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.
“Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”
— Wallace Stevens, from “Sunday Morning”
Hello again dear readers. I had a post in mind about Robert Frost that was actually going to be relevant to the topics I was exploring last time, but that will have to wait because today my heart cries out to write about Sappho. I was dutifully reading some Amy Lowell for my upcoming Ph.D. exams, when I came across the following passage in her poem “The Sisters”:
There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.
Holy Jesus, I thought. Amy Lowell, sometimes you really do succeed at Imagism no matter what Ezra Pound says. This image, it’s perfect. That is Sappho exactly. Observe Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 31 from her beautiful, necessary book If Not, Winter:
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.
People have been translating Sappho for centuries, and these translations reflect the poetic styles of the time. My books are all packed away in boxes, with the exception of my poetry shelf, but otherwise I’d whip out Yopie Prins’ Victorian Sappho and share with you some of the florid, iambic-pentameter ways the above has been rendered. I love the sparseness of Carson’s Sappho, because the fragmentary nature of her text is essential to our experience of it today. It’s interesting to think about: Sappho was presumably not, herself, a reticent riddler, but because her manuscripts were scattered by the winds of time (and torn into strips to wrap corpses in Egypt!), her poems today exist only in scraps and tatters. She has been a huge influence on verse, particularly verse by women, inspiring a whole ideal of sparse, cryptic, reticent lyric, without herself ever quite having been any of those things.
Part of what people are inspired by, then, must be the action of history on Sappho’s text. When H.D. writes her fragmentary verse, she is imitating not Sappho, but what time has done to Sappho. She inscribes the violence of forgetting into her poems. Anne Carson, in turn, is influenced by H.D. and others like her; her own verse has a similar sparseness. When she applies this style to her translations of Sappho, what we get is loss squared. 75% of Carson’s book is white space; she puts only one fragment on each page, even if it is only three words long. The words cry out to be understood, and incite the imagination to try to figure out what is missing.
But Lowell is right: the glimpses we get are of a magnificently strange voice, speaking of powerful love. Even the smallest of fragments sing. For example, Fragment 125:
I used to weave crowns
The silence surrounding this becomes profound, even if Sappho didn’t write it that way. Well, and what now? Who did you weave them for? Why have you stopped? Why is this no longer a world made for crowns?
Today I discovered what has instantly become my favorite love poem ever. Are you ready for it? Fragment 45:
as long as you want
What do you think? Should I get it tattooed between my shoulderblades? Maybe in the Greek, so I don’t quite give myself away.
“And if you don’t believe in love, what do you believe in?” she asked, mocking. “Simply in the end of the world, and grass?”
— D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
When we made that last, familiar left turn just around the bend I was shocked. I had expected all the greenery of an east coast summer to come as a comfort, a sight for sore desert eyes, but instead the forest I grew up in just made me feel claustrophobic. When I was twelve, my family left the forest to visit New Mexico, and the desert terrified me. I was used to being wrapped in a sylvan blanket, and all those wide open spaces left me feeling exposed and vulnerable on all sides. Now that I’ve been living out west for three years, it’s the east that unsettles me.
In conversation, I’ve stopped referring to these trips as “going home” and started referring to them as “visiting my parents” or “going back east for awhile.” I may have only moved west three years ago, but it’s been fully seven since this town was a place I lived in for more than a few weeks at a time. And yet despite the shift in nomenclature, this place is incredibly important to me. I am continually blindsided by my own history: here is the pond where I never caught any fish, here is the movie theater where I had my exhilarating but awkward first date, here is the intersection where I forgot you can’t turn left on red.
But this place persists in my absence, and it changes. My parents have a new kitchen, my middle school has a new science wing, and they tore down the ghetto A&P and put up a shiny new Whole Foods. When I come back to visit, I can get into strange hallucinatory moods: I project the used bookstore on top of the Starbucks that has taken its place, and I prefer my daydream.
