Thomas Shapcott: Beware of broken glass

[The American Model, page 28]

Beware of broken glass:
models in a room of mirrors

by Thomas Shapcott

Thinking on the subject of ‘The American Model’ and How It Came Into My Life (Halleluiah!), I was accosted by two sudden images which would not leave me; both of them images of glass, neither of them having anything at all to do with ‘The American Model’, seemingly.

The first image that flashed into my mind was of the new Centre Culturel Georges Pompidou, the Beauborg in Paris, which I visited in the Spring of 1977 when workmen were still putting on the finishing touches (and parts of the curved plastic escalator covered-way seemed to be buckling already). Yet when I got to the top level, having adjusted my eyes and my mind to the twentieth century in art, machinery and objects, I gazed out of the great wall of windows onto all the rooftops of Paris, seeing them as I never had before — a great three-dimensional frieze, the world outside as an art object — or a changed way of seeing, which is what an art object, surely, is intended to lead us towards. As I gazed around on this top floor, crowded with construct works, some of them large as an old corner store, and perhaps parodying an old corner store, I noticed a large compressor, with a single workman’s glove resting on it. Was this, too, another work of art, another way of relooking at things?

My second image is also from Europe. A year later I was in Bayreuth, to see the brilliant Patrice Chereau production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and made a visit to the eighteenth century Hermitage built and added to by the various Margraves in the course of that century, but perhaps most notably bearing the imprint of the Margravine Wilhelmine, who was the sister of Frederick the Great; as you go through that fascinating old building, in which even the cells manage to seem more roccoco than

[The American Model, page 29]

Beware of broken glass

resolute, you come, via an ante-room of blue and white chinoiserie, to the little study where the Margravine is said to have written her operas and her ‘malicious and witty memoirs’. The ceiling is made up entirely of fragments of broken mirror. It is quite bizarre. The Chinese anteroom, by the way, has a number of panels which were designed and possibly painted by the Margravine herself, the rest are the genuine article — or at least what the eighteenth-century Europeans and their Chinese suppliers were marketing as the genuine article. It is impossible to distinguish which is which, the imported panels, or the European imitations.

These two small images stuck in my mind; so much so that I immediately jotted down a title for this talk as ‘Beware of Broken Glass: Models in a Room of Mirrors’, though I had not at all worked out how they related to the subject at hand — the impact of modern American poetry on my own writing and on my consciousness.

But, leaving them floating or reflecting (or refracting) for a moment (I have of course got a use for them later), perhaps I should now make a quick survey of my encounter with ‘The American Model’ in poetry.

I think I was much a child of my time — born 1935, educated during the war and in the austerity post-war years. I left school in 1950. In 1951 someone gave me Eliot’s Four Quartets, I read War and Peace and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and imported by special indent a Danish HMV 78rpm disc of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19’ — in other words, I was entering by rapid gulps into the world of intellectual curiosity and of technological voracity. A year before I was probably reading W. E. Johns and being thought a highbrow by my family for listening to Eric Coates on the radio. A couple of years later and the real technological flood would spill out even into the arms of small-town kids in Queensland, Australia: the largesse of the long-playing record and the paperback book. I was growing up in the first generation in Australia that made cultural isolation a matter of individual apathy, or, to put it another way, that made cultural curiosity something that could be nourished and enlarged, like a growing foetus, not starved and aborted. One thinks of poor little Cuffy, in Richard Mahony, who hears a Schumann piano sonata played — once — and is most cruelly given a moment of illumination that the author insists is foredoomed to emphasize his subsequent starvation. And when I speak of cultural isolation, or cultural curiosity, I mean that in terms of what is immediately happening, the flux and battleground of current attempts, failures and

[The American Model, page 30]

Tom Shapcott

thrustings forward. Not the filtered past, with its don’t-touch signs and heavy glass barriers and a careful tread through prize set-pieces.

But I was also lucky, too, I think, in being of a generation, even here, where the past was being used more as archaeological digs than as monumental masonry. As George MacBeth said in a recent interview: ‘The past is not a static thing; it is redeveloped by every new poet who makes a contribution to literature. Eliot was the man who had this great insight, that the new poet can re-read the past as it were, and thus create the present and the future.’

