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Ease of American language
by Vincent Buckley
At the end of my first adolescence, which was just before the end of the Second World War, I discovered an important truth about a good deal of American literature: its naturalness, its emphasis on perception and sensation, its ease of movement. This was an important truth, and these were important qualities to register; for I was in a military hospital, driven half-mad by an endless system of convention and constraint, caught between an unpromising future and a despised past, a living tree of longing and nostalgia. The universe called with its limitless voices; I responded with limitless mute desire, with no language, since I did not have the ease of feeling which would allow language to form itself; I was gritty and speechless as a dream. I read, or in some cases re-read, what American writers I could get.
These were novelists rather than poets. In hospital, the Red Cross women with their book-trolley would look sideways and make embarrassed snuffing noises whenever I would ask for poetry. Outside, in the lending libraries, in the universities and the bookshops, the taste was standard, English-based, with very little reverence towards even Australian poetry, much less other inferior brands. I got my Australian poetry by conscious policy — by reading the reviews and following up the tips which they gave. I got my American poetry by lucky finds, by exchange with other poetry-hoarders like Alexander Craig, and in the form of review copies, got by pointedly asking editors for those books rather than A Gippsland Grandmother or The Last of the Sailing Ships. I reviewed, for example, early Lowell, James Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Rexroth. But poetry was always less available, and more slowly assimilated, than prose. So, whereas I was entranced with
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Whitman, Hart Crane and Lowell, as I was with Rimbaud, the works which chiefly developed in me my sense of, and conviction about, the special naturalness of American literary speech were prose works: Steinbeck and Dreiser, Dos Passos and Hemingway, Penn Warren, Willa Cather, Saroyan and Faulkner. I thought then, as I think now, that the quality I speak of is to be found more readily, and may be analyzed more clearly, in the finest of them than in any American poetry.
The quality is one of perception, which is largely a matter of intimate and prolonged sensation, the sensation of noticing being used as the focus for the other, more clearly animal sensations; a matter of sensation, and of pace in its expounding (that is to say, its uncovering, its outlaying); hence of idiom, since the enterprise is to a certain degree mimetic, and will have to depend on the availability of a language which is close to the bodily particularity of things and of their common local names; hence of the rhythm which will deliver that idiom and the thinginess which it enfolds.
Where these forces work most closely and finely together, we are likely to get something which is both extremely prosy in its attention to the spelling out of the things to be recorded, and highly pre-poetic (if I may use that term for the time being without explanation) in the quality almost of song in the medium of sensation-exposition. And where this particular combination (this tendency towards speech-song) is found in verse, in William Carlos Williams for example, we will find ourselves having to say that the result is both flatly denotatory and alive with an odd musicality; its music is a function of its dealing with fact (unlike, say, Tennyson’s melliflous method).
But let me illustrate, first, by quoting some prose: the superb opening coup of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the carefully pitched, already ironic introduction of Penn Warren’s All the King᾿s Men.
Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cotton-house can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.
The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cotton-house in the centre of the field, where it
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Photo of William Faulkner
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Ease of American Language
The cotton-house is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving on to the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar-store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.
Tull’s wagon stands beside the spring, hitched to the rail, the reins wrapped about the seat stanchion. In the wagonbed are two chairs. Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks. I pass him and mount the path, beginning to hear Cash’s saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the Chuck Chuck Chuck of the adze.
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the
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The point of printing these two extracts so close together is that they are so patently dissimilar in local ambience, in pace, in idiom, and in basic creative method, and yet both would answer to a description of their naturalness which relied on those four qualities. The Faulkner, of course, enacts a consciousness in which sensation replaces verbal articulation so that the total effect is not one of an idiotic absence of reflectiveness but of a reflectiveness which cannot be separated, and can hardly be distinguished, from the sense-stimuli which provide its subject and occasion. It is a way, too, of creating emotion by paying a carefully paced attention to its origins in sensation. Dari seems to be describing the house and its environs, as though to provide the setting for the psychological action; but he is in fact engaged in psychological action, registering each phase of the brief journey back to the cabin, which is the centre and focus of pain, apprehension and death: the reason for thought and the reason for silence. His reflection ends with the image of Cash the carpenter, whose consciousness now is created as he fits and holds and squints along the boards that are to make his mother’s coffin. The pace of perception, of realization, is perfect.
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Penn Warren’s rhetoric is no doubt more ‘civilized’, less overtly animal in its intensity; yet it is just as easy, and it is just as much a process of perception; what the speaker creates is the process of registering the road to Mason City, as though something about that city may be established by considering its approaches; the ambience is both one of hypnotized concentration on the ‘black line down the center coming at and at you’ (a matter of sensation anaesthetizing the whole body) and of some spaciousness, as the ‘nigger chopping cotton a mile away’ is thought of as recording the imagined car-smash.
In neither case are we faced with mere scene-setting or mere externalized description; in both cases the interest is in process, and that process begins in and is defined by the idiom of sensation.
I know there is something paradoxical in my beginning my case with Penn Warren, who is neither markedly experimental as a novelist nor markedly sensuous as a poet. In fact, he is an abstractly metaphysical poet in some ways; but he did write ‘Ballad of Billie Potts’, with its regional idiom, and his largest poetic work is Brother to Dragons, which might be said to investigate the very bases of perception. His friend Allen Tate, too, may seem an unlikely candidate for ‘naturalness’, with his stiffly assertive need for ‘form’, and his unease whenever he breaks away from a set formal position. But if you think of him as the author not just of ‘Ode for the Confederate Dead’ (variable form but stiff movement) but also of ‘The Swimmers’ (regional idiom and free-running perception in the absurdly formal mode of terza rime), it will be seen that he too contributes to the case:
Hung low on poison-oak and scuppernong,
And we were following the active shade
Of water, that bells and bickers all night long.
‘No more’n a mile,’ Layne said. All five stood still.
Listening, I heard what seemed at first a song;
Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill.
The posse passed, twelve horse; the leader’s face
Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill.
Then, as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place
In bed, and rising to keep a formal pledge
Descend a ladder into empty space,
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And marched stiff-legged in our common fright
Along a hog-track by the riffle’s edge:
Into a world where sound shaded the sight
Dropped the dull hooves again; the horsemen came
Again, all but the leader: it was night
Momently and I feared: eleven same
Jesus-Christers unmembered and unmade,
Whose Corpse had died again in dirty shame.
However formalist the aesthetic, American poetry at its best acts out an ethos of observation, sensation and feeling. The meaning, it affirms, is in the process as at its end.
Several adolescences later, while I was going on my first visit to North America, I became preoccupied once more with defining this complex area of imaginative freedom. By now, it was a matter of immediate concern for my own poetry. I was familiar, of course, with the Projective Verse and similar theses, and aware of how much they had been taken, both throughout America and in Australia, not just as gospel but as examples of literal inspiration. Whatever merit such theses have, they could not help in my preoccupation: fields of force, breath, might even be part of what I was concerned about, but they were not the whole; and it was my firm impression that a combination of physical, electrical, and physiological metaphors did not express the reliance on perception and process which drew me.
I turned, paradoxically perhaps, to the question of language as diction: not ‘langue’ but ‘parole’. It certainly seemed to be the case that the sharpness of American sensation had to do with the pungency of American idiom; might there not exist in common ordinary language a predisposition to poetry, by reason of its diction, its pace, its sharpness or softness of accent: speech as pre-poetry? When Wordsworth wanted to reform English poetry in the most radical way it was with diction that he started, and it was the language (including the diction) of a particular group’s speech that he wished to take as his model. His arguments with
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Ease of American Language
Coleridge grew from this reliance, but they were really arguments about form, insofar as rhyme and metre constitute the limits of form. So diction may have far-reaching consequences. In what way did forms of American speech have such consequences for poetry?
The question is well worth investigating, if only because (or so I believe) poetry may be a deeply and variably mimetic art, in ways that have not been properly defined. I did not really try to define it six years ago, and since I have failed to go any distance towards defining it for the present occasion, I ought not to place any further emphasis on it here.
Still, it seems to me that if anyone were to venture a comparison of the best American practice with the best English or Australian, the question of diction would have to arise. It goes with the American emphasis on sensation and on registering it accurately; of registering it also in sequence, slowly. Behind or inside this there may be a mystique of the relation of human being to plant or place, or thing, although it is tempting to generalize that that in turn is most prominent when the poetry concerns itself with work or physical effort — and / or when the climate is hot. In any case, insofar as diction is concerned here, it is something relied on for compositional, not just documentary purposes: to compose a mimetic system of words, not just to tell the story; it is a matter of idiom, of ways of speaking, of something sensed as a common hoard. Not, I repeat, merely of a word-store, but of the pace, the rhythm, with which the words link themselves. The pace and rhythm of what? Not of speech, merely, for poetry is never (or seldom) speech. Not of composition, merely, but also of something that precedes composition. Perhaps of perception. If so, then the language-users engaged in this pace and rhythm may themselves involve a mystique, and an ethic — that perception is personal, indefeasible, and basic; it is not to be swallowed up in summary; and that the more deeply personal it is, the more its expression will have elements of the consciously, intently communal. What we may hope to get, then, is an ease, of and in the language; an ease not simply in its use, but somehow inside its own life.
