Saturday, September 09, 2017

`A Poet Writing Prose'

In the October 1948 issue of Poetry, Janet Lewis reviewed Fifty-one Poems by Mary Webb, an English writer who had died twenty-one years earlier. By 1948, Lewis had already published four novels (including her masterpiece, The Wife of Martin Guerre, in 1941), a collection of stories and three books of poetry. Lewis writes of Webb and by implication of her own accomplishment:

“Although she is primarily a poet, her greatest achievement has been in the novel, and it has been a remarkable achievement. Why this should be so is rather hard to say, since one might presume that a poet writing poetry would do better than a poet writing prose.”

I had never before heard of Webb (1881-1927). Thanks to Lewis’ review I have been reading her poems and essays, though not her fiction. The sentences immediately following the passage quoted above clinched my interest in Webb: “There is not much place in the practice of the lyric for wit, humor and drama, all of which are to be found in the novels. But I think it more probable that the greater vitality of the novels lies in the greater awareness of the problem of the existence of evil.” This says much about Lewis’ own practice as a novelist. Evil – commonplace, domestic evil, not mass executions – hovers like a fine mist in her fiction. Henry James wrote of Emerson: “. . . he had no great sense of wrong – a strangely limited one, indeed for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected.” A sense of evil is probably a prerequisite for anyone hoping to write fiction or anything else worthy of adult attention.

Before quoting from one of the essays in Webb’s The Spring of Joy, Lewis accounts for their “vitality” with “the greater precision of description which prose permits the poet.” This recalls Ford Madox Ford’s dictum that “poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.” Of course, it seldom is. Webb’s prose is clear, a virtue not always typical of late Victorians or early Modernists, but her thinking seems to be out of focus (never a failing in Lewis’ work). She avoids rhapsodies but remains a nature mystic. Woods, birds and rain seem to interest her more than human beings. She is Thoreau without the whining and politics. She gets mushy with pantheism. Here is an excerpt from “Laughter” in The Spring of Joy:
“There is a path that leads from every one’s door into the country of young laughter: but you must stoop to find it. The branches laugh and sigh above; willow-herb and traveller's joy cover you with their soft fleeces; fennel and flowering mint make the air spicy; the burdock and the bedstraw stretch out their hands to catch you. There the birds sit so erectly prim and so silently mirthful that you often have to clap your hand over your mouth like a child in case your echoing laughter should disturb the place.”

Sorry to say, but I had to stifle my own laughter while reading this. I’m allergic to whimsy. Some of the poems, or some of the lines in some of the poems, are made for reading aloud. Take Webb’s “Green Rain” (Poems and The Spring of Joy, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1929):

“Into the scented woods we’ll go,
And see the blackthorn swim in snow.
High above, in the budding leaves,
A brooding dove awakes and grieves;
The glades with mingled music stir,
And wildly laughs the woodpecker.
When blackthorn petals pearl the breeze,
There are the twisted hawthorn trees
Thick-set with buds, as clear and pale
As golden water or green hail —
As if a storm of rain had stood
Enchanted in the thorny wood,
And, hearing fairy voices call,
Hung poised, forgetting how to fall.”

The first two lines gallop, though the sixth line is a clunker. Compare this with Lewis’ “At Carmel Highlands”: (Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000):

“Below the gardens and the darkening pines
The living water sinks among the stones,
Sinking yet foaming till the snowy tones
Merge with the fog drawn landward in dim lines.
The cloud dissolves among the flowering vines,
And now the definite mountain-side disowns
The fluid world, the immeasurable zones.
Then white oblivion swallows all designs.

“But still the rich confusion of the sea,
Unceasing voice, sombre and solacing,
Rises through veils of silence past the trees;
In restless repetition bound, yet free,
Wave after wave in deluge fresh releasing
An ancient speech, hushed in tremendous ease.”

Here is a poet who can simultaneously think and sing. Lewis, in her fiction and verse, is one of the few essential American writers of the last century, along with Cather, Nabokov and her husband.

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