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Public voices and private feeling
by Bruce Dawe
Looking over the list in the brochure of some of the Australian poets contributing to this conference, I note that I am the only one of the seven named who is not also a regular (and to that extent professional) critic of poetry, publishing review articles, critical essays and/or books of literary criticism. That seems to be a significant point of difference. Not being a critic, my perception of influences is more likely to be useful in reference to my own work rather than to that of my fellow-poets. First, then, to the title of this conference …
A conference with a title such as this present one runs an obvious risk of misleading both potential speakers and potential audiences: ‘The American Model’ — what could be more eye catching than that? Those fulsome curves, enhanced by the brief white buckskin-fringed costume — those knowing West Coast eyes! What a delightful Miss-conception! Unsettled by these visions of endless Westward Expansion, I have found it difficult to undeceive myself about the real implications of that title and the conference, still hoping against hope that when I got off the plane I would be surrounded by florid refugees from some businessmen’s convention and whisked off to the delights of some American-sponsored Saturnalia in Potts Point.
Well — this is, I suppose, part of the peculiar nature of influences, that, despite Macquarie University’s nation-wide reputation for probity and abstemiousness, one should still succumb to such absurd expectations! And — when one thinks of the nature of other American influences than Raquel Welch on one’s own work — one realizes how difficult it is to order one’s assessment of them …
Influences can be consciously or unconsciously sought. You can send
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Public voices and private feeling
chocolates and flowers to the influences of your conscious choice, or you can hang around the stage-door or sit in the front row for performance after performance without any specific hope of reward — just to be near the subject of one’s unconscious affection … Thinking back on the nature of influences on my own poetry, it seems clear to me that the American influence on my own work was much closer to the second situation. I have never studied American literature in any extensive way (for example, in a university course), nor even Australian literature. And it seems to me that one will be very differently influenced by work that one studies (sends chocolates and flowers to) as distinct from work that one ‘hangs around’. I am not for a moment suggesting one means of being influenced is intrinsically more worthwhile than the other — it depends on the people concerned. I am merely stressing the obvious difference and the obvious consequences.
The first American poetry of which I am aware of being aware is that of Harry Roskolenko, and Karl Shapiro in Angry Penguins, that avant-garde magazine of the early 1940s, the final issues of which my fourth form English teacher at high school blessedly passed on to me. Before then poetry was Harold Monro’s ‘Milk for the Cat’, Sherwood Anderson’s ‘The Crane’, and Martin Armstrong’s ‘The Buzzards’ — extremely genteel fare, indeed. Leaving school the following year (1946), the curtain drops — darkness descends — and it is not, really, until eight years later, that at twenty-four, one slouched towards Bethlehem (in this case Melbourne University) to be born. The American connection was re-established, especially through one book which became generally available in the Penguin edition published in that year — Geoffrey Moore’s Penguin Book of Modern American Verse. And what a treasure-trove it became — like John Hayward’s Penguin Book of English Verse — a wonderful collection — especially for the young writer like myself — the hanger-around words, rather than the assiduous, conscious, knowledgeable courtier of language. Looking back through Moore’s collection in the process of writing this paper, I realize what Graham Greene meant when, referring to the sources of influences at an earlier age still (around fourteen), he said that on taking Marjorie Bowen’s novel The Viper of Milan from the library shelf‘the future for better or worse really struck’. More than any other, in my own case, that book of Moore’s, in conjunction with the great encouragement of Melbourne University teachers and friends, had a similar effect on me. It had, arguably, more of the finest poems from America than any other collection then available. Appearing, as it did,
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during something of a trough in the development of modern British poetry (post-Thomas, pre-late-fifties Movement/Group directions), its appeal is readily understandable. Here, in one volume of a pocketable size was American poetry (save Whitman) from Emily Dickinson to W. S. Merwin. Returning to it now, twenty-five years later, I see the names that meant most to me then in American poetry are most of those that mean most to me now. I have studied literature to a somewhat greater extent since then, but the appeal of those poets in the poems representing them in this volume remains undiminished.
