “great courtesy, his modesty, his reticent but real kindness,” but one reads between the lines and senses that Robinson, though hardly immune to praise and attention, was humoring Scott, not wishing to offend a young man.

The remarks quoted at the top, taken from Scott’s memoir, distill my understanding of Robinson. He was a storyteller, not a first-person lyrical writer, and those who are popular and prosperous left him indifferent. His people are obscure and inarticulate. He finds his subjects among “the queer, odd sticks of men.” For Robinson, success isn’t interesting until it fails. See “Reuben Bright,” "Mr.Flood’s Party” and "Flammonde." In that last poem, the title character is the “Prince of Castaways,” an affable enigma. The narrator speaks for the people of Tilbury Town:

“What was he, when we came to sift
His meaning, and to note the drift
Of incommunicable ways
That make us ponder while we praise?
Why was it that his charm revealed
Somehow the surface of a shield?
What was it that we never caught?
What was he, and what was he not?”

One could write a paper on Robinson’s use of the first-person plural. Reading him, we are left with the conviction that we never truly fathom the being of others, and that we, in turn, lead ineffable lives and remain mysteries to others and ourselves. Such a man is “Richard Cory,” who ends his life without explanation and to everyone’s surprise: “In fine, we thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place.”

J.V. Cunningham in “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Brief Biography” (The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, 1976) calls the poet “a man almost without biography,” adding: “And he knew we do not really know about others; we do not know about him.” Psychology and the other social sciences can’t touch a man.

No comments: