Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Urn burial and X"; monarchs and minors

1. Ed Park's article on minor poets at the Poetry Foundation website [1] got me thinking about how boringly conventional my response to literature often seems; one needn't be a hipster to want to have unheard-of kindred spirits in the safely inimitable past. (Major poets are not kindred spirits, being major.) There are some I am idiosyncratically drawn to -- Dunbar, Skelton, Ralegh, Peele -- but none of these is really sufficiently minor or sufficiently kindred; to get some good examples one has to turn to contemporary poetry and to a writer (not obscure enough) like Amy Clampitt, who scooped me on the Urn Burial template. I had been meant at some point (probably years ago) to write a poem about urn burial and the stability of matter, but discovered that she had already written a long one on the much better theme of "Urn burial and the butterfly migration." (Google wildcard search yields no other instances of this template; it probably bears recycling.) This is not one of my favorite Clampitt poems (O the overdone apostrophes!), but there is still much to like, e.g. this bit near the beginning:
Bark-creviced at the trunk's
foot, ladybirds' enameled herds
gather for the winter, red pearls
of an unsaid rosary to waking.
From the fenced beanfield,
crickets' brisk scrannel
plucks the worn reed of
individual survival.
And this bit:
as the monarchs' late-emerging
tribes ascend; you will hear
nothing. In wafted twos or threes
you may see them through the window
of a southbound Greyhound
bus, adrift across the
Minnesota border,

or in flickering clots, in dozens
above the parked cars of the
shopping malls of Kansas -- this
miracle that will not live to
taste the scarce nectar, the
ample horror of another summer.
Cf. D.H. Lawrence's wonderful comparison of a mosquito to "a dull clot of air." I remember finding it stirring, in the late fall a long time ago, when the year's entire stock of swallows materialized at the Hartford Greyhound station during a layover. I had never been off the bus at this stop -- which I later discovered was a terrifying place with armed ATM guards and meth-addled Subway customers -- and it might as well have been anywhere else with a lot of sky and a lot of concrete. The swallows gathered in small circles that merged into larger and larger circles -- the temporal version of a gear (or gyre) if you will -- and then everything went in reverse as clumps of swallows split off from the main body and trailed away in various directions, as if they were collectively enacting the imminent disintegration of their individual bodies. I've always been attracted to this inverse of the butterfly effect -- a relevant technical term, btw, is "enstrophy cascade" -- as a picture of a sensibility like Sebald's, in which a catastrophe is repeatedly relived on smaller and smaller scales with no loss of vividness.

2. On the topic of monarch butterflies and the inevitable chaos theory ref., see also Muldoon's "Milkweed and Monarch" (linked site has the wrong title).

3. It was probably inevitable that "littoralist of the imagination" should have been taken, but the title surely fits Bishop's sandpiper much better than A.R. Ammons.

4. Re minor poets, seventydys on twitter has been rediscovering Nathaniel Wanley, a devotional poet roughly contemporary with Dryden. (Here is a Review of English Studies article, there is supposedly a brief mention by T.S. Eliot in the TLS in 1925 but our TLS back issues link has been malfunctioning.) As far as kindred spirits go I fear Wanley won't cut it, despite the name, but there is a good deal to like in his verse, esp. the vividness of some bits ("to have the knife / not cutt but saw the thread of life"), the crisp cleverness of some bits,
False heart that dost pretend to thrust
Through flames and floods and death to Rest
Yet dar’st not quitt one bosome lust
For Gods or thine owne Interest.

and the obvious virtues of "The Resurrection":

Can death be gratefull and the grave be just,
Or shall my tomb restore my scattred dust?
Shall every hair find out its proper pore
And crumbled bones be joined as before,
Shall long unpractis'd pulses learn to beate
Victorious rottennesse a loud retreate,
Or eyes Ecclipsed with a tedious night,
Shall they once hope to resalute the light?
What if this flesh of mine be made the prey
Of Scaly Pirates cannibals at sea
Shall living Sepulchres give up their dead
Or is not flesh made fish then perished?

[1] Much of Park's article is an appreciation of the Ashbery/Schuyler collaborative novel A nest of ninnies. I wasn't as fond of it as Ed Park; I don't remember much of it but for what it's worth I wrote an Amazon review at the time. Like most of my Amazon reviews, it's a little painful to reread.


zbs said...

Clampitt gets a bit jangly after too long but I do like her; the difference between the excess of her language and that of e.g., Walcott is instructive I think.

Zed said...

With Clampitt one often gets the feeling that the complexity of language isn't backed up by a complexity of thought or feeling. I am an enormous fan of her verse _technique_ -- the handling of linebreaks in the second quoted bit is, I think, "magisterial" -- but most of her poems are written in what feels like the essayistic tradition of Marianne Moore and the tiredness of the "message" lets the air out of her longer poems before they've ended. (It is telling that her repetitions, like "friable" here or "snell" in the hermit thrush poem, are usually ineffective, the words don't _go_ anywhere.) I know this line of attack isn't new, Daniel Hall once sent me a paper he'd written countering it, but I've forgotten what his point was. Anyway I'm fond of Clampitt because I quite explicitly overrate bad poems with good passages.

As for Walcott, I think all his good early work has heavy elements of dialect in it; his "standard English" poems have the same problems as e.g. Burns's or McDiarmid's; the entire issue of compression in dialect poetry is a difficult one -- dialect writing places itself in a different relation to folk tradition from regular writing -- but in any case this issue besets dialect poets' poems in standard English.