Thursday, March 3, 2016

Form and Feeling

The piece I published at the beginning of February, "The Lovely Woods," centered on a reading of two poems by Robert Frost, "Come In" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I mentioned how both poems have been noted for their "optimism" and for their (surface) beauty, but that they betrayed depths that have gone largely unexamined. This is a particular danger with poetry, especially in poetry, because of the concentration of criticism on its verbal effects alone - on its technical accomplishments, its euphonic effects of word-sounds assembled in lines and stanzas. Some poets, however, deliberately combine a surface loveliness with depths of meaning that are a tacit betrayal of such loveliness. Frost must have been aware that his poetry is misinterpreted and/or underestimated precisely because of its surface simplicities.

Frost was very attuned to the euphonic effects of words. He wanted to move poetry away from poetic language and from the sclerotic condition that poetry was in at the end of the 19th-century and restore everyday speech to a poet's vocabulary. But Frost was also very much aware of the sense of poetry, of making his spoken American English a tool for the expression of the same themes - about love and death - that poets have addressed for centuries.

A few days ago I encountered something written by R. P. Blackmur in a preface to a collection of poetry criticism:

"[Denis] Donoghue ... has a point when he goes on to say that many people feel confident enough in talking about fiction — novels and stories — but are more or less tongue-tied when it comes to poetry. Doubtless this condition has something to do with their desire, as he says, to 'come to themes and issues directly, without the hesitations enforced by considerations of form, structure, and style.' This bears out my experience that students come from secondary school prepared to think of poetry as a very deep art indeed, and that their task is to penetrate its depths and arrive at something called the real meaning. Thus Frost’s 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,' with its snowfakes and harness bells, is 'really' about death, perhaps about suicide. In other words, the poem’s enchanting surface ('The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake') exists only to be seen through to something beyond or under it. If there is a single principle holding these essays on poets and poetry together, it is that style needs to be attended to, not just at the beginning of our reading but continuously, and that readers should invest in an engagement, sometimes a prolonged one, with the surface of a poem — with its events that can be seen and heard as they reveal themselves over time."

Blackmur was, I think, trying to justify - as if he needed to - his lifelong devotion to the study of poetic form. But if the 20th century can be noted for a single accomplishment in criticism, it is that form is inseparable from content, that you cannot judge discuss one in complete isolation from the other.

What else is Frost's "Snowy Evening" about,if not death? Was Frost simply doing what everyone seems to think he was doing - merely describing a beautiful scene for our pleasure in words that mirror in their sound the beauty of the scene they describe? Blackmur, who was no great fan of Frost, knew what Frost was getting at, but also wanted to emphasize how Frost's use of language wove a spell of its own over the scene.

In a broadcast he made for the BBC, whose text was later published in The Listener, George Orwell, who chose a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins - "Felix Randal" - to illustrate his point, said:

"... in any criticism of poetry, of course, it seems natural to judge primarily by the ear. For in verse the words - the sounds of words, their associations, and the harmonies of sound and associations that two or three words together can set up - obviously matter more than they do in prose. Otherwise there would be no reason for writing in metrical form. . . . [But] one cannot regard a poem as simply a pattern of words on paper, like a sort of mosaic." ("The Meaning of a Poem," 14 May 1941)

Orwell went on to relate the special circumstances of Hopkins' life, his close readings of early English poetry, his service as a Catholic priest in an English village, and about how his position in the village gave him a special perspective on the lives of its inhabitants. Orwell wanted to prove that Hopkins' choice of words and his choice of subject were not, by the time he came to write "Felix Randal," accidental and that they were deliberately and directly reflective of his past life.

I feel obliged to finish with an example of what I've been discussing, a poem that is equally mellifluous in its use of words and in the sense that the words convey. Philip Larkin was one of those poets who hated the academic approach to poetry. For him, structure and meaning in a poem are all of a piece, so that it is impossible to isolate the one from the other without departing from what, he believed, was essential to both: the communication of a striking experience, an astonishing realization, in carefully chosen words that invokes the experience in the reader's mind.

‘When first we faced, and touching showed’

When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.

The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.

Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself – no cost,
No past, no people else at all –
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?

20 December 1975

A lifetime of waiting for a moment like that, the oblivion in her arms. That's what Larkin lived for, and lives on for.

Orwell finished his broadcast with words that, I think, settle the argument once and for all:

"I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it. That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it IS inexplicable that detailed criticism is worth while. Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it."

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