John Ashbery: Poems

John Ashbery, a poet in the New York School, is often thought of as having inherited the poetic tradition of Wallace Stevens (phenomenological) vs. Pound and Creeley (historical).

“SOME TREES,” 1956

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

The poem expresses and renews the joys of nature by pointing out that the beauty the speaker finds is in the fact of being “glad not to have invented such comeliness.” The trees, as in Mrs. Dalloway, represent some form of both rootedness and connectivity. The attention to speech performance is also interesting in a poem about trees because Saussure’s original sign, made of signifier/signified, was of the tree/arbor.

“SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR,” 1975

Examining the convex portrait of Parmigianino, the speaker considers it from all perspectives with a sort of “peripheral vision.” He says to the artist, “your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there…. And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,/ No words to say what it really is, that it is not/ Superficial but a visible core, then there is/ No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.” I am very interested in this idea, as well as how the mirror plays with the idea of “reflection.” The doubt of sight enters: “the supposition of promises together/ In one piece of surface… more keeps getting included/ Without adding to the sum.”  “Those assholes/ Who would confuse everything with their mirror games/ Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or/ At least confuse issues by means of an investing/ Aura that would corrode the architecture/ Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,/ Are beside the point.” He concludes with an image resembling faceting: “We have seen the city; it is the gibbous/ Mirrored eye of an insect.” The poem is an extremely complex literary encounter with visual art, in the tradition of poets like Auden (“Musee Des Beaux Arts”), William Carlos Williams (poems on Brueghel), and others.

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Wallace Stevens: Poems

Wallace Stevens

“THE SNOW MAN,” 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The poem does not introduce the completion of the first line “One must have a mind of winter” until the seventh line, “and not to think.” The frozen elongation of imagery over the intervening lines gives a picture of winter itself, of what a “mind of winter is” – patience, waiting, even self-effacement. This is reinforced in the final stanza where “the listener,” rendered impersonal, is “nothing himself” and beholds “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” This strange awareness of self as presence/absence and exterior world as presence/absence affords both the possibility of disjunction and a kind of transcendent unity.

HARMONIUM, 1923

“THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In Russian Formalist terms, the “story” of the poem differs sharply from its “plot.” It details a visit to the neighbor’s house to prepare a corpse for burial, while in the kitchen, a gaudy preparation of food and drink sharply contrasts the scene in the bedroom. Each stanza of 8 lines ends in a rhyming couplet, emphasizing through repetition the contrast of the two rooms: life and death. “Let be be finale of seem” endorses being over seeming, but acknowledges the power of the latter. “Let the lamp affix its beam” presumes control over the ineffable.

“ANECDOTE OF THE JAR”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The blank jar with Nature subdued around it has been read (by Helen Vendler) as an American contrast to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the poet has firm grasp of Western history and culture. Here, instead, the poet places the jar in Nature and makes of it a center “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The made, aesthetic object seems to give shape to an otherwise unruly space. The repetition of Tennessee seems to be an insistence on the American locality of the poem. The jar reminds me of the Sybil hanging in a jar in Eliot, as well as Heidegger’s essay on “the jug,” which he takes as an ultimate example of the-thing-in-itself, its use available to us, the process of its making evident and textural. It is in that essay that Heidegger separates being (flux, non-thingliness) from a being (God or a system) that humans try to hang the essence of being upon.

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD”

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The frozen landscape is reminiscent of a number of Stevens poems, including “The Snow Man.” The movement of the bird’s eye is that of perception. The choice of a bird to explore epistemological problems places Stevens in a tradition with Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Auden, and others.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The speaker imagines the potential multiplicity of the mind as a hypostatic trinity, or three-in-one.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

The speaker emphasizes the smallness  of the individual, again like “The Snow Man.”

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

In this stanza, Williams plays with the problem of unity between beings, versus their necessarily discrete nature.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

The “beauty of inflections” comes in the actual sound of song or verse, while the “beauty of innuendoes” are in the silences and lacunae between experiences, or outside of them.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

This “barbaric glass” recalls Emerson, Frost, and a tradition of visual American questioning of Nature.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Again, this is an Emersonian idea, like the essay, “Circles,” in which Emerson claims interconnectedness through that geometric figure.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Again, interconnectedness seems impossible, but mystically tempting here.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Here Stevens characteristically plays with the passing of time: the light of evening and its anticipation all afternoon, the experience of snow and the knowledge only after that it “was going to snow” more. The blackbird returns to a stationary place in the trees. Perhaps its eye is moving.

PARTS OF A WORLD, 1942

“STUDY OF TWO PEARS”

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

“A small didactic work”: The pears are the things in themselves, and nothing else. They are not mere symbols.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

The pears can be described concretely in visual terms by form and content: shape, color, and heft.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

They are not merely aesthetic representations, as in a painting. The pears which had round bottoms in the last stanza have tapering tops here.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

Nevertheless, Stevens gives a painterly aspect to his description of them.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

It seems almost impossible to do verbal justice to the variance of color and texture here.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

The pears impose themselves on the viewer in their materiality: they “are not seen/ As the observer wills,” but as they are.

“OF MODERN POETRY”

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

In the first stanza, Stevens enters “in medias res” to “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice,” similar to the beginning of some Williams poems. The speaker recalls a time when “the scene was set,” but now “the theatre” is changed. Poetry has to “be living,” “learn,” “face,” “meet,” “think,” and “find.” Some of this language recalls and contrasts with Prufrock’s anxiety about performance (himself as a Shakespeare character) and need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Here, the poem is “a metaphysician in the dark,” a happening, a process in flux –  music. It is the unity of two seemingly discrete things. It is the relaying of feeling.

Robert Frost: Poems

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in California but spent most of his life in New England. His style is characterized by its openness in contrast to the high modernists who left America for Europe. He was also a high school and college teacher, and his tendency to pedagogy, conversation, and questioning are evident in his poems, which are often staged as facets or flashes of a story, reworkings of a Victorian tradition of narrative poetry and dramatic monologue.