Let us take some extracts from Gary Snyder to show different cases of what I mean:
I slept under rhododendron
All night blossoms fell
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Feet stuck in my pack
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen.
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.
Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.
Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
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Ease of American Language
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.
(from ‘Four Poems for Robin’)
In this group we have the beautiful, lyrical straight-talking of the love-poet. But I say ‘lyrical’ and ‘talking’, both, because there is nothing standard in this concentration of tones and feelings, and indeed the language is paced so as to make the writing appear the very, slow, movement of the questioning soul itself.
Sunday the only day we don’t work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
The tent flaps in the warm Early sun:
I’ve eaten breakfast and I’ll
take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
Piute Creek —
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky. Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
and ambled on.
Quail chicks freeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake—after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope —
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
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steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream
Into camp. At last.
By the rusty three-year-
Ago left-behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.
This poem, trivial and formulaic as it may appear, exemplifies another aspect of the complex quality I am indicating at so many points in American poetry: this time, the aspect is mobility: the speaker in American poems often moves from point to point, sometimes covering long distances, sometimes indicating physical effort, sometimes evoking details of geography, terrain, or climate. The ease of linguistic movement (that is, of word to word, line to line) is then cognate with the ease with which physical movement is created or portrayed in language. Monolithic, immobile or anal-retentive poems will tend to contain emotions or bodily movements that resemble the poetic methods applied to them.
But if we want a poem of Snyder’s which would answer to Olson’s prescriptions for Projective Verse, we would have to look elsewhere. Fields of force are not hard to come by, and the breath as a unit of comparison is often in use.
Sleep in the bus station
Strawberry pickers speaking Kwakiutl
turn at Burlington for Skagit
& Ross Dam
under appletrees by the river
banks of junkd cars
B. C. drivers give hitch-hikers rides
“The sheriffs posse stood in double rows Everett
flogged the naked Wobblies down
with stalks of Devil’s Club
& run them out of town”
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Ease of American Language
in the tricky feed and take
of double saws.
Dried, shrimp Seattle
— before the war old indian came
& sold us hard-smoked Chinook
From his truck-bed model T
waste of trees & topsoil, beast, herb,
edible roots, Indian field-farms & white men
dances washed, leached, burnt out
Minds blunt, ug! talk twisted
A night of the long poem
and the mined guitar…
“Forming the new society
within the shell of the old”
mess of tincan camps and littered roads
The Highway passes straight through
At Matsons washing blujeans
hills and saltwater
ack, the woodsmoke in my brain
Here we have the elements I have been speaking of combined in an easily identifiable way. The pace of the lines is used to mime the pace of perception, to establish a common diction (demotic), a habit, even a system, of external detail, and a pace of primitive reflection. It is poetry with a high prose content, but with a lyrical aura so persistent that we may wonder where it comes from. The mobility comes from Whitman, the sense of meaningful factuality from Williams — and maybe from writers like Dos Passos — the sense of in-voyaging (and some of the reverberances of speech) from Crane. I don’t myself find it very impressive, but it is at least deployed to assimilate the actual details of journeying: the language of the road.
The claims I am making here sound very similar to those which many American (and some Australian) critics have made for the Black
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Mountain ‘school’ and the Projective tendency generally. They are often made at the expense of the ruling English poetry (or, in Australia, of the older ruling poetry). They have provoked a counter-blast in England, and will probably soon do so in Australia. I don’t want to enter this debate insofar as it involves a simple acceptance or rejection of Black Mountain or Olson, or even Olson-Creeley-Dorn. In fact, I think the issues are not best put in those terms. But it may be useful, for Australian purposes, to mention the terms in which the English have made their counter-attack. In the process, I suggest, both sides are stronger in nominating the weaknesses of their opponents than their own strengths.
