W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

Alice Oswald’s first Oxford lecture and her recent collection, Nobody

alice oswald

I did not manage to attend Alice Oswald’s first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry but I have just listened to the podcast: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/art-erosion . The title of the lecture was ‘The Art of Erosion’ and in it Oswald made a distinction between poetry which builds up and that which erodes, the latter being what she is more interested in. Erosion as a metaphor captures the forces of nature and time central to her poetry. She argues that the poetry of erosion is not a construct but the uncovering or discovering of what is already there. Poets (and critics) are fond of dividing poetry into categories; this one reminds me of Charles Olson’s dictum that the poet could either make something up or be ‘equal to the real, itself’. This, in turn, reminds me of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, and, more significantly for Oswald, of Keats’ discussion of the egotistical sublime and the chameleon poet.

 

In her lecture, Oswald chose to quote poetic extracts concerned with nature and time, from Wyatt through Herrick to Wordsworth and back to Homer. She blithely dismissed five out of six stanzas of the Wyatt poem as being ‘love poetry’ while she analysed and treasured the first few lines which capture the process of erosion:

Processe of tyme worketh suche wounder,

That water which is of kynd so sot

Doth perse the marbell stone a sonder,

By little droppes faling from aloft.

 

I am not sure how well Oswald’s distinction works as a critical theory and she lost me when she appeared to contrast the way Wordsworth wrote about Nature with Herrick’s writing. I feel her theory is more of an enabling myth which underpins her own approach to writing poetry and which particularly works in relation to her sea poem, Nobody. This book-length work was commissioned to accompany watercolours by William Tillyer and was originally published with the watercolours as an art book. However, it has been edited and republished as a successful stand-alone poem.   We recognise many elements from Oswald’s other work. Like Memorial with which this might be paired, the one as Oswald’s take on the Iliad, this as her version of the Odyssey, the poem reflects her enduring interest in the classics. It is also, like Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, an ecological poem, a poem about landscape or waterscapes and people, about Nature and culture. In her writing, the individual “I” does not disappear, but becomes the recording eye, the listening ear open and receptive to everything in the location. This is Keats’ ‘negative capability’ which leads to the view of himself as a ‘chameleon poet’, who

has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling, some other body- the             sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women who are creatures of impulse                   are           poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet          has none;              no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.

Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818

keats

The central figure in Nobody is similarly ‘nobody’ – a poet, the nameless poet exiled by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, or even our poet, Alice Oswald, taking on different shapes like the sea god Proteus in order to convey the shifting shapes and times of the sea and the myths and histories with which it is imbued.

NOBODY

One would probably require a greater knowledge of Greek mythology, Homer and the classics than I have to pick up all the allusions in the poem. Helpfully, most of the relevant names are printed in grey uppercase at the end of the book and it does not take too much effort to look them up and revise their stories. However, the stories and figures all belong to the island-spattered Mediterranean and Aegean seas, so that the poem has a specific location.

 

In her lecture, Oswald was excited by poetry which captured the passage of time and the changes of the seasons, in particular, by poems which seemed to capture the effect of a natural force through time, which actually recorded the process of erosion, rather like those nature films where the budding and flowering of a plant are speeded up so that we can see them happening. In Nobody the writing seeks to be open to the fluctuation of the sea, so that the voice is constantly changing its identity, sometimes perhaps the poet ‘I know a snorkeller found a bronze warrior once/ with the oddest verdigris expression’, perhaps Odysseus:

a blue came over us a blue cloud

whose brown shadow goose-fleshed the sea

the ship after a little rush stopped moving

the wind with a swivelling sound began to rise

and here I am still divided in my decision

whether to heave-to or keep going under half-sail

but the water is in my thinking now

We may notice the exactitude and incidental brilliance of Oswald’s writing – ‘verdigris’ the grey-green coating of brass exposed to damp, ‘goose-fleshed’, an emotive but precise description of a change in the sea’s surface, while at the same time recognising that as the water is in the thinking of Odysseus so it is also in the thinking of the poem.

Oswald is much preoccupied with simile, particularly Homeric simile, a device she used structurally in Memorial; the similes in this poem are also remarkable, often pulling the stories and myths of the past into the present: the stranded poet paces ‘dry as an ashtray’; later a swimmer floats ‘like a wedge of polystyrene’; seals ‘bob about like footballs’. Such similes contribute to our feeling that past and present coexist in the constant change and movement of sea water.

 

This book-length poem makes excellent use of the printed page and white space. However, Oswald is a poet who writes for the voice and the ear. I have never heard her read her own work, but in the lecture it was notable how she read each of her quotations at least twice, allowing her voice to caress the words and phrases. The way this poem is set out allows us to guess at how it should sound, where the voice should linger, where it should gather pace and momentum.