NORTH OF BOSTON, 1914

“MENDING WALL”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The interrupted or bizarre “Yoda” syntax “Something there is…” emphasizes an unnameable force reminds me of the in medias res beginnings of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings poems later in the century. It shows an almost-perfect iambic pentameter and is a good example of poetic impersonality. The artificial social world here “wants” to engage with Nature’s force, where Nature is a stage for the interaction. The wall is often interpreted as poetry itself – it is both artifice or craft and Nature and chaos – something that stands between and, as Frost wrote in an essay on poetry, “rides its own melting.”

“HOME BURIAL”

This long poem concerns the death of a child determined by a man’s perspective, seemingly cold and distant as he tries to see the perspective of the hysterically mourning woman. It is almost in a free indirect discourse, with his flat delivery of the narrative nevertheless inducing pathos because of his struggle to understand what has happened and the interest in the difficult relationship of parts to whole.

“AFTER APPLE-PICKING”

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still.
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall,
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Concerned with abundance and visceral exhaustion, the poem repeats in cycles to parallel the natural seasons it describes. When he looks through “a pane of glass/ I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough,” it reminds me of the Emersonian lens – the making of the whole body into an eye. It also melts as the poem runs on, again like Frost’s idea of the poem that “rides its own melting,” just as the seasons and days pass.

MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, 1916

“THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Here the emphasis is on the need to be one traveler – both fair and untrodden (a self-deception of how one moves through time). Think of the proleptic/analeptic notion of Genette, but compressed into a poem instead of a narrative.

“BIRCHES”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Like Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill,” Frost builds an imaginative world here, one in which the boy’s play shapes Nature, rather than Nature shaping itself. Frost imagines this play, which he engaged in once himself, as a kind of calling, comparable to Salinger’s “catcher in the rye” – Frost writes that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” In both cases, the desire to turn play and beauty into a career is impossible in society (especially an urbanizing capitalist society from which Frost’s idealized boy is separated by distance). Like Thomas’ poem, Frost here expresses a mixture of nostalgia for the imaginative world of childhood as well as a delight in poetry as a means of creating worlds as well.

“OUT, OUT -”

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all was spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Here, a hard, empty center – a synecdoche – becomes the whole. The poem turns from the humorous independence of the living saw to the tragedy of the boy’s unexpected death. The line “in the dark of ether” reminds me of Eliot’s “Prufrock.”

SELECTED POEMS, 1923

“FIRE & ICE”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost had spoken to astronomer Harlow Shapley, who told him that the world would either freeze or burn after the explosion of the sun. Desire is fire here, while ice is hatred, and the poem’s movement down 9 lines is like the 9 circles of hell, which get hotter and hotter and end with the worst sinners encased in ice at the bottom. The poem is also satiric, probably intended for humor.

“NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

A poem about ephemerality, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also posits a symbolic tension between the “green” of youth or spring and the “value” of gold or autumn. In this way, the poem questions how we choose what we value and whether we can in fact appreciate it before it has passed.

“STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

One interesting thing about what is probably Frost’s most famous poem is that this private, natural, Thoreau-like moment is taken by a man not out in the real wilds, but on another man’s woods – woods Frost knows are the property of someone else. It is also reminiscent of Auden’s idea in “Their Lonely Betters,” about the birds, that “Words are for those with promises to keep.” Here, the speaker is ready to let himself go, but his mantra at the end calls attention to the medium of language and to his societal obligations.

“SPRING POOLS”

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

The speaker considers the reflective pools in the woods that will soon be sucked up by tree roots to generate the dense, leafy foliage of summer. The penultimate line, “These flowery waters and these water flowers,” expresses a joy in the symmetry of reflection soon to be gone, although it has just arrived, “From snow that melted only yesterday.” It would be interesting to put this in conversation with Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones,” also a pun on “reflection.”

“DESIGN,” 1936

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

The rhyme scheme here is that of an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet,  with a slight variation in the rhyming of the sestet: the abba abba / cdccdd instead of cdcdcd. The “dimpled spider, fat and white” recalls the “dimpled darling” of Little Miss Moffitt, The spider, the flower, and the moth (made into similes of “cloth” and “kite”) are all white, but Frost sees “death and blight” in this “design” instead of innocence and light. At the volta (the tonal turn at the sestet), Frost becomes less certain of the fatal design, and turns instead to questioning the larger forces of the universe (this is comparable to Yeats in the much less concrete and more symbolic poems “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming”).

William Carlos Williams: Poems

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was raised in New Jersey, completing his medical degree at UPenn, where he met Ezra Pound and h.d., as well as painter Charles Demuth (whose famous “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” complements Williams’ poem “The Great Figure”). He married Flossie in 1912 and remained interested in “women and the mixed belittlement-adoration accorded them by men (including [himself])” in his poetry. He was against ‘isms,’ particularly the abstruse high modernism of Pound and Eliot, and engaged with them through his poetry. He championed leftist beliefs mixed with an American insistence on individualism, and his local poetry is a stand against those poets who believed they could only create high art by going to Europe. His “characteristic style” emerges around 1923 with “Spring and All,” largely a response to The Waste Land, and focuses on the material world, a love of region and rootedness, and play of syntax and enjambment rather than heteroglossia and fragmentation. His “no ideas but in things” is more parallel to Stevens’ “not ideas about the thing but the thing in itself” than either is to Pound’s “the natural object is always the adequate symbol,” but Stevens’ poems are nevertheless cooler and more philosophical than Williams’ vibrant praxis. Williams’ focus on the angular moment (he often emphasizes time) is also comparable to Pound’s more strictly imagist interest in chiaroscuro of “the luminous detail.”

