Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetryby David Bromwich
Skeptical Music collects the essays on poetry that have made David Bromwich one of the most widely admired critics now writing. Both readers familiar with modern poetry and newcomers to poets like Marianne Moore and James Merrill will relish this collection for its elegance and power of discernment. Each essay stakes a particular claim for the modernist/i>
Skeptical Music collects the essays on poetry that have made David Bromwich one of the most widely admired critics now writing. Both readers familiar with modern poetry and newcomers to poets like Marianne Moore and James Merrill will relish this collection for its elegance and power of discernment. Each essay stakes a particular claim for the modernist style and its intent to capture an audience beyond the present moment.
An essay on the complex relationship between Hart Crane and T. S. Eliot shows how the delicate shifts of tone and shading in their work register both affinity and resistance. A revealing look at W. H. Auden traces the process by which the voice of a generation changed from prophet to domestic ironist. And a close reading of Geoffrey Hill sheds new light on the "conscience of words" in writing. Whether discussing heroism in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, considering self-reflection in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, exploring the battle between the self and its images in the work of John Ashbery, or even tracing the significance of valor to a prose stylist such as Ernest Hemingway, Skeptical Music will make readers think again about what poetry is, and even more important, why it still matters.
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Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry
By David Bromwich
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2001 David Bromwich
All right reserved.
An Art without Importance
Modernist poetry was a method of giving order to history and nature that favored the aesthetic experience of the poet. If this sounds romantic, a distinction of practice remains: in modernist work, the poet holds a place of privilege without any help from the ideology of a nation, an ideal of the enlightened self, or the sort of humanitarian feeling the nineteenth century called the religion of the heart. Poetic modernism gives up these sources of consolation and makes a dry conclusive gesture, though one that need not be mistaken for a sign of defeat. It buries the creator in the medium, the poet in the words of writing.
So runs a familiar story which I still in part believe. But there are other stories: for example, that modernism was a direct consequence of the First World War. This explanation looks historical, and it will cover all the arts, but it does not cover the facts. Planned ugliness, miming a revulsion from the horrors of war, can be traced in the dissonance and clotted alliterations of war poems such as Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth": "Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons." Yet effects like these belong to a mode ofderangement that had penetrated the arts before 1914. The splayed, slung-around cloven hoof that completes the mask of the voyeur in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon is within the same range of effects, a rip in the aesthete's daydream of sensualism, as Owen's lines are a shock to the reverie of the hero's farewell. Picasso tearing the curtain aside and shoving toward the spectator that grotesque mirror image--"You! hypocrite lecteur!"--was drawing on an arsenal of tactics with sources far back in the previous century.
A metaphysical summary has emerged in the last few years to supplement the older aesthetic and historical markers. Modernism on this view was an ideology that borrowed a kindred and antithetical energy from the political movements of the age. With their ultimate defeat, modernism reached an inevitable terminus. In Farewell to an Idea, T. J. Clark observes of this common enterprise: "So cold and optimistic, modernism. So sure that it will get there eventually." The comment seems to hold true for poetry as well as painting when one looks into Stevens's Comedian as the Letter C:
How many poems he denied himselfBut why should a modern artist choose to associate his art with an ascetic self-denial? Stevens replies with another question:
In his observant progress, lesser things
Than the relentless contact he desired.
What was the purpose of his pilgrimage,As admirers, we may grant the radical value of the modernist formalization of experience; grant an origin of the movement close to the unprecedented catastrophe of the First World War; grant that it was the aesthetic counterpart of political idealisms not less single-minded. There remains a problem with all the historical accounts, and the problem is that they are historical. They look on modernism as a completed project now entirely submerged in a distant past.
Whatever shape it took in Crispin's mind,
If not, when all is said, to drive away
The shadow of his fellows from the skies,
And, from their stale intelligence released,
To make a new intelligence prevail?
And yet the movement continues to hold us. It does so because the passion in certain works (born of a distrust of utility and effect) seems a rarer thing than the glamour of the acceptance world that now defines every alternative view (where the fine arts obey with docility the law of commerce and consumption). Modernism involved a kind of detachment, a drawing away, a refusal that is bound to look strange or ascetic when placed alongside the contemporary cultures of improvement and practice on the self. The necessity of the refusal--the need to say to an audience familiar with programmed sensations, "It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, but you cannot stand in the middle of this"-helps to explain why modernist poetry like painting tended toward abstraction. The same gesture of refusal goes some way to explain the revival of satire as a major mode, in the work of an intellectual cartoonist like Wyndham Lewis, a nihilist of the monologue like Celine, a comedian like Beckett whose mockery does not bend to the reader's wish for a drama, a moral, a bit of pathos one might finally trust. Yet satire is only part of the story. From the prevalence of a strident tone in the new writing of the 1910s and 1920s, and the prestige of works like Sweeney Agonistes and Antic Hay, one could hardly derive a clue to the verbal procedures of the Ithaca episode of Ulysses.