Graham Greene, considering the influence of Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, found that it gave him a pattern: ‘One had lived’, he says, ‘for fourteen years in a wild jungle country without a map, but now the paths had been traced — and naturally one had to follow them.’ In my own case the paths were obscure — what they led to unclear — but the following of the paths themselves was enjoyable (as it must be with any reader, whether or not the significance of the influence is realized at the start of the journey).
I have entitled this paper ‘Public Voices and Private Feeling’ because it seems to me that one of the continuing tasks in which so many Australian poets of the post-war generation are necessarily engaged is the relating of these two areas — the public world in which we have a stake as citizens like everyone else and that private world where we confront the mystery of our individual personalities, our individual perceptions and affections, our individual destinies.
In his Introduction to The Penguin Book of American Verse Geoffrey Moore refers to the way in which twentieth-century American poetry reflects the power and diversity of America and American experience. Certainly this varied response of American poets to the ‘problems’, ‘many-sidedness’ and ‘promise’ of their situation must have been a central factor in our own responses (I speak now collectively for those poets whom I knew in Melbourne in the years from 1954 onwards, on-and off-campus).
United during that period in our concerns as citizens with a conscious public role to play, and as private people on whom such issues also impinged — public issues such as the Labor Party split (particularly virulent in its consequences in Victoria) and the Hungarian Revolution greatly helped to make us particularly conscious of the problem. The influence of Yeats and Auden on the work of Vin Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe in that period is evidence enough of that felt need to speak publicly and yet personally which we all feel — and still feel
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Photo of Edward Arlington Robinson
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Public voices and private feeling
(Robert Bly once said, ‘The political poem comes out of the deepest privacy’).
If one takes some of these writers in Moore’s anthology as they appear, the modern American interest in embodying private feelings in various public voices is very obvious.
Firstly, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters — all but unknown figures in Australia — have from the first impressed me greatly — for similar reasons. Each takes a specific town/village — Tilbury and Spoon River (in New England and Mid-West, and thus archetypal settlements for even non-Americans) and peoples it with passionate, suffering, dumb characters locked into their fates — Reuben Bright and Butch Weldy, for example, are characteristic expressions of this tragic vision. This vision was particularly meaningful to those Australians who first started publishing in the 1950s, and Vincent Buckley lamented the lack of this tragic sense of man in Australian literature. For me it was there in Robinson’s ‘Reuben Bright’ (and also of course ‘Miniver Cheevy’) and Masters’ ‘Butch Weldy’. Here for example is ‘Reuben Bright’:
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
That is an extremely forceful use of the sonnet-form indeed. Violence of private feelings, here (as in ‘Butch Weldy’) gives way to a ritual control of tragic dimensions. In both poems the public voice of the poet ensures this control — the actions of the character are presented in terms which
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make the situation not at all peculiarly American, but as meaningful to Australian experience as any other.
Again, moving through the book — one encounters a similar merging of social and private man in Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and especially in such poems as those of John Crowe Ransom where private feelings and public rituals of control are dramatized. Here, the accent and forms are Southern and staunchly hieratic. In ‘Dead Boy’, for example, or ‘Here Lies a Lady’. In the first-named poem, the dead boy is beautifully placed in the middle of concentric rings of public mourning which become at the same time the sum total of so many private worlds of mourning:
A green bough from Virginia’s aged tree,
And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.
A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever,
A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping,
A sword beneath his mother’s heart — yet never Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.
A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,
Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretence
With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,
I see the forbears’ antique lineaments.
The elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath!
Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.
He was pale and little, the foolish neighbours say;
The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;
But this was the old tree’s late branch wrenched away,
Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.
Here the truth is so elegaic feeling — of a place and time — but also universalizing beyond these like Ben Jonson’s or the elegaic feeling of Edna St. Vincent Millay or Conrad Aiken. For me the elegy is a mode
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Public voices and private feeling
that is essentially celebrative — affirmation of life through mourning — a song in darkness… Ransom’s elegies are beautifully modulated — the tone, establishing both one society’s public voice and the poet’s own private feeling — and in the process all societies’ voices and private responses. I had not until this week realized that the name of a girl in a poem of mine called ‘At Shagger’s Funeral’ is an unconscious borrowing from Ransom — from his elegy ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’. I would have changed it had I known at the time — but of course it’s a bit late now.