In music, of course, the twentieth century has been, as well as the electronic age, the age of pastiche, of eclecticism. This essentially eclectic attitude towards the past permeates the entire twentieth century culture, from Picasso to Pound, from Stravinsky (and Schoenberg) to all the followers of Auden in the 1930s, and even as recent a work as Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger which has as its very skeleton the already past-tinted Great Western Epic (in exactly the same way that Eliot tinted-up his Murder in the Cathedral with rituals, or Schoenberg made his serialism first twitch against Baroque chains). Harold Rosenberg put this aspect of avant-gardism concisely: ‘The avant-garde transforms not only the present but the past as well. It resurrects energies imprisoned in the formats of outlived conventions, ideologies, and etiquettes. Aiming at refreshment, it finds the nerve center still alive in the sonnet, in cave paintings. To release possibilities inherent in patterns ossified by time, it does not hesitate to amputate and distort.’

In Australia, I think it was only in the early 1950s — my adolescence — that the essential nature of twentieth century eclecticism actually became accessible. It had its curious distortions, of course. One often enough became aware of certain creative milestones through their ‘rediscoverers’, some of whom were more than a little clumsy. It seems strange, now, to realize I discovered baroque music via Stravinsky! But, out of it all, I think I gained the inestimable advantage of never putting the great masterworks onto the pedestal of the untouchable — I escaped the Time-Life Digest pills. Or, quoting Harold Rosenberg again, ‘the utilization of masterpieces as cultural spectaculars — as in the instance of the Mona Lisa in New York — deprives them of their inner substance and incorporates them into the mass media’. As he says, ‘Mere forced feeding of cultural commodities to more and more people is no guarantee against despair and passivity. Universal education to the baccalaureate level can be the means for mass training in intellectual servitude.’ (TheAnxious Object, 1969)

[The American Model, page 31]
Photo of Tom Shapcott
Photo of Tom Shapcott

[The American Model, page 32]
Photo of E.E. Cummings

[The American Model, page 33]

Beware of broken glass

I never reached — or not for another one and a half decades — the baccalaureate level; and, stumbling my own way through the increasing plenitude — and curious crosscurrents of the first mass media decade, I think perhaps I was lucky not to tick-off my way through a few set books and a few rigged exams to some phony Arts Degree in, say, 1955. Had I been born a decade earlier I would still have been in the Colonial pull, if perhaps able to join in the first flush of our great regional poetry that the War, I suspect, startled writers into. But I would have been very lucky indeed if I’d been able to get new overseas works within years of original publication.

And of the paperbacks that flushed me out of my country-town adolescence, two remain pivotal. Both Penguins: Kenneth Allott’s Contemporary Verse (which cost me 4 shillings in 1952) and Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of Modern American Verse, 1953, when prices had risen to 5 shillings and six pence. The Allott volume opened my eyes to what ‘contemporary’ actually meant. It meant the pull and tussle of conflicting poetic camps and identities. Having read that book I was at first dismayed that poets were fallible and human (and quarrelsome) — then delighted to recognize that, being human too, made it somehow more possible for me to hope to gain entry. I simply had to get myself, somehow, into the poems.

The American volume was a much more exciting experience, because even at that stage the vigour of language being approached from a new, or different angle, was a revelation. It is a rather curious book, now I look at it in retrospect — opening with Emily Dickinson but ignoring Whitman. Explanation: at the time it was compiled the Whitman stream was ‘out’ in dominant circles and the Dickinson new Metaphysicals were everywhere. Geoffrey Moore is not really to blame for his small sigh of relief, Whitman is such a large untidy figure for neat anthologists; and he wasn’t to know that the strain had gone underground and would re-emerge triumphant a decade later in a way that would make many of the wry ironists of the 1950s look Ivory-Towered indeed. Still, to discover for the first time poems like Dickinson’s ‘My life closed twice before its close’, or Wallace Stevens’ ‘Bantams in Pine-woods’, W. C. Williams’ ‘By the Road to the Contagious Hospital’, Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, Jeffers’ ‘Hurt Hawks’, and the work of E. E. Cummings; Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Man-Moth’ and Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and, yes, the wit and poise of Wilbur and Merrill, and the heavy power of early Lowell. I don’t know how much any of these