 

In her lecture, Oswald remarked that Herrick was a minor poet, whereas Homer was a major one. She suggested that the difference lay in the fact that Homer (if he actually existed) had a single or unified vision while Herrick did not. Whether or not this distinction holds, we could recognise that Oswald writes from a single vision; she is a poet of ecology. There are many things she does not write about and her determined openness to landscape and waterscape, her commitment to her way of poetry have a rigour which may sometimes seem almost dispassionate or inhuman. I think this is because she displays the quality of ‘negative capability’ and the subordination of personal identity to such an extraordinary extent. Although, of course, she is the shaping force or maker of this poem, she manages to make it seem as if she were merely a conduit for the voices and forces of the sea. Thus it is fittingly titled Nobody.

 

 

Jorie Graham 4:…and, finally

Having floundered my way through “Fast”, I shall say goodbye to Jorie Graham (at least for the time being) by considering two of the elegies from the second section of  this collection and then trying to pull together some of my thoughts and feelings about this poet.

“Reading to My Father” and “The Post Human” are very closely linked, both having as their starting point the moment of death of the poet’s father. The second poem is more closely focused on this moment and on the father, while the first brings together the poet’s preoccupation with endtime, ecological catastrophe and her father’s death in connections which are not always convincing. There is a sense that the poet’s political and philosophical commentary are strongly coloured by the incidence of decay and death in her own life.

            Listen I say to you, forgetting. Do you hear it Dad. Listen.

            What is increase. The cease of increase.

            The cease of progress. What is progress.

            What is going. The cease of going.

            What is knowing. What is fruition.

            The cease of. Cease of.

            What is bloodflow. The cease of bloodflow

             of increase of progress the best is over, is over-

            thrown, no, the worst is yet to come, no, it is

            7.58 pm, it is late Spring, it is capital’s apogee, the

            flow’s, fruition’s, going’s, increase’s, in creases of

            matter, brainfold, cellflow, knowing’s

            pastime, it misfired, lifetime’s only airtime – candle says

            you shall out yourself, out-

            perform yourself, grow multiform – you shall self-identify as

                                                                                    still

            mortal – here in this timestorm –this end-of-time

            storm – the night comes on.

The poet appears to be apostrophising her just-dead father. The six lines following the injunction: “Listen” appear to mimic the inhalations and exhalations of breath or possibly the systolic-diastolic sound of the heartbeat, both of which, in the case of her father, have ceased. The repetition of “cease” emphasises death and echoes its synonym “decease”. Some of these two part lines could be offering question and answer; alternatively, they may be merely an accumulating list of questions. The form is gnomic and the progression is based on word and sound association rather than argument. “Cease” and “increase” are rhymed to represent one of the fundamental themes of the collection which is the opposition and causal connection between proliferation, abundance, the rapidity of technological change and the depletion of natural resources leading to the starvation  and death of species, including our own.  Graham throws these ideas together, expecting the reader to pick up on them, or perhaps to recognise the jumble of thoughts which come together as she confronts her father’s death. The poem is held together by its location in the moment and the image of the candle.  The poem successfully represents the actuality of this moment, “dusk-end’ when “the night comes on”, showing how mind encounters and engages with the world in which it finds itself. As the poet attempts to come to terms with her father’s death, she recalls reading to him but cannot make the memory coherent, ”the words don’t grip up into sentences for me’. Nevertheless, the matter of what she has been reading is revealed to be an article about the extinction of species: “the blue-jewel-butterfly/ you loved”.  The list of doomed species co-exists with the extinction of life in one man as the writer flicks between her grief, random thoughts about funeral procedures and her fear of accelerating technological advance. She alludes to the MRI, which reappears in Section 3 in “From Inside the MRI”. Here, it seems like one aspect of the technology which increasingly monitors us, knows us and controls us: “I feel the hissing multiplying/satellites out there I took for stars”.  The poem ends in two profoundly ambivalent lines where the poet reveals herself caught between flesh and machine: “I caress you now with the same touch/as I caress these keys.”  Throughout the book, Graham conveys this mixture of fascination and dread for the future.

