Sunday, April 29, 2012


Robert Graves -- whose work I hadn't thought about in years, and never, except for Goodbye to All That, took seriously -- has been forcing himself on my attention from all sides. (I wonder, is a Graves revival in the works?) Snippets follow:

1. A marvelous piece by Graves on L'Allegro (Verdict: "[with Shakespeare] the probing cold-chisel of criticism rings against the true rock of poetry. With L’Allegro, the plaster flakes away and the rubble tumbles out." Elsewhere, he speaks of "jolly old father Zeus himself, with a thunderbolt in his fist and a grog-blossom on his nose.") I have never liked these poems, which must have something to do why I enjoyed the Graves piece so much.

(It occurs to me that I haven't made full use of the newly-free TNR archive.)

2. Geoffrey Hill, in a lecture (nominally on war poetry) that Calista sent me, has much to say about Graves. The glib summary of the first 10-15 mins of the talk is that Seven Types, and its interest in verbal tensions and ambiguities, was ultimately the fruit of Graves's interest in psychology after WW1. (I'd known, of course, about Empson picking up the idea from the Graves/Riding analysis of "the expense of spirit(s)", but Hill pushes the chronology back a decade. I'm not sure this has more than bibliographical interest, though.) Later in the lecture, Hill quotes a short and really very good Graves poem that I hadn't prev. seen:
On Portents

If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
It is almost free of Graves's signature tweeness, except possibly for "tourbillions" which I can't make up my mind on; Hill, to his credit(?), treats the word as a serious literary choice rather than a symptom. (Obviously he is really drawn to the poem by that "ever-reluctant element"; recalcitrance of any kind seems always to have had an irresistible romance for him -- his first book begins with the line, "Against the burly air I strode" -- but this is all a story for another time.)

(As a note to self, if one ever finds the elementary excitation responsible for turbulence, "tourbillion" is a good name as it sounds international and has the "-on" ending.)

3. Speaking of Graves's style, Richard Wilbur on Graves, in the relevant PR interview:
Still, it can be useful and safe to read someone like Robert Graves who, as John Holmes said, is a great starter. You read Graves and he reminds you how delightful poetry can be at its best, and what a fine game it is—and it makes you want to write a poem. Not, however, a poem by Robert Graves, but one of your own.
Symptomatic, perhaps, of his own not-unrelated tweeness, that he should say this? Elsewhere, Randall Jarrell remarks about some of the Auden poems in Nones, 'If you see such a poem, what can you say except, "Ah, Graves, poor dear Robert Graves! Inimitable, isn't he?" But how extraordinary that Auden [should have written it].' I must also confess that few things set my teeth on edge as effectively as hearing Graves read his poems.

4. And, before burying this topic, I should recall that marvelous bit in Goodbye to All That where he meets Thomas Hardy:
[Hardy] said that he regarded professional critics as parasites no less noxious than autograph hunters, and wished the world rid of them. He also wished that he had not listened to them when he was a young man; on their advice he had cut out dialect-words from his early poems, though they had no exact synonyms to fit the context. And still the critics were plaguing him. One of them recently complained of a poem of his where he had written `his shape smalled in the distance'. Now what in the world else could he have written? Hardy then laughed a little and said that once or twice recently he had looked up a word in the dictionary for fear of being again accused of coining, and had found it there right enough — only to read on and find that the sole authority quoted was himself in a half-forgotten novel! He talked of early literary influences, and said that he had none at all, for he did not come of literary stock. Then he corrected himself and said that a friend, a fellow-apprentice in the architect's office where he worked as a young man, used to lend him books. (His taste in literature was certainly most unexpected. Once when Lawrence had ventured to say something disparaging against Homer's Iliad, he protested: `Oh, but I admire the Iliad greatly. Why, it's in the Marmion class!' Lawrence could not at first believe that Hardy was not making a little joke.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Charging like a tusked brute, gnawing like a bear

1. Flannery O'Connor on "Living with a peacock". If, like me, you had forgotten about O'Connor somewhat, this is a useful reminder of how good she is. It is hard to know what to excerpt but here is one bit:
Frequently the cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-­ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.
Also, here is the video of the v. young O'Connor and the backward-walking chicken. (Via Sean Costello.) Here is a stunningly ugly bird that is not a peachicken but will do:

And finally, in the spirit of "parallel passages," compare Flannery O'Connor's peacock description to Geoffrey Hill's ("his fulgent cloak a gathering of the dark" &c. Oh, and also (postultimately?), there is Robert Lowell on her face, "formless at times, then very strong and young and right."

2. "Anatiferous trees" in Browne. I really should find a copy of Pseudodoxia and read it through.

3. "Deep in clear lake / The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there."

4. "Forest Service may blow up frozen cows" (via clusterflock, I suspect).

5. Amy Clampitt's poem "Thermopylae," which was new to me, and where the post title is from.

(I found the Clampitt while looking around -- unsuccessfully -- in her work for chapter epigraphs for the thesis, which was dispatched earlier today to the committee.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Endangered species of do(ugh)nut, etc.

