Tuesday, November 28, 2017

`The Assonance of Eternity with Time'

Clive James moved me to find “A Problem,” a poem by Robert Conquest he calls a “philosophical disquisition made fully poetic,” and I found it in Conquest’s New and Collected Poems (Hutchinson, 1988). It appears not to be available online, which is a shame. Its six eight-line stanzas are set in Liguria, Eugenio Montale’s native region. It opens with “Liguria tingles with peculiar light. / The sea and sky exchange their various blues,” and at first reads like a travelogue with exotic scene-setting. Sun, rocks, dry weeds, the sea. Then the aperture opens wider: “And here / Man might, as well as anywhere, / Combine his landscapes and philosophies.” The next stanza and a half return to the painterly mode, followed by this:

“Where wood and sea and sky and hill
Give static broad simplicities, its course
At once more complex and more simple
Appears to thought as an example,
Like the complex, simple movement of great verse.”

For Conquest, the stark landscape becomes a model for verse-making – clarity, no excess or clutter, a classically elegant melding of elements. The poem builds energy and philosophical density in the fourth stanza:

“Gaze in that liquid crystal; let it run,
Some simple, fluent structure of the all,
No many-corridored dark Escorial,
But, poem or stream, a Parthenon:
The clear completeness of a gnomic rhyme;
Or, off the beat of pure despair
But purer to the subtler ear,
The assonance of eternity with time.”

The last line is gorgeous, made more so by Conquest rhyming “rhyme” and “time.” Now the final stanza:

“Till then, or till forever, those who’ve sought
Philosophies like verse, evoking verse,
Must take, as I beneath these junipers,
Empiric rules of joy and thought,
And be content to break the idiot calm;
While many poems that dare not guide
Yet bring the violent world inside
Some girl’s ephemeral happiness and charm.”

James later in his essay writes: “Complex simplicity means a phrase, a line, and sometimes a whole poem that makes a virtue out of incorporating its intellectual structure into its musical progression, and vice versa: it is always a two-way thing, a thermocouple of gold and platinum, but without the capacity of those two precious metals to give a precisely calculable effect." 

I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (University of California Press, 1988) by George T. Wright, which reaffirms my love of meter and rhyme, and not only in Shakespeare. Most of the rest of what passes for poetry seems flaccid and flabby. Here’s Wright:

“Iambic pentameter survives in twentieth-century verse in a dwindling remnant of  superb practitioners, most notably Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Berryman, Lowell, Larkin, Wilbur, Merrill, Hecht, and Hollander, for some of whom, as for the poets of the Renaissance, the regular meter once again seems a figure for normal life, departure from it a trope for individual eccentricity, manner, or mania. Rarely, however, does ‘normal life’ mean anything so grand as `the cosmic order’; and departures from it usually have the effect, at best, of elegant pathos rather than high tragedy. The world has changed, and iambic pentameter, whose deepest connections must always be to contemporaneous world-views, has had to change with it. Verse at present, which always somewhat blindly chooses its forms, has made other arrangements for mirroring the world, and iambic pentameter is no longer conspicuous on the program.”

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