“THE YOUNG HOUSEWIFE,” 1916

At ten AM the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

The speaker of the poem, likely a doctor driving by a patient’s house, acts as a voyeur with almost x-ray vision, imagining her “behind” (pun intended) the “wooden walls of her husband’s house” while the speaker uses another possessive pronoun to describe his car. The woman exists in an otherwise male space – she does not own her house, she “comes to the curb/ to call the ice-man, fish-man.” Is the “then again” of the second stanza a “usually” or an “in contrast”? The speaker is drawn to her “shy” and “uncorseted” figure. It is striking that the speaker names her (“I compare her to a fallen leaf”) before describing the violent, but also uplifting, erotic tension of his silent finale: “The noiseless wheels of my car/ rush with a crackling sound over/ dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” In this sense, he both lovingly attends to her (aesthetically), but also problematically replaces her subjectivity with his – she is what he compares her to.

“QUEEN-ANNE’S LACE,” 1921

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.
The poem riffs on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, but instead of refiguring the metaphors, as Shakespeare does, Williams starts by claiming to reject figuration altogether (“nor so remote a thing”) in favor of a more material experience of his lover’s body. Though he does not use “like” or other similes, he does employ metaphor – he compares her to “a field of the wild carrot.” The phrase “Wherever his hand has lain there is a tiny purple blemish” reminds me of the tragic story “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love the tension between the atomized flowers (“Each part is a blossom under his touch”) and “the whole field is a white desire… or nothing.” It captures, like Woolf often does, the macro- micro- sweep of eros, as well as the self-annihilation of its fulfillment.

SPRING AND ALL, 1923

“SPRING AND ALL”

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

The strange, almost “in medias res” beginning of the poem asks us to question if it is the institution of medicine itself which is contagious. The phrase “lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches” reminds me of the curio fixation in “To Elsie” and “The Dead Baby.” Nature is eroticized in the ambiguous “they,” “naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter” – does it mean “which they enter” or “the fact of entering”? The last line is firm, a taking hold. The poem is often considered a response to Eliot’s The Waste Land, suggesting that though spring appears as stasis and dry patches, it lives before it knows it lives (hence the interrupted syntax of several points of the poem). Versus Pound’s “sonorous mellifluousness,” Williams relies on syntax and lineation, the movement within the lines, the jagged enjambment of surfaces and linking words (attention to language made up of objects and links between them).

“TO ELSIE”

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of 
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags-succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum-
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she'll be rescued by an 
agent—
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor's family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

The poem’s “products” and “sheer rags” explore a country made of surface, without history – the expansion of space but not over much time. The situation “will throw up a girl… some Elsie,” who is “voluptuous water expressing with broken brain the truth about us… while the imagination strains after deer.” This series of natural images conjures a deadening sense of the idealized American pastoral. Another poem that plays on the imagination as a feature of the objective world, in conversation with the more abstract and negative portrayals of the high modernists.

“THE RED WHEELBARROW”

so much depends
upona red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The structure of the poem’s enjambment places the first line visually “upon” the word “upon.” The word “depends” is enjambed, freezing the piece in the Keatsian eternal present. In the next three lines, the adjectives that modify the objects are enjambed. I have heard of this poem being read as “the American flag,” the red, white, and blue of the water. The prepositions with/beside are visually balanced against the articles a/the. It also investigates the pressure placed on each word in the imagist poem. It is hypostatic (treats abstract language as concrete linkages – the term is also medical for the gathering of fluids by gravity) in the religious (trinity) and phenomenological (real) senses, whereas Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro” is more paratactic (dependent on linear concatenation without explanation). It frustrates the symbolist impulse to isolate one thing, pregnant with meaning, that is not in contact with others by presenting a series of objects, presented with equanimity, that touch at their boundaries.

“THE DEAD BABY,” 1927

Sweep the house
under the feet of the curious
holiday seekers–
sweep under the table and the bed
the baby is dead–

The mother’s eye’s where she sits
by the window, unconsoled–
have purple bags under them
the father–
tall, wellspoken, pitiful
is the abler of these two–

Sweep the house clean
here is one who has gone up
(unproblematically)
to heave, blindly
by force of the facts–
a clean sweep
is one way of expressing it–

Hurry up! any minute
they will be bringing it
from the hospital–
a white model of our lives
a curiosity
surrounded by fresh flowers

This poem makes of the dead baby a horrible but fascinating Victorian curio or specimen, “surrounded by fresh flowers.” The clean “sweep” of its death is striking against the obsessive “sweeping” done as a coping mechanism. It is reminiscent of Heaney’s poems about the blackened and reddened bog bodies in interesting ways.

“THIS IS JUST TO SAY,” 1934

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The word “Just” in the title could imply a casual tone (the note left on the counter), but also a sense of “justice” – it is “good and right” to say so, as if the meal were Communion. The speaker negotiates a marital moment, having succumbed to one sensual temptation (eating sweet, cold, delicious plums from the icebox), if not another (the deliciousness is erotically charged). The poem speaks against an imagist poem like “In A Station of the Metro,” in which the two images are urban/Japanese, vs. here, the ordinary American suburban home is mined for the concrete detail.

THE WEDGE, 1944

“A SORT OF A SONG”

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.
— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

The poem is famous for the line “no ideas but in things,” juxtaposed against the Saxifrage, a flower that grows in rocky and inclement places. Williams’ “no ideas but in things” and “nothing good save the new” can be compared to Pound’s “the natural object is always the perfect symbol” and “make it new.” The mottos demonstrate the way in which Williams maintains an interest in throwing out the old symbolism and replacing it with sensual materialism, while Pound wants to remake the old and reinvigorate symbols of the past.

“THE DANCE (IN BRUEGHEL’S GREAT PICTURE)

In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.

The poem’s enjambment circles and swings around, imitating the dancers and bringing it all around in one full circle with the repetition of “Kermess.” The phrase “must be sound” puns on the absent music in both the painting and the poem.