But in none of these poets is that sense of the modern urbanized to the point of fragmentation — where the discursive mode, the mode of public discourse, has to accommodate the satiric interpolations of other voices, other rooms. With E. E. Cummings the point for me was reached, and, perhaps because I only came to appreciate T. S. Eliot through teaching him (a sort of pedagogic variant of the ‘Stockholm syndrome’), Cummings in such poems as those in Moore’s collection became all of modernism I could personally accommodate. Cummings with his cross-hatching of public voices, confirmed for me the possibilities of this technique. I had earlier met with a version of it in Dos Passos’ novels — in the ‘newsreel’ and ‘camera-eye’ devices, and I still believe this to be a very flexible approach in poetry written in prose — attacking and exciting the ear and eye for the reader, the ear for the listener for whom its surface of cliche is like ice on a hot stove in Frost’s simile concerning the creation of a poem — the cliche, like Frost’s poem, ‘must ride on its own melting’. Take, for example, the beginning of Cummings’ ‘Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal’:
my country, ’tis of
you, land of the Cluett
Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint
Girl With the Wrigley Eyes (of you
land of the Arrow Ide
and Earl &
Collars) of you i
sing: land of Abraham Lincoln and Lydia E. Pinkham,
land above all of Just Add Hot Water And Serve —
from every B.V.D.
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Public voices and private feeling
The interweaving here of the voices of the patriotic ‘booster’ and the commercial huckster provides a public medley by means of which the private person expresses his own feelings about their encroachment on his own life, sense of individuality. I have always admired Cummings’ skill and sense of humour which begins, of course, with the title — and my own taste in titles, too, has often reflected this aspect of Cummings as well. Of course, I have been criticized as a ‘smart-alec’ for this tendency by solemnly simplistic people who believe every writer should in some oddly unambiguous way stand behind every word he writes (including those in the title…) which would be fair enough if a writer were setting out to be an Honest John used car salesman …
If one adds to this early development of what one could call the ‘mixed monologue’ (since it is a mixing of various aspects of the traditional dramatic monologue) such a later poem as Kenneth Fearing’s ‘Dirge’ — then one has I think the essential elements which influenced me most in this particular form. It describes the fate of a depression-ruined executive:
1-2-3 was the number he played but to-day the number came 3-2-1;
bought his Carbide at 30 and it went to 29; had the favourite at Bowie but the track was slow —
O, executive type, would you like to drive a floating power, knee-action, silk-upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?
O, fellow with a will who won’t take no, watch out for three cigarettes on the same, single match; O, democratic voter born in August under Mars, beware of liquidated rails —
Denouement to denouement, he took a personal pride in the certain way he lived his own, private life,
but nevertheless, they shut off his gas; nevertheless, the bank foreclosed; nevertheless, the landlord called; nevertheless, the radio broke,
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Public voices and private feeling
And twelve o’clock arrived just once too often,
just the same he wore one grey tweed suit, bought one straw hat, drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath,
just one too many,
And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff
got married and bam had children and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die,
With who the hell are you at the corner of his casket, and where the hell we going on the right hand silver knob, and who the hell cares walking second from the end with an American Beauty wreath from why the hell not,
Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.,
Wham, Mr Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper;
bop, summer rain;
bong, Mr, bong Mr, bong, Mr, bong.
This poem I am sure is a most central influence obviously reflected in a later poem like ‘Falling Asleep Over T.V.’ where the final lines are very close to Fearing’s in their rhythm … It is also obviously an influence on a 1954 poem of mine called ‘Enter Without So Much as Knocking’.