The idea of life after humanity is evoked in the title of the next poem “The Post Human”, although at another level this is a description of her father’s condition after he has stopped living.  This is a beautiful piece and much more accessible than many others in the volume.  The association of ideas is more transparent and supported by closely observed physical detail which manages to capture scenes, not as snapshots but more as videos, with time incorporated into them:  “the silver morning grow as if skinning night,/that animal, till day came out raw and bleeding./Daylight mended it for now.” This extraordinary metaphor at first seems almost gratuitous but is then recognised as an image of birth which is saying something about death.  As the morning is allowed to dawn in the next few lines of the poem, Graham uses brackets to insert the moment of her father’s death and to question the difference between our relation with a dead person and a living one: [you passed in here][you left] [“you” –what did your you do?]. The italics and the unusual use of the question mark signal the importance of this question.  Given the appearance of a medium in the next poem and the exploration of cryogenics at the end of section 3, it may be that the boundary between life and death seems less absolute to Graham than it does to others.

However, the emphasis on “you” reminds us that the poem is concerned with the nature of identity and selfhood, in what “you” means in the context of the extreme discontinuity of death.  In the last few lines of the poem, she returns to this concern but is able to grant her father a new way of being, an afterlife which exists in the consciousness of those who remember him:

            There on the bed just now – (look, all of a sudden now I cannot write “your”

   bed) – I watch your afterlife begin to

   burn.  Helpful.  Making a space we had not used

   before, could not. Undimmed, unconsumed.  In it this daylight burns.

 

This image of light and energy seems to refer to and refresh the image of the candle in the previous poem. There are biblical echoes in the allusion to burning which does not consume and the discovery of, if not immortality, at least an afterlife is surprisingly optimistic and consolatory.

I like this poem, partly because I can find meaning in it, but it exemplifies a number of the concerns I have about Jorie Graham’s work.  First, there is the immediacy, or apparent immediacy, of the text: “It has been just a minute now”.  This must be disingenuous which is acknowledged in the last lines of the previous poem which refer to the computer keys simultaneously to the body of her father. I’m assuming that she was not writing the poem literally beside her father’s deathbed.  Whether she was or not, I feel that this pose of immediacy can lead to some slack or redundant writing, as in the penultimate section of the poem”

                                    There are so many copies of this minute.

            Not endless but there sure are a lot

The phrase “sure are a lot” seems unnecessarily flabby while two lines further down, the associational thinking and rhyme are so open in their reference that they annoy rather than enlighten:

                        Or, no, cup in hand, end at hand, trying to hide from the

            final ampersand.

“Final ampersand” is a kind of oxymoron but it is so vague it does not delight.

Another problem I have with much of Graham’s writing is the claim that she is trying to escape the tyranny of the subjective “I” and allow the other, the phenomenal world to exist in her poems. She views this as a version of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –“ [1] We could say that Graham’s work leaves the reader with mystery and doubts but it is very difficult not to reach after fact and reason, especially when she often seems to be making statements. Perhaps more relevant is the other famous passage from Keats, often quoted alongside this one, when he describes the poetical character as

not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago  as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[2]

 

This seems closer to what Graham is looking for, particularly in more recent work. She has talked about allowing voices into the poem (see previous posts) ; a poem can become an arena where different ideas and perspectives are allowed to interact, which can be confusing for the reader.  However, as I have already suggested, this is notional rather than real. Graham is not a Sybil nor a medium channeling the voice of the gods, or the ocean floor, or bots; she is writing consciously and subjectively expressing what she thinks these voices would be, except of course where she quotes directly from another source, as from Columbus or Julian of Norwich.  Even here subjectivity takes control through the way the found material is ordered in the poem.  I would argue that Graham is not an example of negative capability but rather that she has one of the largest poetic egos currently at work.  This is not intended to be an insult but rather a recognition that she uses the first person, her own subjective consciousness and its engagement with the world as her material, and that when she does this well she creates an dynamic impression of the subject interacting with the object in a constant process of change.

 

Graham writes in a tradition much more familiar in America than Britain. The open poem, often appearing to lack form or order apart from its own organic shape, has never really gained widespread recognition here. For many British readers, Graham’s poems might read like drafts, like notes for a poem or even as self-indulgence.  I do not think this is a fair criticism; this is writing which is very exposed.  It entails constant attention to what is going on in the world and a monitoring of how that is being processed inside the writer’s own head.  The attempt to record that is strenuous and difficult and there is no place to hide, as there might be in the shapeliness of a sonnet or other prescribed form.  It only works when it is done well and it would be surprising if all Graham’s work, of which there is a lot, were equally successful.  I think there is a danger, however, of elevating a writer to the status of a guru and then treating all their work as important.  Although climate change and artificial intelligence are obviously of pressing concern for humanity, I am not sure that their topicality in itself makes for great poetry.   Graham is a very serious poet; she is consumed by the fundamental issues of the age.  Reading her work over the last few weeks, I have been both impressed and bewildered. At times I would have just liked her to lighten up.

 

 


[1] Letter to Tom and George Keats, 1817

[2] Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 1818