Saturday, September 3, 2011

Davis and Moore, Jonson and Johnson

A Very Short Story from the Lydia Davis volume Samuel Johnson is Indignant which for some reason has fetched up on my bedside table (and which, consequently, I have been rereading):

Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms

They have moved into separate bedrooms now.
That night she dreams she is holding him in her arms. He dreams he is having dinner with Ben Jonson.

(But I always thought it was supper!) Looking for a pastable text I came upon this excellent review by Richard Locke, which ends with an apt and unexpected comparison between Davis and Marianne Moore. Locke quotes Randall Jarrell on Moore:
the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but is its vehicle.

Which brings to mind that wonderful remark of Moore's:
rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say.
(Cf. Davis's abnormally strict views on literalness in translations.) Googling which -- this process being rife with serendipity -- I came upon Denis Donoghue's essay about Moore, which makes the point slightly better than Jarrell:
for Marianne Moore the supreme poetic virtue is beyond morality, though decently attentive to it. The merit of a poem, a novel, a book about landscape gardening, The Magic Flute, or a sculpture by Malvina Hoffman consists in the personality it discloses when disclosure is not intended and the artist is minding his proper business.

(Why this appeals to me will be obvious to regular readers.) The part that follows applies much more to Moore than to Davis:
Moore's common word for the flare of personality, the unity of being in which one's action is a true epitome of one's self, was rhythm. [...] Moore liked to quote Coleridge's remark that "our admiration of a great poet is for a continuous undercurrent of feeling everywhere present, but seldom anywhere a separate excitement." But she loved to find a separate excitement, like a whirlpool, verifying the undercurrent and at last returning to it. Often she found it in English writers of the seventeenth century, Bacon, Donne, Moore, the King James translators of the Bible; later in Defoe, and in Johnson, in whose work she noticed "a nicety and point, a pride and pith of utterance"

(Re "pride and pith" -- this slightly off-kilter way of ordering nouns is characteristic of Moore. (It is a similar trick to the unemphatic rhymes.) It is said that Ezra Pound changed the last line of her poem "A Grave" from "neither with volition nor consciousness" to "neither with consciousness nor volition" and she immediately changed it back.)

What Donoghue is paraphrasing re "flare of personality" is that Hopkins poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I think one of the drawbacks of the poetics of subtraction -- the Beckett/Davis line -- vs. the poetics of clutter is that it is in a sense too transparently theatrical; a bare stage draws attention to itself in a way that an overcrowded stage does not -- the artist is not "minding his proper business," he's designing to be looked at. Davis's way around this is to have her "proper business" be sentence-articulation but this is not always a satisfactory substitute for irrelevant detail.

No comments: