Tuesday, March 06, 2018

`Unswayed by Critics and by Vogue Undaunted'

Last Friday, Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posted a poem by Robert Hillyer, “Letter to a Teacher of English.” It’s old-fashioned and cranky but charmingly so, and at its heart is the love of language and literature:

“First would I have my scholar learn the tongue
He never learned to speak when he was young;
Then would I have him read therein, but merely
In the great books, to understand them clearly.
O that our living literature could be
Our sustenance, not archaeology!”

Hillyer (1895-1961) was only a name to me. I couldn’t place him, though he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1934. Another friend wrote to say: “I don’t know that anyone reads Hillyer anymore.” Sad but accurate. Careerists ought to take the hint: Immortality by way of poetry is unlikely. My friend included in his email an excerpt from another Hillyer poem, “A Letter to Robert Frost.” Hillyer was a dissenter when it came to literary modernism, except for the work of his friend Frost. The poem is modestly interesting, a rigorous exercise in iambic pentameter couplets:

“Ours is a startling friendship, because art,
Mother of quarrels who tears friends apart,
Has bound us ever closer, mind and heart.”

I wanted to look a little deeper into Hillyer, so I borrowed The Relic & Other Poems (Knopf, 1957). “In My Library, Late Afternoon” starts promisingly:

“In the dim library, my younger self
Drifts with possessive hands from shelf to shelf,
Haunting familiar volumes, he can quote them
More eloquently than the men who wrote them,
Because he adds a private overtone
From old associations of his own.”

This is true to my experience. Books we first loved long ago and return to with some regularity become suffused with our various selves. A book is a palimpsest of “old associations.” While reading it, we read ourselves. Hillyer even takes a swipe at what we would call “genre”:

“The notion that old books can be bewitched
By aspects of a life they have enriched
Might strike the casual reader who pursues
Detective fiction down a maze of clues
As somewhat morbid—yet I find it more so
To read all night about a missing torso.”

Hillyer next rejects “the new critic, happy jargoneer, / Who makes obscure what once was clear.” At this point, the poem turns mushy for a stanza and half, but Hillyer recovers nicely:

“Unswayed by critics and by vogue undaunted,
I am content among the books I’ve haunted:
The oftener they’re read, the more they give.
In them my cumulative past shall live
Until, our long collaboration done,
I melt in earth, they in the lexicon.”

Reading forgotten poets can be a goad to humility. Nor should we dismiss their work without first reading it. Hillyer is a minor poet by any reasonable standard, but the triumph of modernism doesn’t erase the work that preceded or ignored it. There is no such thing as progress in literature. My friend writes:

“One could do worse, I’d say, than every now and then going back and reading those poets one read in college, poets who have been pretty much forgotten. Does anybody read Vachel Lindsay these days (I heard him once on phonograph record chant one of his poems)? Elinor Wylie? H. D.? Ransom? Or Sara Teasdale, whose poetry fed my young imagination with all those things young imaginations dine on?”

1 comment:

Dana Gioia said...

Robert Hillyer is unread these days but not entirely unheard. Composer Ned Rorem did a setting of Hillyer's "Early in the Morning" that is a staple of American art song repertory. The poem, which seems a bit precious on the page, makes a charming song lyric. The music gives the words that extra bit of animation that makes them work. The same is true for Vachel Lindsay whose "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" received two knock-out settings, one by Charles Ives, the other by Sidney Homer.

American art song has a tiny audience, but it is a kindred sort of posterity for a poet.