The criterion of the modern that I have in mind comes closer to a trait of idiom and rhetoric. It has long been said by commentators that modernism was the art-historical movement that escaped from rhetoric at last. But that cannot be. Rhetoric is the skin of language as persuasion is the clothing of belief. Maybe some who thought themselves modern believed that they were creating a beliefless language--as much is suggested in certain utterances of Mallarme, and of Robbe-Grillet and the early Barthes--but these vanguard artists and publicists were wrong about their own work, to the extent that the work was communicative. It is hard to take all the communication out of language. What one can take out are the cues, the frames, the signals, the gesticulations. The aesthetic that seems to me compelling in modernism was mostly improvised from a rhetoric of understatement. This language is of ancient provenance; it is in Aeschylus, it is in Dante, it is in Shakespeare at the end of King Lear-- "We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long." What is modern is the insistence that such a language, expressive of doubt and reticence, has become uniquely adequate to the reality that poetry must express. Words written in this discipline convey, by the adjustment of accent or by repetition, a disturbance under the surface of the events of narrated action. That the trust between author and reader should have been rendered so frail, yet have remained so sure, is something new in the history of literature.
It cannot sound modern to us now, though it is beautiful and unhackneyed, for Shelley to say of Keats in Adonais: "He is a portion of that loveliness / Which once he made more lovely." It is distinctly modern for Stevens to say in an elegy for the most resonant of his moods: "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is." There is not even a little heightening to distract the ear from the plain sense of things, and one must have read Stevens a long time to be sure of the emotion that is beating in the line. We are given only the impartial word life--the name of the motive of feeling, and the cause of feelings that cannot be named. We are left to reflect on it unassisted. It is as if the poet had resolved by the slightest inflection of speech to exhibit what it is to bear witness to experience (not the same thing as "an experience"). More than this little, he seems to say, language should not undertake to deliver. Or is it so little?
There is a poem by William Empson whose first words are "Not wrongly moved." The poet is hoping not to be wrongly moved by a change in the world--a puzzling wish out of context, in any earlier time--but these very words say as much as a modern poem could wish to say for itself. They ask for the courage not to feel according to a digest of concocted attitudes, and among the attitudes in question are those that enjoy the sanction of culture. This negative aim suggests a justification for poetry close to that of thinking. What a modern poem somehow says is always Watch! listen! suppose!--and this in response to a scene or situation that does not have a story to fit into, and that may never have one. Poetry, on this understanding of its function, is always involved in a resistance to cliche. Empson's criticism was part of the same resistance when it connected the imaginative interest of poetry with ambiguity; so that an artist's statement-in-words could never be reduced to a merely emotive or persuasive meaning. The words of a poem are not to be supposed less intricate than experience itself. And concerning our own experience, we know that it cannot be reduced to a final understanding, whether as evidence, message, behavior, or example.
There remain effective modern poems that move us and do not scruple how they do it: Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," for example. This kind of work is the cultural stuff, the tabloid or pasteboard backing, against which the artist separates out a distinct purpose. The great British director Michael Powell said of his propaganda film The 49th Parallel: "I made it to drag the Americans into the war." The craft worker of aesthetic sensations, like the artist on holiday, can always assign an adequate motive for a piece of work. It is done to drag the spectator into something. In the examples that follow, I sketch a characteristic tendency of modern poetry by discussing some poems that do not drag the reader anywhere. An argument like this, touching on one of the things modern poetry is not, can hardly begin to answer the question of what modern poetry is. I aim to typify not to define, and I do so across a narrow range. These poems would not go together on any normal index of comparison. As a matter of scholarly presumption, it is usual for one or more of them to be excluded from canonical histories of modernism. But the history looks different, I mean to suggest, when one ceases to think of it as an affair mainly of techniques and schools.
Start with Edward Thomas's "Cock-Crow," a poem that is formally compact and deals with an experience ordinary enough to have been shared by most readers.
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,--
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
Nothing is more startling here than the allegory of the opening line, the plain statement of the closing line, and the light and shade they bring out when placed together. The work of the poem is simply a bridge between these points. But at its heart, one finds a separate world of dream thoughts, whose rule over the mind at night is broken by the cock-crow. There are two cocks, and to mark the symmetry the poem is cast, unusually for so short a lyric, in the form of couplets. However one interprets this formal choice, the cocks of the opening lines are dutiful laborers. Somehow, soon after, they turn into heralds to convey the sleeping men into the morning: heralds, we are meant to see, in the sense of heraldry too, for one might find the images of such creatures on either side of a farmyard gate.