[The American Model, page 34]

Tom Shapcott

individual poems influenced me immediately. Perhaps, at first, E.E. Cummings and (though not through Moore’s selection) Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems — which, for the first time, it seemed, used a rough prosy style to build up powerful layers of impact. I had not, then, even discovered Whitman. Perhaps the most immediate effect of this anthology was to send me scurrying in search of more, and more recent, American verse. I don’t think I had anything like the same interest in English poetry, after reading Allott’s selection — Dylan Thomas, my other big early interest bewitched me (via Hopkins); though it is curious, in retrospect, how subtle the spell of Auden proved to be. But Allott’s anthology ended with Sidney Keyes; it was, in essence, a thirties anthology.

In the same shop, at the same time as I bought The Penguin Book of Modern American Verse I picked up two of the new-style US paperbacks that had begun to flood our market; Cardinal Editions in a book-sized anthology format called Discovery; numbers 3 and 6. The very idea of a book that was immediate, a blown-up magazine, struck me as being amazingly exciting. The prose I’ve forgotten entirely (everybody has) but the verse, though dominated by the neat lyricism of the time, had work by people like Louis Simpson and May Swenson, who were not included in the Penguin book; and who indicated, to me, that Moore’s volume must be seen as only the tip of a creative iceberg. Which it was. In that period of the early to mid-1950s, many similar anthology collections of immediately current writing appeared — often with works-in-progress: New World Writing, 7 Arts were two more I collected. It was through these, rather than magazines or journals, that I began to discover the world of the 1950s in its own time.

The many Penguin poetry titles became the backbone of my verse exploration for the next decade — supplemented by individual collections as I could get hold of them — Randall Jarrell’s Selected Poems in the Faber edition was the first of these, followed by E. E. Cummings, Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost (belatedly) and Robinson Jeffers. I still clench my teeth to recall I could have bought (at sale discount) a collection of Gertrude Stein’s poetry for a few shillings, at Barkers Bookstore in Brisbane, in the late fifties. It was there that I became hopelessly addicted to books, and to modern poetry in particular — their range was, for their time and their place, outstanding (as perhaps the Stein title indicates).

I have never attempted to trace, in my own writing, shadows or tints of what I was involved in reading and absorbing. I hope I was, simply,

[The American Model, page 35]

Beware of broken glass

absorbing. Sometimes it is by a single poem, a single section, or line, or even phrase from a poem, that some greedy tastebud in the creative appetite is wakened. Perhaps reading about Merrell Moore’s filing-cabinets full of sonnets somehow made my interest in that form somehow legitimized, though his dry anecdotal tone has — apart from its intrinsic gamesplay with the balance of words in and against the line — never affected me (I would nominate Hopkins as a truer influence on my sonnet addiction). Certainly Cummings in his later trickily wide-eyed lyricism (‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’) bowled me over, showed me a new game with language to get song and surprise in (and as I was a frustrated or failed composer, at 19, it is perhaps natural that verbal lyricism immediately appealed to me — when I was not making Eliot-inspired Quartets attempting to sound bass-baritone instead of my natural nondescript tenor). And of course it was a period when it seemed every second American was showing-off his allusions. I went through a phase (mercifully short) of shoving in bits of current reading matter and French phrases and pretending they indicated whole storerooms of erudition (I left school at fifteen, remember). It is curious to see a later generation tricked also by Pound and, now, Duncan, into similar games. Perhaps the work ‘trick’ is too strong; let’s say I was playing tricks when I went through that stage. I look stern-eyed, now, at others. The nuances behind the ‘tricks’ could only be learned by learning nuances: not paste-on library signals. Pound (Duncan) identity, idiocyncracity photocopied by eager, clumsy, mimickers — I look at the Australian admirers of Whitman, such as O’Dowd, and wince — O’Dowd didn’t even see much less hear what his ‘master’ was on about. Eclecticism does not mean mimicry!