“BURNING THE CHRISTMAS GREENS”

Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
–go up in a roar

All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the green
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash–

and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed become
a landscape of flame

At the winter’s midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their green

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need, and over
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of small
white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log’s smouldering eye, opening
red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow’s
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where

small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for them
and knocks down

the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of
snow–Transformed!

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red–as

yet uncolored–and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.

The poem begins by treating the greens as things whose time is past, then circles back to the time they were gathered “to fill our need.” He recalls the artifice of the deer, “as if they were walking there,” repeated in the last line with “as if we stood ourselves refreshed among the shining fauna of that fire.” With this repetition, we are invited to explore the speaker and the others as part of the artifice, believing themselves reinvigorated by the end of Christmas. The “scene” in the flames also parallels the “scene” of the deer figurines. It would be interesting to compare this with Larkin’s stark atheism in poems like “High Windows” or the fire scenes of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”

PICTURES FROM BRUEGHEL, 1962

“LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS”

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

The event of Icarus’ drowning slowly spirals in from wide scope to narrow, atomized event, with the middle stanza “concerned with itself” and the following one going from cause (“sun”) to effect (“melted the wings’ wax). Compare this to Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

“THE DANCE (WHEN THE SNOW FALLS)”

When the snow falls the flakes spin upon the long axis
that concerns them most intimately
two and two to make a dance

the mind dances with itself,
taking you by the hand,
your lover follows
there are always two,

yourself and the other,
the point of your shoe setting the pace,
if your break away and run
the dance is over

Breathlessly you will take
another partner
better or worse who will keep
at your side, at your stops

whirls and glides until he too
leaves off
on his way down as if
there were another direction

gayer, more carefree
spinning face to face but always down
with each other secure
only in each other's arms

But only the dance is sure!
make it your own.
Who can tell
what is to come of it?

in the woods of your
own nature whatever
twig interposes, and bare twigs
have an actuality of their own

this flurry of the storm
that holds us,
plays with us and discards us
dancing, dancing as may be credible.

The line “only the dance is sure” reminds me of Yeats’ “the dancer or the dance” and Eliot’s reference to dance in “Four Quartets.”

Fredric Jameson, “Culture” (Ch 1, “Postmodernism”)

1984

Jameson begins by stating that the present time (the eighties) is obsessed with “a break…. the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement” that occurred in the late 50s or early 60s (significantly a period we still seem to be making ever more movies and TV shows about, in fits of continued ‘nostalgia’) 1. For Jameson, this remains confused in literary and artistic production – a “new aesthetic of textuality,” but is crystallized in architecture (re: Brideshead’s exhausted representations of old architecture?) 2.

Postmodern architecture performs for Jameson: it “stage[s] itself as a kind of aesthetic populism” that effaces the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture… that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Levis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School… this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch” 2. Whereas modernism “quoted” from pop culture – think Ulysses – postmodern works “incorporate” this “into their very substance,” an odd statement not least because it’s questionable what Jameson would mean by substance here 3. The third stage of capitalism is no longer about industrialism and class struggle, but is purer, so that “every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” 3. Postmodernism, too, should be conceived for Jameson “not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant” with “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (reminiscent of Foucault on sexuality 4.

Though Jameson acknowledges that Stein, Roussel, and Duchamp seem to be postmodern avant-la-lettre, he holds that this does not account for the social history, the canonization of the modern (and even its appropriation), by the bourgeoisie 4. He also acknowledges that the postmodern is already incapable of shocking us with its obscurity and sexual content. This brings to mind Ngai’s idea of “stuplimity,” which both locates Stein and Beckett as “postmodern” writers, but also claims that the alternation between shock and boredom is key to the contemporary affect she describes.

Aesthetics are now fully bound to the economy, and this is one reason Jameson prefers the example of architecture, closely tied in its production to global corporations 5. This leads him to explain why the postmodern must not be swallowed into periodization as “modern” – it is not historically coterminous and  as a system, it does not actually obliterate heterogeneity, though Jameson is willing to interrogate the difficulty of the “‘winner loses’ logic”:

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree hloses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed… perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself 5.

The postmodern’s “hegemonic norm” actually highlights “genuine difference” for Jameson, protecting us from the myopic vision of our own time as uniquely ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ 6. The postmodern is “the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses – what Raymond Williams has usefully termed ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ forms of cultural production – must make their way” 6. Its features are 1) a “new depthlessness… both in contemporary ‘theory’ and… the culture of the image or the simulacrum, 2) a flattening or weakening of historicity through ‘schizophrenic’ Lacanian structures of syntax, 3) a “return to older theories of the sublime” in “a new type of emotional ground tone,” 4) a whole new technology tied to globalization, and 5) a mission of political art as it has shifted in multinational capitalism 6.

Jameson begins by discussing Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s shoes (over and against its “copiou[s] reproduc[tion] – re: Benjamin), with its “hallucinatory surface of color” as “an act of compensation” for the darkness of labor under capitalism 7. Secondarily, Jameson offers a Heideggerian reading, in which the meaningless material (Earth) is elevated through art to the level of aesthetics, society, and history (World) 7.  This is a kind of “laying bare the device,” through which aesthetic mediation uncovers the truth of the object, and again, this is partly through the materiality of the painting itself (again re: Benjamin) 8. Both readings are hermeneutical, says Jameson – they can be abstracted to larger meaning, whereas Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” cannot. Warhol’s shoes are not “a heterosexual pair” like Van Gogh’s, but a collection of single, odd “dead objects” 8. They are fetishes, decontextualized from their original materiality and unable to be material in art either, because they are like X-ray photographs, reproduced and flattened and sprinkled with a sealing veil of golden sparkles, expressive of the return of the repressed, “decorative exhilaration,” but also “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” (an idea Ngai resists in “Stuplimity”) 10.