Over time, I’ve developed a series of rituals that help stave off some of this weirdness and make this place feel more like home. There is a local pub it is imperative I visit. There are records in my mother’s collection that I absolutely must listen to (I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, Pearl, American Beauty, Nashville Skyline). And I need to take a long luxurious bubble bath with a glass of wine and a good book. But by far the most significant ritual is the whirlwind visit to New York City in which I try to see as many old, dear friends as possible over the course of a single weekend. I just got back from one of these which was a stunning success; the complex scheduling came off perfectly, and every minute of all three days was spent in the company of completely marvelous people.
Of course, it’s easy to be a visiting celebrity. You become everybody’s number one social priority, and you don’t have to pay for your drinks. On these trips I feel like a comet, arcing brilliantly through the sky and making headline news, only to disappear and leave folks to their pedestrian local constellations until my orbit brings me back around again.
I always come back from these trips feeling supremely loved. Sometimes on these trips I receive actual confessions of love, which I am always careful to take kindly but with a grain of salt — it’s easy to love somebody you see twice a year; it’s much much harder to love somebody you see every day.
I am presently smack in the middle of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, a book whose mystical sensibilities appeal to me greatly but whose gender dynamics leave me a little queasy. Yesterday on the train I read the following marvelously interesting passage: Rupert and Ursula (the names in this book are fantastic) are acquaintances who have recently had one or two philosophical-type arguments, the most recent of which was about the nature of love. A few days later, Rupert invites Ursula and her sister Gudrun (I kid you not!) over for tea, and Ursula deliberately fails to bring Gudrun because she’s pretty sure that last conversation meant something important. Rupert immediately cuts to the chase: “I can’t say it is love I have to offer — and it isn’t love I want. It is something much more impersonal and harder — and rarer.” Rupert is suspicious of love for essentially the reasons that Kugelmass laid out and that I responded to a few months ago in our posts on Neruda. Rupert says, “There is a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you — not in the emotional, loving plane — but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me.” O, the infinite otherness of the other!
Ursula is hurt. The word “love” is important to her; she thinks Rupert is dodging the question. She asks him, mockingly, whether he thinks she’s good looking.
“Don’t you see that it’s not a question of visual appreciation in the least,” he cried. “I don’t want to see you. I’ve seen plenty of women, I’m sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don’t see.”
“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you by being invisible,” she laughed.
“Yes,” he said, “you are invisible to me, if you don’t force me to be visually aware of you. But I don’t want to see you or hear you.”
“What did you ask me to tea for, then?” she mocked.
But he would take no notice of her. He was talking to himself.
“I want to find you, where you don’t know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don’t want your good looks, and I don’t want your womanly feelings, and I don’t want your thoughts nor your opinions nor your ideas — they are all bagatelles to me.”
Rupert’s wish here actually sounds a lot like a line in the Neruda poem that Kugelmass and I were writing about: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.” It is intended to be an expression of not just love, but more than love. Where love concerns itself with trifles such as a person’s physical presence and thoughts and ideas, this kind of regard concerns itself with deep spiritual truth — a mystical truth that is beyond attributes and is only and purely essential. While I appreciate that Rupert’s vision tries to be honest about the isolated human condition, I also think that it’s total bullshit. Rupert is such a thoroughgoing narcissist — or such a coward — (and when is there much of a difference?) — that he cannot imagine what it would be like to actually deal with another person. He would rather strip away all of Ursula’s specificity than try to understand it. He keeps insisting that his ideal model for their relationship is two stars in orbit around one another, holding one another in balance. But the problem with loving stars or loving comets is that they are nothing but points of light. You can’t tell one from another, and you can’t ask them to tea. And what is this hidden inner self, and how would Rupert come to know it at all? All he can ever get from Ursula are the outward, physical signs of her inner self, and to reject those is to reject the real, material person in favor of a fantasy.
This is why I smile gently and change the subject whenever a person on the east coast tries to tell me about their undying affection. What is your affection for, sir? How often do you and I even speak to one another? This town is not the only thing that’s changed; the people in it must inevitably see me with the same hallucinatory vision, projecting the girl with pigtails on top of the one with short-cropped hair. And yet it would be entirely wrong to say that my friends here and I don’t share real love. I miss them when I’m gone; I care about them deeply. A case could even be made that my faraway friends and I take our relationships with each other much more seriously than my day-to-day friends and I generally do, because our time together is so precious. But if we call this love, is it not the love of shadows?