Tuesday, July 03, 2018

'As Subtle and Forceful as Any Poet'

One of the pleasures of visiting my in-laws in Fredericksburg, Va., besides seeing the battlefield again, is rummaging among my father-in-law’s books, notably those he received as academic prizes from his Canadian boarding school more than sixty years ago. It’s an opportunity to indulge in high-quality literary comfort food, toothsome and sustaining. This trip I reread Kipling’s Stalky & Co., “The Bridge-Builders” and some of his verse, plus a handful of O. Henry stories and poems by Tennyson, including “The Day-Dream.” In the second section of the “L’envoi” to that poem I learned a new word:

“So sleeping, so aroused from sleep
    Thro’ sunny decades new and strange,
Or gay quinquenniads would we reap
    The flower and quintessence of change.”

You get some sense of the meaning from context and whatever threadbare Latin you possess. Also spelled “quinquennium,” a quinqueniad is, according to the OED, “a period or term of five years.” Tennyson’s usage is the first cited by the Dictionary, which helpfully adds “Now rare.” Tennyson is one of poetry’s masters of sound. When reading his best verse, it’s difficult to resist singing the lines. Deep knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats and Tennyson are the minimal requirement for anyone presuming to write verse in English.

Our trip back East was unexpectedly productive. In Old Fox Books in Annapolis, Md., I found a first edition of Turner Cassity’s second collection, Steeplejacks in Babel (David R. Godine, 1973). Three days later, in Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, I found a second printing of Cassity’s first collection, Watchboy, What of the Night? (Wesleyan University Press, 1966), and a first edition of No Second Eden (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2001). “In Sydney by the Bridge” is from Steeplejacks in Babel:    

“Cruise ships are, for the young, all that which varies.
The aged disembark with dysenteries.
Always, it is middle age that sees the ferries.

“They hold no promise. Forward or reverse
 Impels them only to where what occurs,
 Occurs. Such is, at least, the chance of being terse,

“And is their grace. The lengthy liners, fraught
 Sublimely, shrill for tugs. If they’re distraught,
 That is because the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts?

 “Save those of gratitude. The slow, massed force
 That frees them they will cast off in due course,
 To learn, or not to learn, the ferries’ sole resource:

“How, in the crowding narrows, when the current
Runs in opposition and the torrent
Claws the wheel, to locate in routine, abhorrent

“For the storm, the shore that makes it specious;
 Where one calls the vicious, curtly, vicious,
 And the scheduled ferry, not the cruise ship, precious.”

Ostensibly, the poem concerns Sydney Harbor and two classes of watercraft, cruise ships and ferries, and their partisans. I intend no pun, but Cassity is implicitly a ferry man when writing poems. Like free verse, cruise ships wallow and meander. Ferries, with regular routes, resemble metrical, rhyming verse: “Such is, at least, the chance of being terse, / And is their grace.” Cassity is a wizard of enjambment: “They hold no promise. Forward or reverse / Impels them only to where what occurs, / Occurs.” And talk about rhymes: “specious,” “vicious,” “precious.”

“He the Compeller” is an excellent essay by Cassity collected in Politics and Poetic Value (University of Chicago Press, 1987), edited by Robert von Hallberg. His subject is Kipling, of whom he writes (and he might be writing of himself): “He was capable of rhythm as subtle and as forceful as any poet who ever wrote.”

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