Michael Schmidt, in his Introduction to British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, attacking Louis Simpson among others, makes the following points: if Americans are good at Geography, the English are good at History; the English poets eschew the loose formless processwriting of the Americans and affirm instead (indeed, achieve) a poetry of‘clear form’, a ‘poetry of synthesis, in which images are expressed in a language more highly charged than translators’ English’ (he names Geoffrey Hill, Phillip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson as ‘formalists’ in this sense); they focus on ‘a significant, common world’ rather than on ‘impregnably private or, conversely, vatic poetry’; the distinction is ‘between the geographic or descriptive eye and the historical eye’, the Americans committing the error of ‘making history spatial and travelling] through it as though it were flat presence’. And so on.
Now, if we forget for a moment the issue of Black Mountain and Projective Verse, which is not, to my mind, the chief issue at all, certain questions will arise about all this. For one thing, what a ‘clear form’ is, or how it can be seen as creating a ‘synthesis’ of experience, is not self-evident at all. Snyder’s four poems for Robin seem to me, for instance, a striking example of‘clear form’, whereas many of Larkin’s or Hughes’ poems do not. Second, in what sense do even Hill’s Mercian Hymns, or Larkin’s vignettes of Northern England, or Hughes’ poetry, whether Hawk in The Rain or Crow, offer us a fully satisfying working of the ‘historical imagination’? Are they more ‘historical’ than Lowell’s Lord Weary᾿s Castle or Life Studies? Is Bunting’s Briggflatts more ‘historical’ than ‘geographical’? (Bunting, incidentally, gets a shellacking in Schmidt’s critical anthology.) Is Paterson historical as well as geographical in intent? Is Crane’s The Bridge lacking in the sort of historical imagination desiderated by the English champions? Certainly Olson, Dorn and Snyder have a marked ‘geographical’ stress; but in
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Ease of American Language
Snyder’s case that is as much geological and botanical as geographical; and, in any case, Dorn and Snyder are doing something which is in a fruitful sense traditional: they are creating personal human significance by creating the ambience of place, using for the purpose that famous American convention of mobility, specifying home, the place of roots, by moving outward across or up the enabling continent. The issues are not simple, and cannot be settled by simple confrontation, claim and counter-claim.
I would like to remove the debate from the terms provided by Olson’s prescriptions and Black Mountain practice, and base it more firmly on the issue of language, which, so I am arguing, in the best contemporary American poetry is characterized by an ‘ease’ the sources of which are multiple and contrasting.
To illustrate this point, let me take two further examples. One is from a late poem by Lowell, ‘Fetus’, chosen because it is fairly distant in manner and concern from the Life Studies poems which I admire so much. No-one would accuse Lowell of writing in accordance with the dreaded Black Mountain prescriptions, but his poem does seem to have, in its average way, the qualities which I am praising:
the fetus has no past,
not even an immovable wall of paintings —
no room to stir its thoughts,
no breathless servility
overacting the last day,
writhing like a worm
under the contradicting rays of science —
no scared eye on the audience.
Wrap me close, but not too close —
when we wake to our unacceptable age,
will we find our hearts enlarged
and wish all men our brothers —
hypocrites pretending to answer
what we cannot hear?
How much we carry away with us
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like the fetus, the homunculus,
already at four months one pound,
with shifty thumb in mouth—
Our little model…
As I drive on, I lift my eyes;
the focus is spidered
with black winter branches
and blackened concrete stores
bonneted for Easter with billboards …
Boston snow contracting
like a yellow surgical bandage —
the slut of struggle.
The girl high on the billboard
was ten years my senior in life;
she would have teased my father —
disused as the adolescent tan on my hand.
She is a model, and cannot lose her looks,
born a decade too soon for any buyer.
Although its techniques are fairly conservative, this is a poem whose logic is not that of what Schmidt would presumably call ‘clear form’; nor am I sure in what sense one would call its procedures ‘summarizing’ or ‘synthesizing’. It has a logic, nevertheless: a logic of successive transverse or lateral statements which are also perceptions of things and, in being so, perceptions of the significance of human life which the successive transverse movements, in their very process, arrive at, step by step. When I say that its language is ‘easy’, I am not suggesting that there are no signs of mental or emotional strain in or behind its movement; I am saying that its movement is linguistically fluid, not constrained by the desire to make a statement which shall be clearly a synthesis of experience. It is not academic, and it does not teach.