Lowell. Roethke. The 1960s. The battle of the anthologies, with Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry coming out on top with a great whoosh and vigour (and a fair amount of sludge, but that’s part of the filtering-through process essential to perspective gaining). We moved through the sixties and into the seventies, and I guess my last two anthologies have done as much as anything in this country to alert here at least a general awareness of some of the decisive movements in poetry in these decades. I do not claim leadership or innovatory direction-making for myself, in these. At the most, a sort of ear-to-the-ground response. I have wanted to increase a sense of awareness of how recent developments in the craft of poetry have seeped through both cultures — American and Australian.

A whole generation of American poets, in the 1960s, had to re-define

[The American Model, page 36]

Tom Shapcott

their essential stance and relationship with words-on-paper, and with language as a tool to communication. Implicit in this, I think, has been the overthrow of one of the twentieth century’s dominant intellectual preoccupations: the impasse of man as a non-communicable being. Descarte’s ‘I think, therefore I am’ had become ‘I think, therefore I am not’. To oversimplify, I feel the re-exploration of American poetry in the 1960s of a language more and more attuned to heard or inflected speech, or to the leap and buck of thought as process, not as decision (even in the decision to make a complete sentence), has been a redefinition of Descartes as ‘I respond, therefore I feel, therefore I may begin to think, therefore I am becoming’. It is the act of becoming the vulnerable being, that most permeates the wide arc of recent American poetry. Man is perhaps at his most vulnerable in the modern city (so much an American invention); it is interesting that this exploration of the sense of the vulnerable man has been paralleled by the creation of a whole series of great city poemscapes (though, of course, Vermont, or even Iowa, have also proved creatively fertile, too).

The idea of vulnerability is not easy for the Australian poet. As a people sparsely perched, like invaders still, on this squinting continent, our sense of social vulnerability is acute. The act of personal vulnerability is easily confused with exhibitionism; that is why in my last anthology I wrote ‘Australian poetry has consistently underplayed flamboyant gesture. It is frequently imbued with a sense of the irony of survival. It is for this reason … that it seems impossible for Australia to give rise to a larger-than-lifesize affirmative visionary like Walt Whitman.’ Even Les Murray, with his ‘vernacular republic’ remains true to a republic of ‘survival and endurance’ rather than to a brotherhood of shadow-casting makers or namers.

Whitman, of course, was the first great exponent of the vulnerable stance (‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself…’), making of it a starting point for voyage and discovery — and, of course, deception and self-deception. Of Australian poets, I think only Bruce Beaver has been able to discover the vulnerability that leads to an opening up of creative range, not a withdrawal into self-pity or personal pleading. Vincent Buckley, in Golden Builders, has sought to approach this level of wise passivity, too. It is, as we know, a dangerous area. The shopping-list rhetorics of Howl and its followers have become everyone’s cheap quickie to drugstore anguish — as in Anne Waldman’s ‘Pressure’ (an example I make intentionally in my anthology Contemporary American and Australian Poetry).

[The American Model, page 37]
Photo of Marianne Moore

[The American Model, page 38]
Photo of Edgar Lee Masters

[The American Model, page 39]

Beware of broken glass

If, as I believe, the vulnerability of experiencing-man re-entered modern poetry, that vulnerability implied that the vulnerability of language was language’s strength; that through the vulnerability of language (in its ‘raw’ form, if you like) immediacy of communication could be re-forged, or, simply, forged, discovered. It is interesting, in this respect, to hear what Anthony Burgess wrote in his book on William Shakespeare. This following, for instance, might be almost invisibly mended to apply to America’s experience:

England had once been on the very edge of the world. Now, with America discovered and even colonised, England was in the middle of it… The language itself was in the melting-pot — not fixed and elegant and controlled by academics, but coarsely rich and ready for any adventures that would make it richer. English was a sort of Golden Hind.

Or, even more forceful, this comment on speech and language in Elizabethan times, that throws echoes across American verse experiments from Black Mountain to Bly, from Duncan to Dickey:

Speech, when you come to think of it, is not a very exact medium: it is full of stumblings and apologies for not finding the right word; it has to be helped out with animal grunts and the gestures which, one is convinced, represent man’s primal mode of communication. Take speech as a flickering auditory candle, and the mere act of maintaining its light becomes enough. Tales, gossip, riddles, word-play pass the time in the dark, and out of these — not out of the need to recount facts or state a case — springs literature.

