Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two versions of a trick; Lowell poem with cat

It's hard to miss the similarity between the early poems of Geoffrey Hill and Robert Lowell, partly due to the shared Allen Tate influence; their first books even had similar titles, For the Unfallen and Land of Unlikeness respectively. (Hill's first poem: "Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God." Cf. Lowell's "he grappled at the net / with the coiled hurdling muscles of his thighs." I don't like Tate and by and large don't care for early Lowell or Hill either [1].) Less obviously, much of Hill's work is quite like History and the other books in Lowell's sonnet-writing phase; the resemblance has to do with the intensely "literary" personalities of both poets and the technical problems, and opportunities, that literariness brings up. For instance I think there is an obvious parallel between the endings of these poems:

I. Hill, "Funeral Music" part 8

Not as we are but as we must appear,   
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we   
Desire life but as they would have us live,   
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,   
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,   
Each distant sphere of harmony forever   
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without   
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or   
If it is not, all echoes are the same   
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,   
How that should comfort us—or anyone   
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.
Our love will not come back on fortune’s wheel—

in the end it gets us, though a man know what he’d have:
old cars, old money, old undebased pre-Lyndon
silver, no copper rubbing through . . . old wives;
I could live such a too long time with mine.
In the end, every hypochondriac is his own prophet.
Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I’m for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth’s fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness, painful “It was. . . .”
After loving you so much, can I forget
you for eternity, and have no other choice?
Both poems hinge on the trick of setting up a direct, personal close by attaching it to a string of generalities, expressed in less-than-immediate lines that especially in Lowell's case are verbiage; the turn, when it comes, is effective because of the flatness of the middle of the poem. The closing couplet, though famous, is not that effective on its own. (As usual, I find Hill more interesting at the verbal level, I am fond of "contractual ghosts of pity" and of the use of "vaunt.") L and H are like each other in being prone to both mustiness and cheap rhetoric; usually a good poem involves avoiding both faults, but these strike me as successful examples of indulging both and playing them off against each other.

(There is, likewise, a way of setting up one's special effects badly that I associate with Pound.)


This poem in Lowell's first book, which really ought to be a Lowellcat, reads like an inspired and hilarious self-parody (which I assume it wasn't, at least consciously, as Lowell never republished it):
A Suicidal Nightmare

Tonight and crouching in your jungle-bed,
O tiger of the gutless heart, you spied
The maimed man stooping with his bag;
And there was none to help. Cat, you saw red,
And like a grinning sphinx, you prophesied
Cain's nine and outcast lives are in the bag.

Watching the man, I spun my borrowed car
Into the bog. I'd left the traveled road
And crashed into a lower bog;
And that was why the catapulting fur,
A woolly lava of abstractions, flowed
Over my memory's inflated bag.

The maimed man stooped and slung me on his back:
My borrowed car flopped quacking in the flood,
It foundered in the lowest bog.
Man, why was it your rotten fabric broke?
"Brother, I fattened a caged beast on blood
And knowledge let the cat out of the bag."


zbs said...

I prefer L at the verbal level, probably because he seems to use his eyes whereas H does a crocheting sort of thing with words

Zed said...

Yes, a lot depends on how "textured" you like your poetic language; Hill is v. much in the line of Hopkins, though less extreme. I would not agree that Lowell is using his eyes in the middle of this poem though; the images are stock images and (e.g.) "I'm for and with myself in my otherness" seems deliberately very flat writing.