The same is true of James Dickey’s famous poem ‘The Sheep Child’, an interesting and disturbing example of the dialectical uses to which ease of language can contribute. The dialectic I have in mind is that between the speech of the poem’s chief speaker (the poet?) and the speech of the sheep child:
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With anything with soft-wooded trees
With mounds of earth mounds
Of pinestraw will keep themselves off
Animals by legends of their own:
In the hay-tunnel dark
And dung of barns, they will
Say I have heard tell
That in a museum in Atlanta
Way back in a corner somewhere
There’s this thing that’s only half
Sheep like a woolly baby
Pickled in alcohol because
Those things can’t live his eyes
Are open but you can’t stand to look
I heard from somebody who …
Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may
Be saying saying
I who am half of your world, came deeply
To my mother in the long grass
Of the west pasture, where she stood like moonlight
Listening for foxes. It was something like love
From another world that seized her
From behind, and she gave, not lifting her head
Out of dew, without ever looking, her best
Self to that great need. Turned loose, she dipped her face
Farther into the chill of the earth, and in a sound
Of sobbing of something stumbling
Away, began, as she must do,
To carry me. I woke, dying,
In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
Far more than human. I saw for a blazing moment
The great grassy world from both sides,
Man and beast in the round of their need,
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My hoof and my hand clasped each other,
I ate my one meal
Of milk, and died
In this poem there is a fine blend (and alternation) of pungent reliance on fact and an elevated, almost chanting, ease of lyrical flow.
I have indicated that, in my opinion, the arguments between Black Mountaineers and English formalists are vacuous, because conducted in terms which are themselves unclear and unexamined: two among these are ‘breath’ and ‘form’. Their debate is both too vague and too narrow. We would do better to approach the question, non-polemically, from two directions at once: from the point of sensation, its link with perception, with feeling, and with reflective thought; and from the point of language, its commonness, its expressiveness, its quality of speech-song. In doing this, we would be doing again, for a new situation, what Wordsworth did.
Since Wordsworth’s day, one of the major changes which affect the issue is the discovery of great new possibilities (sensory, perceptual, rhythmic) in the medium of prose. And I still think that, in this century, the best American prose-writers exemplify the link between perception and language more tellingly than all but one or two poets. Olson, Dorn, O’Hara, for example, offer meagre fare beside novelists like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Penn Warren. And I can’t see why we continue to isolate poetry for praise and consideration when the various verse-forms and verse-possibilities clearly exist on a spectrum running from almost inarticulate chant at one end to great novels at the other. The American achievement this century in poetry should not be confined to verse, however free and fulsome.
About geography and its thematic potency: we might think that geographical perception, the geographical imagination, would be especially pertinent to Australia, a country in which a record of habitation up until the last 200 years is in some important senses non-historical: not at all concerned with specifiable events, still less with causal links between them, but with all the eventfulness gone into an a-historical world of myth and ritual. But our geographical perception
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Photo of Gary Snyder
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Photo of Robert Lowell
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will be likely to be both sweepingly vague and intensely local: it has, after all, to survive a relative thinness of settlement. In any case, the problem as the debaters see it is whether geography is to be preferred to history; whether, to narrow it somewhat, American geography supersedes English history. But this is nonsensical. First, on the more general level, geography is the map of history, and history the very backbone of a landscape (that is, where the history is known or knowable); in the more narrow focus, to prefer geography to history would be absurd, especially as a conscious policy, because European history generates and encapsulates the mythic awareness which led in the first place to the American idea of geographical imagination specific to America. The same is true of Australia. To forget either geography or history would be still more absurd for us.
On the other hand, it seems clear that poetry of lyric scope can’t do very much either with history or with geography except by deliberate use of the narrative-expressive conventions of ‘remembering’ or of ‘travelling’. The long poem may, of course, do either, and will do it the more effectively the more it approaches the condition of prose or film. But with many important poems, we are not concerned to ask whether they are more historical or more geographical. Why must all consolidations, all genuinely new extensions of the modern achievements stop for vacuous polemics just because of Olson, Maximus, and Black Mountain?
May I say something further on clear form and free or improvised forms? I don’t claim to know what ‘clear form’ means. But there is much to be said for writing in set forms, providing they are flexible enough. In fact, although more than one poet here have disclaimed the intention, I like many others harbour the dream (guilty, almost pornographic, in the present atmosphere) of one day producing a group of songs, lyrics, works whose clarity no-one could question. Think of Donne, of Blake, and of Yeats (as much a modern master of rhythm as Pound). Think of the great store of ballads, folk-songs, and folk-poems, which show that the poetry of the ordinary people tends (and always has tended) to run towards set rhythmic prototypes, while projective verse and/or modern improvised verse have tended to be versions of the ruling ‘high poetry’. As a workmate said to Shaw Nielson, ‘But that’s not poetry anyway Jack. You must be off your onion.’ Wherever else it has died, set poetic form survives among the people. Further, demotic speech in poetry (though not necessarily elsewhere) often tends to be intensely lyrical (the Irish peasant poems published in translation as
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Love-Songs of Connaught are a striking example), and, though in a sense simple, is not chiefly colloquial at all. In many cases (including the Western Irish) these lyrics come from a culture whose speech habits constitute a pre-poetry. Further, it can be argued that the greatest short lyrics in set forms are, after Shakespeare (who wrote many of them), the glory of the language.