This is not to say there is no emotion here, but that art does not “look back” at us, and that other Warhol subjects “like Marilyn Monroe – …are themeselves commodified and transformed into their own images” (though Jameson does not gender this, he probably should) 11. Essentially, the art of anxiety, such as Munch’s “The Scream,” is predicated on a division of the inner self and the outer world, “the outward dramatization of inward feeling” 12. This is connected to the poststructuralist critique of depth models of hermeneutics: 1) the dialectical essence vs appearance, 2) the Freudian latent vs manifest, 3) the existential divide of authentic vs inauthentic, and 4) the opposition of signifier and signified – itself already unraveled 12. For Jameson:

“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures… [suggest that] here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth” 12.

Jameson cites the tall, flat Wells Fargo Court in L.A., which “momentarily transforms the solid ground on which we stand into the contents of a stereopticon… as fateful as the great monolith in Kubrick’s 2001,” an idea that really reminds me of Linda Williams’ concept that if the original film was concerned with panorama, the new one is concerned with height (contemporary examples: think Avatar’s cliffs vs. The Master‘s painted-scenery of flat “depths,” as opposed to old Westerns or Abel Gance’s Napoleon) 13. As opposed to Ngai, for Jameson anxiety and alienation are purely modernist affects: “This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation” 14. In other words, it is no longer the world that is fragmented, as in modernism, but the subject. 

Like Benjamin, for Jameson this means the end of individual style, and the “emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction… a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well” – not so much the end of feeling as its depersonalization, as well as the accompaniment of euphoria to its expression 15-16. More concretely, this signifies

“the waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory… we now inhabit they synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” 16.

If parody is modern (despite the “inimitable” modern styles  – Faulkner’s long sentences, Lawrence’s natural imagery, Stevens’ evasions of certain syntaxes) because these “ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself” and are “willful eccentricities,” then pastiche is the province of the postmodern (though what about The Waste Land?16. “Modernist styles become postmodernist codes” for Jameson, layered atop the many codes of jargon, idiolect, and regionalism, since “advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” 17. Pastiche is instead “blank parody” – a “linguistic mask” with no humor or satiric impulse that “cannibalizes” past styles by attaching “neo” to them 17-18. It is characteristic of “consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles'” 18. For Jameson, as for Guy Debord, this is where “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed,” becomes useful, since “the image has become the final form of commodity reification” 18.

Instead of Lukac’s historical time in the novel, we now face a “libidinal historicism,” seeking to assimilate “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” leaving us with “nothing but texts” 18. In the nostalgia film,  for example, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” (he cites George Lucas’ American Graffiti – “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire”) 19. The nostalgia film sees the past in “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image… by the attributes of fashion” – he cites Barthes’ Mythologies 19. In this sense – in the “remake,” “retelling” or “historical fiction” of today, “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” 20. Even stars, then, are flatter – an absence of “personality” makes them more like character actors displaying past styles of acting, and the most common setting is small-town America, eschewing the high-rise features of multinational capitalism as well as older features of civilization. This seems related to the idea of “suture” – it all “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some external thirties, beyond real historical time… the pastiche of the stereotypical past” 21.

“We seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience,” Jameson claims 21. An exception for him is the work of Doctorow, namely The Book of Daniel. Ragtime, for Jameson is “a seemingly realistic novel” that is “a nonrepresentational work” combining “fatnasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram” 23. Jameson seems to find it positive that the novel “short-circuits” traditional interpretative techniques and “imposes” a reading mode where we must sort out real historical figures from fictional representation (reminds ME of Pynchon… why not Jameson?) 23. Here, history returns as the proverbial Freudian repressed – form replaces content as a means of communicating affect and meaning, since the “waning of content is precisely [Doctorow’s] subject” and the historical novel “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes ‘pop history'” 25.

In Genette’s terms, if the subject has “lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent expereince,” then representation becomes “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory” 25. Ngai will use this image in “Stuplimity,” but one wonders how Jameson’s notion of these “privative features” of postmodern art (more kindly called textuality, ecriture, or schizophrenic wriitng 26) pushes against T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land“I have shored up these fragments against my ruin” – likely in the loss of the subject who still believes in the possibility of a ruin to be staved off? In Lacan’s terms, schizophrenia is “a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” 26.

I’m interested in thinking of this in terms of faceting – not as a chain, but as a three-dimensional structure. In Derridean terms, “Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier” – akin to differance 26. The signified is then a “meaning effect… a mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” 26. This “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is for Jameson tied to psychic and linguistic ‘health’ – if we cannot understand and express 3 temporalities in language, “the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” 27. This reminds me not only of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but ironically enough, of the slogan Jameson decries: “The medium is the message”! 27. Jameson cites Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, which is where he locates the affect of euphoria in the loss of reality: “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” 27. I want to read this! It seems gendered, as well as connected to reading, to surfaces, and to faceting.

Related to such euphoria is the reappropriation of previously clinical terms for humor, irony, and even joy (one thinks of paranoid, schizphrenic, manic, stalker, obsessed) 29. He calls reading a kind of zoom lens, thinks of such verbal change as making meaning into the decorative, and explains photorealism as an effect of a world in which the real objects of art were not the things themselves but photos – the realism is the simulacrum 30. Criticism thus stresses “the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art… now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds” 31. This seems ripe for considering that we might join but not suture these elements, since Jameson does identify the positive value of collating multiplicity: “In the most interesting postmodernist works, one can detect a more positive concept of relationship, which restores its proper tension to the notion of difference itself… new and original way of thinking and preceiving… an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” 31. (Note: is the very impossibility related to old ideas of the sublime – thin Ngai’s stuplime?)