The subject of the psychological progression from the third to the seventh line is an imperceptible return to mundane life; and, through all this vivid stretch of interpretative writing, the tone of the poem holds steady. Then we are given the last line, homely and masculine, familiar and assured. The change seems true to an experience of waking: that, at a certain moment, by the impression of some quite arbitrary image or sound, you are conducted from sleeping thoughts into the everyday world. And the poem exists just for the sake of this contrast between sleep and waking: it is noted, and calmly captured, and the poem ends. We might say that it stops rather than ends, except that the recognition every reader can supply from experience does end it.
Well, but is it a modern poem? If so, the reason has to do with an undersong, a pitch that suggests it will hold for a moment only, that needs attending to and so commands attention. Every imaginable climax is refused. Not even Wordsworth, in poems about fortuitous encounters with lowly persons, or poems about the naming of places, stood so far back from claiming any prior dignity for his subject matter. The preface to Lyrical Ballads promised to show how the feeling in poetry might give importance to the situation, and not the situation to the feeling. Thomas, with a minimum of dramatic emphasis, has taken the implications of this aesthetic beyond Wordsworth, as if he saw that the feeling might be nothing more than a record of a perception, an intimation of thought, without any inferred motive to support it. No change of heart, no recollection of who one essentially is. This omission of importance is remarkable. One finds it again and again in the great and small achievements of modernism.
I turn now to a poem about the war, "Break of Day in the Trenches," written by a soldier, Isaac Rosenberg.
The darkness crumbles away.Here again the action is simple, though it holds an irony in reserve: the man who speaks the poem in a language of affectionate mockery has been startled when the rat jumped over his hand. A soldier, exposed to the limits of bodily suffering, he is afraid briefly from a trivial cause. A sharper reversal of expectation is held for the end of the poem: the rat looks in the soldier's eyes and is imagined to see the truth of an expression known to soldiers. "What do you see in our eyes . . . What quaver--what heart aghast?" The difficult and suggestive phrase "druid Time" must mean that the war makes earth a scene of human sacrifice. From this continuous disaster, the poet extracts the humblest of tokens, a poppy--related by myth to the blood of men, but also, in these fields of France, growing out of a soil that is watered by men's blood. The two final couplets mark a contrast: "Poppies whose roots are in man's veins / Drop, and are ever dropping" (hieratic, declamatory)--and then the comfort (oddly domestic) of "But mine in my ear is safe-- / Just a little white with the dust." The soldier is satisfied to know that the poppy is safe behind his ear, as if it were lucky and he made it so. At the same time, the words "Just a little white with the dust" are also a reminder of death. One comes to feel that the writer has faced his predicament with a courage entirely informed by terror of his probable end. He has then turned away from that impression, back to the scene where he lives with the war and his companions in it. As much as Edward Thomas's poem, this one avoids a dramatic climax, or any moral to capitalize the significance of the incident.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps in my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver--what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe--
Just a little white with the dust.
The absence of overt justification, the absence even of a discursive clue to the argument of a poem, becomes a normal procedure of modernism, where it existed as an anomaly before. We might call it a desire for exposure. The feeling, if it is to give importance to the situation, must be made to stand alone. In this regard, the difference between modernist and non-modernist work can sometimes be glimpsed within a single oeuvre. Yeats was striking a familiar romantic posture when he spoke of "A lonely impulse of delight" that drove an airman to his death in the war. The poem that has that line at its center, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," rounds off its image of sacrifice with a calculated stoicism:
I balanced all, brought all to mind,The speaker and subject is Major Robert Gregory, the son of the poet's patron, whom Yeats in a full-length elegy would describe as "Our Sidney and our perfect man." But this shorter poem, with its pretense of restraint, still glorifies the same martial virtue as the elegy. A death so clearly foreseen must have been selfless, but it was also, Yeats implies, an act of admirable indulgence. The poem celebrates the aristocratic blood of a man who was a lover of heights, of risk in all its seductive kinds, and he remains at his end a conscious and properly dramatic hero. Instinct drove him to choose this way of death: in a cool hour, he approved of his own gesture, which he knew to be sufficiently arbitrary. We are asked only to share his approval. For Yeats, the airman's death makes above all a satisfying aesthetic image. Life and death are joined as a painter may measure a stroke of a brush, by the work of the discriminating eye. "I balanced all, brought all to mind."
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Excerpted from Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry by David Bromwich Copyright © 2001 by David Bromwich. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David Bromwich is the Housum Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1790s, published by the University of Chicago Press, and A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost.
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