And, I would add, communication.

This is not to limit the wide range being explored in modern poetry, and modern American poetry in particular. Metaphysical wit is a strain that has not been entirely suffocated by the heave of those letting it all hang out! ‘To recount facts or state a case’ does not define the whole dimension of organized language, or its creative possibilities. The great interest in modern verse translation is probably a striking evidence of this current in American writing concerns — what George MacBeth earlier this year called ‘lateral’ looking. Spanish language surrealism, or the implosive immobility of some of the Eastern European poets, might

[The American Model, page 40]

Tom Shapcott

suggest a surface of vulnerability in its reliance on the irrational, but that is deceptive; it is ‘plotted’ even if only instinctively. One might, for instance, look at Frank O’Hara’s poems influenced by Lorca and Mayakovsky, and at his later, and more extraordinary, Manhattan group montages. These latter are brilliantly ‘vulnerable’ in the sense I have been trying to outline, and of course immensely communicable. Poems like ‘Second Avenue’ and ‘Oranges’ are simply manipulative. Manipulative poetry — poetry of self-conscious craft — is probably today seen at its most glittering in the work of James Merrill (say, in ‘The Book of Ephraim’ from his recent Divine Comedies), and at its most beguiling in, say, Charles Simic. And there is a whole generation of younger writers who balance both qualities, sometimes as on a tightrope, sometimes more like a trampoline.

One of the more interesting things about the ‘poem as invention’ or ‘the poem as a search for the poem’ is that it has so well moulded in with the gift of vulnerability. Both sides have gained. The search for ‘spontaneity and the facts of life’ has led, quite simply, to new forms. And, in consequence, to the perpetual search for sources of reanimation in old shapes and old forms. It is the nature of the twentieth century to be eclectic, as I said earlier. The process of feeding on the past for future shapes will not disappear until whole cultures disappear. All of them.

What is the position of the Australian poet in all this? The position of any poet; to take what is nourishing for his own purposes. There are obvious dangers for us — or even, to come back to George MacBeth — for the English. ‘The actual noise Americans make — the accent itself — is a danger’ he notes: ‘What I would wish to see is not so much imitation of what Americans have done, but a willingness to learn from the example of American writers without imitating them. The willingness to take risks, to work on a big scale, to do something new.’

American poetry in English has been the dominant and most exciting poetry (in English) for the last two decades at least. And the most seductive. But it is because I think Australian poets have become increasingly aware of themselves that I think they can, now, learn without imitating or becoming derivative. They have every right — and opportunity — to seek nourishment, and I only hope they have the judgement not to confuse the contents with the import plastic moulds. The smallest of examples: when I first started publishing, in the 1950s, there was a thrill of pride — and envy — if an Australian poet (say A. D. Hope, Douglas Stewart, David Campbell) published in an overseas

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Beware of broken glass

paper. The poem itself might be quite trivial. It is a long time since overseas publication has meant status merely. Australian poets still publish overseas, and still try to. But it is, in the Australian context, nothing more than finding a market.

I began with two images of glass, of mirrors. When I looked out through the windows at the Georges Pompidou cultural centre in Paris it was, in a sense, an act of lateral looking. I was able to see around me with a fresh way at things taken for granted — not only the roofs of fabulous old Paris, but also the workman’s compressor and glove. When I looked up at the broken mirrors in the Margravine’s writing-room, at Bayreuth, I realized — belatedly, and for the first time — that the Rococco, with its love of the out-of-balance and the bizarre, its curiosity and its uniformity (French was as universal among the cultured as English now), was, like our age, a period of unashamed eclecticism. It suddenly became vulnerable to me, not because the Margravine’s Chinese paintings in the next room were perfect forgeries, but because her broken mirrors in this room were perfect disasters. She had communicated something vivid about herself. And I had taken it, shared it, and made use of it. I respond, therefore I feel, therefore I may begin to think, therefore I am becoming.’

Beware of broken glass. It can cut your hand. And it can lead you to stare straight through two centuries at something disconcertingly like yourself. The American experience, for me, has been something very like that.