Jameson locates the euphoria of “the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape” in automobile wrecks, new surfaces, and commodified urban squalor (makes me think of Ballard and tours of squatters in Berlin) 33. Art divides the body from space (empty bathrooms as installations vs. simulacra of the body) to form an aesthetic of “derealization,” in which “the world… momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin” 34. Jameson connects this to camp, calling it a “hysterical sublime” 34. Whereas for Kant, the sublime alternates between awe and terror as the mind seeks to comprehend that which is at first beyond comprehension, now he looks at this more as dead objects, as technology turning back against us in its inert forms, haunting us in its covering of nature (Auden, Silko) 35. He periodizes capitalism: 1) 1840s steam power = market capitalism (realism), 2) 1890s electric power = monopoly or imperialist capitalism (modernism), 3) 1940s nuclear power = postindustrial or multinational capitalism (postmodernism) 35. (Even the polyglot words of the third phase are conglomerations!)

Jameson differentiates the potential for movement in the old technology and architecture (think the ships of Le Corbusier – this leftist emphasis on motion reminds me of Lukacs) from the static outer shell of the computer or television, “which articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself” 37. These are “machines of reproduction rather than of production… narratives which are about the processes of reproduction and include movie cameras” 37. One can imagine what Jameson would say now abut reality TV, as well as the true flatness of the iPhone and the iPad, the new computer called “Surface” from Microsoft, machines which almost efface themselves visibly as machines. For Jameson in 1984, architecture “remains… the privileged aesthetic language; and the distoriting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture” 37. (Note: calling it “mesmerizing” and “fascinating” is interesting because repetition/phallus roots.)

This leads to a “high-tech paranoia” – both the feeling that these machines are synecdochic stand-ins for a large, incomprehensible network (connected to the idea of the sublime?), but also the fear that that complexity cannot be overcome or understood by the “normal reading mind” (he cites cyberpnk – William Gibson, I think Neal Stephenson) 38. Our spatial creations, then, have outgrown the capacity of our minds, as if we wish to “expand our sensorium” to “impossible dimensions” (related to Kant’s free beauty?) 39. They speak the vernacular of the city, but do not aesthetically raise its tone? (Re: Adorno and the elitist’s complaint – these buildings do not seek to lift up the rest of the city, as in the modernist project). The Westin Bonaventure in LA reflects the city back, has 3 “backdoor” entrances on 2 different levels, none of which go to the lobby, and seeks to be a miniature city, Jameson argues.  (Think about this in terms of suturing off? Also vs. the arcade – infinitely enterable and exitable, where you always see the structure in the glass as well as through the glass both directions). The reflectivity of the “glass skin” repels all, giving distorted images of surroundings even as you can see out and the Other can’t see in (makes me think of Byatt, and glass/all reflective of other and/or self) 42.

Thinking of elevators and escalators as narrative movements in the building, Jameson claims that these symbolize and institutionalize movement, rather than just allowing it (Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”?) 42. You are either slowly moving against your own pace or shooting vertically up or down into another contained space, all covered in colors, streamers, and the indecipherable four corners of the hotel, which discourage orientation. In other words, we can never get our Kantian distance, because we are always overwhelmed by the spectacle (one wonders why we are so shamed by our looking and seeing – is it erotic in some way?). This is like the limits of fiction, too? Jameson politicizes this by claiming the inability to talk about war now (always?) 44. Surface and symbol are problematized in that the machine can no longer represent motion when inert, but must actually be represented in motion (video?) 45.

Though Jameson concludes that it would be an ethical mistake to accept the “delirious camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world,” it is equally problematic to trivialize it in comparison to “the ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms” 46. Like Zizek, for Jameson, the world of images erases past and future into images of cataclysm on the personal and social levels 46. Even though the postmodern is essentially negative, we are all embedded in it, and if it is historical, we cannot moralize it away:

“Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once… grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought… at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race and the worst… dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together” 47.

(This reminds me to think of Byatt’s “agnosticism” somewhat. Note: weird that Jameson says we are “submerged” if this aesthetic has no depth in his framing of it.) Jameson wonders: if there is no outside the system, and the relative autonomy of the arts is no longer, what can be done? Like Foucault on power & sexuality, the irony of proliferating sexual discourses is somewhat akin here to the irony of proliferating theoretical paradigms 49.  If, for Jameson, the promise of capitalism’s hugeness is the hugeness of potential social change, how is this not like an apology for technology and globalization, which he warned us against 50? He concludes that leftists should be less afraid of the pedagogical function of art, letting go of their fear of the bourgeois reaction to modernism 50.

Jameson ends by imagining “cognitive mapping” 51. If ideology toggles between the imaginary and the real (Althusser, also like Foucault, where sexuality toggles between power and pleasure?), then art needs to be able to situationally represent the individual in relation to the vast totality, and this is cognitive mapping (“to cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international class realities” as well) 52. It seems Jameson is imagining something that will  toggle experience and knowledge, orienting the individual in her surroundings 53.  If ideology is imagined and science is real (both of which fit into Marx and Althusser’s models), then in Lacan, we also have the symbolic, and Jameson looks to political art to fill this role somehow. Perhaps sadly and ironically, it seems Google Maps or GPS or a smartphone quite literally solves this problem, but in a mode so deeply imbricated in capitalism that it can hardly be seen as a solution. Does it, however, enable the end of postmodernism and the rise of the New Sincerity? And why did Occupy fail if all this is true?

W. H. Auden, “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Barbieri

Barbieri

1964

 

This poem explores the problem of the “domesticated” being of Mother Nature (“Happily married/ Housewife, helpmate to man), beneath whose surface rages the original wild that man thinks he has tamed (screeching/ Virago, the Amazon). It seems important to discuss the poem in such gendered terms, since Nature has been subsumed as “helpmate to Man,” while “the autobahn/ Thwarts the landscape/ In godless Roman arrogance.” Nevertheless, the instrument will inevitably be turned on the master: “The farmer’s children/ Tip-toe past the shed/ Where the gelding-knife is kept.”