The monologue form itself is of course the paradigm of poetry seeking to deal with both the poet’s personal feelings and the potential public audience external of these. It is surely no coincidence that a resurgence of interest in poetry readings here as elsewhere has taken place at the same time as an increase in the popularity of the dramatic monologue. A suggestion: given the inhibitions with which Australians as a people confront the public platform the dramatic monologue enables us to consciously (violently!) wrench ourselves out of that queasy ‘what-the-bloody-hell-am-I-doing-here-anyway’ feeling — and hit our straps …
Also, such a poem as Delmore Schwartz’s well-known ‘The heavy bear who goes with me’ appealed greatly — as one of those American
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poems employing some central metaphor of the human condition as it is peculiarly experienced in big cities:
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
Similarly, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Man-Moth’ which I still find a most poignant expression of modern urban man and Shapiro’s ‘Auto Wreck’ (the latter I am sure finding its way into my work in an early poem like ‘Accident and Ambulance Siren’, just as Schwartz’s ‘heavy bear’ lies behind another early poem of mine, ‘The Comedian’).
To these I would add two other final sources of influence — firstly that of the so-called Cavalier poets — Richard Wilbur especially in poems like ‘The Death of a Toad’ — and John Frederick Nims (the latter’s satirical poems like ‘Penny Arcade’) and the early Lowell — ‘The Exile’s Return’ with its knowledgeable, ironic, close-hauled lines, the epic rhetoric of ‘The Quaker Graveyard’ and Robert Horan’s ‘Suppose We Kill a King’:
princes are waiting everywhere;
suppose by poison or by water, kill a queen;
her daughter sits upon the stair.
The beast begun comes back.
Like shadows or like mirrors where they stand,
the sun assassinates, the moon refurnishes
the shadow with a hand.
Lying alone in midnight, drowned in guilt
and staggered with emeralds while they sleep:
the daggers in the bed of silk,
the devils in disguise,
the footman with the hand that shakes,
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the Dauphin with his eyes.
The king will walk, an antlered ghost, through castle halls,
and dukes will turn their heads to see;
the queen will wake to find her face on palace walls
looking down from a tapestry.
A prince, in lighting a taper for a tomb
and putting a sleepy king to bed,
will leave a glistening rapier in his room:
will separate his heart and head
and kneeling at his bleeding crown
and covering the fallen head
will stifle the echo with his gown.
Sidewise in Venetian glass
the mirror shows the murderer, a king.
The bells that rang a funeral
must pause to ring a christening.
The one who killed the king is killed,
assassin, silenced with a stone;
a prison hung around his throat,
a weight upon his tongue.
Like mice beneath a rotting throne, the whispering men
sit in the palace sun,
and as the coffin passes through the towns,
lay down their daggers to put on their crowns.
One common factor in all these poems is the predominantly public tone of the voice — they are made for reading aloud. Each has its own sense of rhetoric — confident in the possibilities of the poem as read aloud, as well as of the poem as blue-print of experience for the reader on the page. Again, in the years when this slim but significant American influence was working on me (as ‘hanger-around’ rather than serious pursuer) — I was most fortunate in being in touch with other poets who were fine readers of their own work and who as a group believed in readings to an extent not common in many places in Australia then.
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To sum up then: the four aspects of American poetry that were encapsulated in Moore’s anthology for me were: (1) the portrayal of the buried lives of unexceptional people (‘unexceptional’ in any society but a democracy) — their private feelings made public at last and meaningful to those who share them; (2) the profound sense of ritual embodied in the work of poets like Ransom who, as one critic said, ‘more than any other poet has given form and substance to the sense of loss’; (3) the exciting orchestration of voices in the mixed monologue forms of Cummings and Fearing; (4) the sophisticated social/in-tellectual ironies of formalists such as the early Lowell, Wilbur, Nims, Shapiro (a very rich tribe later added to by Hecht, Snodgrass and others).
But it was not, in my own case, by discussion, nor by reading about them generally, nor by any close study of these things — the poets, the poetry, the techniques of marrying public modes and private feelings — that one came to be influenced by them. In this respect, my own experience may be different to some extent from that of some other Australian poets — but I doubt whether a more self-conscious application to the problem would have been more successful. Alec Hope says in one of his essays that more writers have been ruined by other people’s image of them than from any other cause, since this image may become the writer’s own … Had, then, these early American influences been pointed out too explicitly too soon, one’s capacity to draw on them would have been even more severely limited than it was. For that, too, one must remain continually grateful.