But, all that said, ‘clear form’ is not a self-explaining or self-vindicating expression. To it we ought to add at least ‘ease of language’: by which I mean a habit, a pressure, a flow, a damming and release of language sufficient to enact meanings in the course of composing an expressive structure and to compose an expressive structure in the course of creating local meanings. Some poetic habits inhibit both form and meaning, or fail to let meanings emerge by failing to let language have its due resonance. In these cases (in the average product of Philip Larkin, for example) we may suspect that something is wrong with the poet’s daily language, both mental and spoken, as well as with his self-image as poet, which governs his intention. Other poets may insist so pointedly on the resonance of their language as a physical presence that meaning dwindles, whether as precision of notation or subtlety of implication. Later Ted Hughes might be an example of this. Many formalist poems, like many improvised ones, bury their own content. Creative language is an area in which inhibitions go deep.
Further, in all forms of poetry, the author has a problem of balance, which may be expressed as a matter of pace, or rhythm, or length of line, or continuity and discontinuity of stress, but is centrally a question of‘ear’. How the whole body may be involved in rhythmic composition is an interesting question, about which nobody seems to know nearly enough. Some poets chant or intone passages as they compose (or revise), some test the vibrancy of even single lines by singing them. Others touch and handle surfaces in order to test the mimetic capacity of the language they are using, or contemplating, at that moment. Olson’s language of ‘the breath’ specifies one component of physical engagement — the physiological. There are other components: visual, aural, tactile, for example; and, in some way which we do not yet grasp, the ear is the central organ for implicating the body in this conjoining of languages. Where the common language incorporates these bodily habits, it may constitute a pre-poetry, a language given to or apt for poetry.
My view is that American poetry is foremost among the English-speaking poetries of this century in its attention to these capacities of
[The American Model, page 159]
Ease of American Language
language. In many ways, the Americans are more philosophical poets than the English or Australian. They are concerned with the whole body philosophically, by conviction. Their intention controls their tone, to make it adapted to basic philosophical problems, such as that of the One and the Many. They are also more inclined to use technical resources to establish a pace, which may be that of reflection as well as of perception. In their attention to all this, they can at their best produce a poetry which creates immediately the equivalent of sensation, and/or the equivalent of movements within the world of non-linguistic nature: a double emphasis which goes back triumphantly to Whitman. It is the basis of an ease in exposition and of a marked sensuality in physical effect.
I wish someone would spend five serious years investigating the link between the poetry of a country and its daily speech, under all its aspects. Before that, I think it can fairly be assumed that a diction which is both personal and common is a feature in the rhythmic balancing of poetry: for, whereas metre is the grammar of rhythm, most rhythmic life can’t be analyzed only in metrical terms: how the pressure points of meaning tighten or relax in a line, how vowel and consonant lightly tamp down, or lift, or extend the line’s existent life, how the pressures within it change seemingly to accord either with emotional changes or with changes in the nature of the things which language is incorporating from that world beyond emotion. With these words I return to the notion of the local mimetic powers of poetry, a question which will take those of us who are interested in it a lifetime to get clear. Whatever logical objections may be made to Olson’s stress on the physiological origins of a poem, that poem also has (and Olson of course recognizes it) a growing life of its own; it is a physiology, a self-regulating life system which is not totally explicable in terms of its origin, and whose growth, not just inside the poet, but out there, on the page, in the scrutinizing public light, may take months or even years (Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane are instructive here). It may be that poems are more interesting the more they invite us to consider that life, and the further they grow from proving something about their origins in the life, physiological or not, of their author. So many questions remain to be asked that perhaps we can forget polemics for a year or two. And, if Australian poetry has been freed in so many ways by American poetry, it would be a good idea not to perpetuate American fights, factions and rivalries, and not to write according to American stereotypes, when there is so much more of poetic life now to be discovered in Australia.