The title refers to the 17th-century paintings of idyllic Arcadian life by Nicolas Poussin or Giovanni Barbieri (1618). The paintings depict young shepherds coming across the tombstone of one whose death descries the fallacy of Arcadian happiness: that Time kills all. This phrase also appears in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Poussin

Poussin

Who, now, seeing Her so
Happily married,
Housewife, helpmate to Man,

Can imagine the screeching
Virago, the Amazon,
Earth Mother was?

Her jungle growths
Are abated,
Her exorbitant monsters abashed,

Her soil mumbled,
Where crops, aligned precisely,
Will soon be orient:

Levant or couchant,
Well-daunted thoroughbreds
Graze on mead and pasture,

A church clock subdivides the day,
Up the lane at sundown
Geese podge home.

As for Him:
What has happened to the Brute
Epics and nightmares tell of?

No bishops pursue
Their archdeacons with axes,
In the crumbling lair

Of a robber baron
Sightseers picnic
Who carry no daggers.

I well might think myself
A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance,

The farmer’s children
Tiptoe past the shed
Where the gelding knife is kept.

W. H. Auden, “Twelve Songs”

1935-38

Much of the poem, namely the most famous song – IX, retitled “Funeral Blues,” – was written for satiric musical performance in Isherwood & Auden’s The Ascent of F6, a 1936 tragic play. It has been reclaimed sincerely in later years.

I. Song of the Beggars
“O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
With somersaults and fireworks, the roast and the smacking kisses”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And Garbo’s and Cleopatra’s wits to go astraying,
In a feather ocean with me to go fishing and playing,
Still jolly when the cock has burst himself with crowing”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And to stand on green turf among the craning yellow faces
Dependent on the chestnut, the sable, the Arabian horses,
And me with a magic crystal to foresee their places”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And this square to be a deck and these pigeons canvas to rig,
And to follow the delicious breeze like a tantony pig
To the shaded feverless islands where the melons are big”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And these shops to be turned to tulips in a garden bed,
And me with my crutch to thrash each merchant dead
As he pokes from a flower his bald and wicked head”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And a hole in the bottom of heaven, and Peter and Paul
And each smug surprised saint like parachutes to fall,
And every one-legged beggar to have no legs at all”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.

Spring 1935 

II.
O lurcher-loving collier, black as night,
Follow your love across the smokeless hill;
Your lamp is out, the cages are all still;
Course for heart and do not miss,
For Sunday soon is past and, Kate, fly not so fast,
For Monday comes when none may kiss:
Be marble to his soot, and to his black be white.

June 1935

III.
Let a florid music praise,
The flute and the trumpet,
Beauty’s conquest of your face:
In that land of flesh and bone,
Where from citadels on high
Her imperial standards fly,
Let the hot sun
Shine on, shine on.

O but the unloved have had power,
The weeping and striking,
Always: time will bring their hour;
Their secretive children walk
Through your vigilance of breath
To unpardonable Death,
And my vows break
Before his look.

February 1936

IV.
Dear, though the night is gone,
Its dream still haunts today,
That brought us to a room
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.

Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s necks
Inert and vaguely sad.

What hidden worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of,
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out.

March 1936

V.
Fish in the unruffled lakes
Their swarming colors wear,
Swans in the winter air
A white perfection have,
And the great lion walks
Through his innocent grove;
Lion, fish and swan
Act, and are gone
Upon Time’s toppling wave.

We, till shadowed days are done,
We must weep and sing
Duty’s conscious wrong,
The Devil in the clock,
The goodness carefully worn
For atonement or for luck;
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.

Sighs for folly done and said
Twist our narrow days,
But I must bless, I must praise
That you, my swan, who have
All the gifts that to the swan
Impulsive Nature gave,
The majesty and pride,
Last night should add
Your voluntary love.

March 1936

VI. Autumn Song
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last,
Nurses to their graves are gone,
But the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbors left and right
Daunt us from our true delight,
Able hands are forced to freeze
Derelict on lonely knees.

Close behind us on our track,
Dead in hundreds cry Alack,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.

Scrawny through a plundered wood,
Trolls run scolding for their food,
Owl and nightingale are dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.

March 1936

VII.
Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

March 1936

VIII.
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my friend, there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of the migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.

April 1936

IX.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

April 1936

X.
O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; “O Johnny, let’s play”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Matinee Charity Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
“Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let’s dance till it’s day”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver or golden silk gown;
“O John I’m in heaven,” I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
“O marry me, Johnny, I’ll love and obey”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

April 1937

XI. Roman Wall Blues
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

October 1937

XII.
Some say that love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world round,
And some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like classical stuff?
Does it stop when one wants to quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’ in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on the door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

W. H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”

800px-bruegel_pieter_de_oude_-_de_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res1938

The poem examines the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (thought to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 1560s), focusing on the sidelined suffering of the boy’s fall while the everyday occurences of other lives go on. There’s an irony here of the speaker going to a museum to learn about suffering – the realm of aesthetics offers the leisure of experiencing this aesthetically rather than politically? For Hannah Arendt, pain is private and eclipses the world – here is it the opposite? Does the person turn away?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden: Poems

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was a British poet turned American citizen in 1946. He traveled to the U.S. in 1939 with his great friend since childhood, Christopher Isherwood. This was seen as a “betrayal” of England by many, and their artistic reputations suffered. He spent the first 2 years in a “marriage” to Chester Kallman, who eventually ended the relationship because of Auden’s demands of fidelity. He died in Vienna in 1973.

“THE SECRET AGENT,” 1928

“The Secret Agent” begins with official, military language:

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.

It quickly devolves into the uncertainty and insignificance of a lone man in/against a large institution.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

It ends with his imagination beginning to expand beyond painful reality, as well as demonstrating ways in which his mind is scarred or inevitably bound up in that reality’s horrors.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.

“A BRIDE IN THE 30s,” 1934

This poem begins with the ease of a young girl on her wedding day, “as thrugh the leaves of an album, I’m led/ Through the night’s delights and the day’s impressions.” Auden is particularly interested in the surfaces of society here: “Looking and loving, our behaviours pass/ Things of stone, of steel and of polished glass.” The country reverberates with past trauma: “He from these lands of terrifying mottoes/ Makes worlds as innocent as Beatrix Potter’s… Intent as a collector, to pursue/ His greens and lilies.” The solipsism of the bridegroom seems aimed at losing himself in an idea of the bride: “Easy for him to find in your face/ A pool of silence or a tower of grace,/ To conjure a camera into a wishing-rose…” It then becomes more explicitly political, toggling from the massively social down to the minimally personal: “Ten desperate million marching by,/ Five feet, six feet, seven feet high,/ Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses,/ Churchill acknowledging the voters’ greeting,/ Roosevelt at the microphone, van der Lubbe laughing,/ And our first meeting.” He continues on the personal choices that shut doors as maturity approaches: “While every day there bolted from the field/ Desires to which we could not yield,/ Fewer and clearer grew our plans,/ Schemes for a life-time, sketches for a hatred,/ And early among my interesting scrawls/ Appeared your portrait” (“sketches for a hatred feels particularly Yeatsian, like “mere complexities”). He wants to bathe the object of his gaze in innocence:

“Be deaf, too, standing uncertain now… /To what I hear and wish I did not,/ The voice of Love saying lightly, brightly,/ ‘Be Lubbe, be Hitler, but be my good,/ Daily, nightly…/ But the heart repeats, though we would not hearken…”

“AS I WALKED OUT ONE EVENING,” 1937

The poem begins with an uplifting, natural image (contrary to the start of Eliot’s “Prufrock”), and continues on with a song of impossibilities, detailing the nature and expansiveness of true love (think of the first love vs Dylan’s “first dead” in “A Refusal to Mourn”):

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

The tone of the poem shifts as Time enters, signifying the ephemeral, impossible nature of memory and age for Auden:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

The tone shifts to the imperative, seemingly encouraging a loss of self in the barren wasteland of time:

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

However, this seems to be called into question towards the final stanzas, when we are asked to see the moment as a blessing nevertheless:

‘O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

“MUSEE DES BEAUX ARTS,” 1938 (in a separate post)

“TWELVE SONGS,” 1935-8 (in a separate post)

“IN MEMORY OF W.B. YEATS,” 1939

A poem in three parts, like the Holy Trinity, it moves from body to mind to spirit, from physical death to posterity to religious observance. It engages us as readers in the process of turning Yeats from person into legacy as well. There is a kind of unrest here as well, as though Auden cannot settle into a form.

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The tension of the first stanza is between the fact of his death and the “mystery” of his “disappearance,” between the cold that operates as pathetic fallacy here (“the dead of winter”) and the actual “instruments” that “agree” in their measurements that it was cold.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

The mythical land of Yeats’ poems here is characterized by movement and continuity, even after his death.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

The divided land of his body is at war with itself, silent and revolting – “he became his admirers” as his body left and he only remained as his poetry.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The repetition of the instruments at the end reinforces the material aspect of this section, which is focused on the body. As Yeats’ body goes, he is “scattered,” but when we read the idea of “each in the cell of himself,” is it not perhaps a liberation for the poet to die and be so distributed?

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

The tone in the second stanza shifts to Yeats’ great mind – his silliness, his politics, the fact that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but survives in the communcation from one person to the next.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

[Auden later deleted the next three stanzas.]

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

The final stanza attends to his funeral – to the spiritual fate of the dead man, which remains uncertain. Even as the poem parades the failure of language, poetry “survives” as “a way of happening, a mouth” – it remains bodily after the body that gave it life has passed, promising at least some form of transcendence to the poet.

“IN PRAISE OF LIMESTONE,” 1948

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

“THEIR LONELY BETTERS,” 1950

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Here, Auden revisits the traditional poem of bird and epistemology – from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” to Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” to Yeats’ “Wild Swans at Coole.” Here, Auden affirms the Keatsian and Yeatsian blissful ignorance of the birds (as compared to the joyous knowledge of the old thing in Hardy), versus the burdenous knowledge of men. However, the nuance here is that men are lonely despite their medium of communication, or perhaps because of it – language abandons us at crucial moments, leaving us with gaps where we feel deeply, which we fill, like animals, “when we laugh or weep.” The final line “Words are for those with promises to keep,” perhaps refers to the decisiveness of the Frost poem.

“ET IN ARCADIA EGO,” 1964 (in a separate post)

“I AM NOT A CAMERA,” 1969

To call our sight Vision
implies that, to us,
all objects are subjects.

What we have not named
or beheld as a symbol
escapes our notice.

We never look at two people
or one person twice
in the same way.

It is very rude to take close-ups and, except
when engaged, we don’t:
lovers, approaching to kiss,
instinctively shut their eyes before their faces
can be reduced to
anatomical data.

Instructive it may be to peer through lenses:
each time we do, though, we should apologise
to the remote or the small for intruding
upon their quiddities.

The camera records
visual facts: ie.,
all may be fictions.

Flash-backs falsify the Past:
they forget
the remembering Present.

On the screen we can only
witness human behaviour:
Choice is for camera-crews.

The camera may
do justice to laughter, but must
degrade sorrow.

Every time we look, we do not see – not all we see is a mystical ‘vision,’ for that which we have not made a symbol of, we often do not see. Every time we look, it is differently. There is something penetrating and fearful about the close-up here – it exposes too much – even the fiction of life itself, its uncertain status as whole. We are captive audiences at the cinema – the camera can record joy, but it degrades sorrow. Is this because it can or should not be repeatable?