For What They AreNovember 18, 2007 at 7:51 pm | Posted in attention, love, modernism, poetry | 5 Comments
I realize I’ve said “I’m back for real” a couple of different times now, but this time I think I mean it: I’m back for real. The past few months have been consumed by studying for and taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and now that I’ve passed them I am not only much more free to blog but I also have a large backlog of thoughts about poetry that need articulating. So, I hope you’ll welcome me back into your arms and RSS readers as I work through some of this stuff.
As you may remember, a few months ago I promised to write a post on Robert Frost. Now, my primary sympathies as a reader and a scholar are for avant-garde poetry. I had a roommate at summer camp when I was fifteen who loved Frost and read him out loud to me, and behind her back I used to cite this along with her playing the bassoon and preferring math problems to Friday night dances as evidence of her incurable boringness. But my “Twentieth Century American Poetry” exam list included both the raw and the cooked, and I’ve started to see more in the century’s more “traditional” poetry than I used to.
When I made that promise, I was thinking of a poem by Frost called “Hyla Brook” that is particularly relevant to the issues I was exploring in my previous post regarding D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and the trip back east that I had just taken. The question at hand, to put it plainly, was: given that everything is ever-changing and that other people will never be fully known to us, must we reconcile ourselves to loving phantoms and fantasies? Here’s the poem:
by Robert Frost
By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow) –
Or flourished and come up in jewelweed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent,
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat –
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.
The Hyla is a kind of tree frog, but it’s also worth noting that in Greek mythology, Hylas was the Argonaut who was lured into the water by the water nymphs and disappeared without a trace. Here, the brook itself disappears — it dries up so thoroughly that it is not even properly a brook anymore. Only those “who remember long” would refer to it that way; a newcomer would see not a brook, but simply a swath of jewelweed.
The last four lines make it clear that we are not just talking about brooks here. The poem is in fact a criticism directed against “songs” that take brooks “otherwhere” — in other words, against poetry that idealizes, romanticizes, and immortalizes. Against this kind of “song,” the speaker affirms a love that is realistic, that is in the present tense, and most importantly, that is attentive. The speaker, unlike those other songsters, loves the brook even when it’s not a brook. It’s true that he sees the past in the present (he remembers the frogs, and how even they called to mind the earlier snows), but this is not the same as portraying the brook at the height of its babbling ecstasy as though its Platonic form were the only one that mattered.
Frost is the beginning of what I’m coming to think of as an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century. Frost inherits his rural persona and natural settings from Whitman and also from the British Romantics, but he rejects their excesses as sentimental and instead crafts verse that is variously described as “stern,” “reticent,” and, well, “boring.” In the series of posts I wrote this spring on Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, I explored the ethics of attention — I claimed that for Weil, attention to others (and the associated self-emptying) was a necessary first step for ethical action, while for Bataille, attention to the realities of one’s contradictory self was that necessary step. In the series I am starting today, I plan to examine the aesthetics of attention — how is attention figured by poets, and to what ends? Why is it so often accompanied by stoicism — that is, by a suppression of affect? And why, ultimately, should we care?
One reason to care is that attention is the way out of the problem posed by the ever-changing world and its “sealed” inhabitants, to use Virginia Woolf’s word (from To the Lighthouse). In order to love the things we love for what they are, we must be outward-turning, we must be generous, we must pay attention.