(I should apologize, this is another one of those lists, hated by Dice, in which one of the items is undesirably bloated and should have been a separate post.)

1. Heather McHugh, "Tiny Étude on the Poetic Line" (sorry about the ellipses but the original suffers from an overdose of overwriting, although I cannot figure out how best to pare it down):
A poem can be construed as a drama of a sort, set not merely against a vacuum [...] but also against a great babble of presumption, anticipation, commonplace, chatter, twitter, and byte—a deafening background noise brought to the poem by the audience, by the very nature of its conventions, its automatons of memory and mind.

The world of common expectations (the fabric of our sense of the "usual" [...]) supplies the circumstantial volume: it is brought by every reader to every act of language. Poetic acts contend with that circumstance, that source material, its overdose of underwriting.
Cf. Geoffrey Hill on the "grading and measuring of words" (a memorable phrase but I should correct the attribution; it was actually Hill quoting Pound). I am reminded of Kenner on WCW:
Williams' effort was to revise out of sight, not the fact that pains had been taken, but the fact that there even had been a poet. [...] Spontaneity is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world to imitate, and art's vocation is always to do the hard way what is being done easily. 
And then there is the related notion, suggested (and stated, perhaps?) in The Pound Era, of the modernist poem as bearing the same relation to the unearthed Greek fragment as, e.g., Pope's epistles bear to actual letters -- in either case it is eventually somewhat like a passport or a check or a sliver of soot-encrusted marble, an innocuous quotidian object that reveals its watermarks, its structure of nodes and veins, when held against the light. (There is much else to be said about all of this; I haven't the time right now; but one should at least mention Kermode on Marianne Moore:
Moore once remarked that ‘prose is a step beyond poetry . . . and then there is another poetry that is a step beyond that’: you had to go through prose to come out the other side purged of that disposable prior poetry, with its irrelevant inversions and its subjection to conventional rhythms.)

2. Calista follows up on the dialect-dictionary digging in the prev. post (with "snuit", "smoo" &c.!). Here is yet another entry of particular virtue:

3. Elif Batuman, in the New Yorker (article, like most of her Turkish pieces, pedestrian and not recommended on the whole), on food exploration:
he has rescued from obscurity various wild greens, sausages, yogurts, and cheeses. In Erzurum, he once discovered a forgotten kind of doughnut.
(Via Sarah Emily Duff's new tumblr)

4. For the commonplace book, a v. good line from Coleridge's letters:
Of Parentheses I may be too fond--and will be on my guard in this respect--. But I am certain that no work of impassioned and eloquent reasoning ever did or could subsist without them--They are the drama of Reason--and present the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus.
5. Yet another precursor (found randomly) of a famous line in Keats.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"Discharge their nostrils, and refund a Sea"

Via George Szirtes on twitter, Oppian's Halieuticks of the nature of fishes and fishing of the ancients (some of it admirably descriptive of a cold; some of it filed under "snouts"):

And further down:

I am charmed by pad. It is an interestingly different etymology for mereswine than the usual one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pressure under grace

William Logan reminisces about Geoffrey Hill (via):
Hill was not quite fifty, slightly barrel-chested, with a dark scurf of beard. [...] he took boyish pleasure in showing off the knickknacks and arcana displayed on a coffee table. He was proudest of the small pistol his father had carried as a police constable in Bromsgrove. I mentioned that I had been reading a lot of Larkin. “Larkin!” he exclaimed from the little kitchen, where he had gone to fix us a drink. “That yobbo!”

For the two years we lived in Cambridge, we met Geoffrey for lunch every month or so, or invited him to dinner on Pretoria Road. He dressed in black, like some English Johnny Cash, except for a pair of lurid socks—fuchsia and acid yellow were favorite colors, the rakish touch in that monkish wardrobe. Each time it was as if we were meeting as strangers. He would be stiff, heavy with a formality that lasted a quarter hour or so; then at last, by infinitesimal degrees, he would warm to the company (or just give in to the burden of friendliness). Once he did a wicked imitation of a hedgehog.

(Re hedgehogs juxtaposed with Larkin, see also.) Elsewhere: "he was not an example of grace under pressure, but of pressure under grace." And:
Toward the end of 1982, Hill loaned us the typescript of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. He mentioned that, where he had changed his mind, he had tried to find a word of the same number of letters, so the compositor wouldn’t be put to trouble. When I foolishly pointed out that different letters took up different amounts of space, he looked crestfallen [...] Once, in the upper stacks of the university library, he came round a corner, having loudly pronounced his irritation at not being able to find some book crucial to a footnote. Seeing me with my head buried in a book, he stopped short. “You are always there,” he said, “to observe my inadequacies and misdemeanors.”
Let me remind you, while I'm at it, of the egregious/amazing cover of the US hardcover Selected Poems.