Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, February 20, 2016

You Asked no. 13: Reading, affinities and animadversions

Berlin, 1932
Collage in progress
Mary Boxley Bullington
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

Bullington: Who are two or three of your favorite poets—the ones you return to over and over--and why? What do you look for in reading other poets? What gives you the most pleasure when you read or write poetry and what most annoys you? Why?

Youmans: Yeats. I have a love for Yeats that just won’t quit. This year I’m not dipping into him but reading him book by book, trying to get a better sense of the stages of his life in poetry. I admire the way he kept burgeoning and leafing out, and that he continued writing into age without becoming stale. He didn’t stay one thing; the young lyric poet of the Celtic Twilight is very different from late Yeats, though they have elements in common. And all this is true even though I don’t particularly care for some of his ideas, and even though I don’t always sympathize with his created mythology. Nevertheless, I like it that he has a mythology and framework and edifice of poetry, and that he mythologizes his own life and loves and concerns, placing it and them on a higher plane. I’m fond of his sense that what we see is not all that there is, and of his attempts to pierce various veils. Most of
all, I like it that his poetry always wishes to approach song.

Shakespeare. How can I not pick him? He is so myriad in voice, so infinitely varied in what he undertakes. I don’t expect any more explanation is needed, even if he is a dead white male, jettisoned by hip English departments.

Lots of other poets have left work that I return to: the Beowulf poet, the Gawain poet, Wyatt, Herbert, Vaughan, Donne, Marvel, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Dickinson, Hopkins, Bishop, etc. And that’s just poetry in English (or Anglo-Saxon.) Whim will take me back to Li Po or Borges or Cavafy or Homer (or Lodge’s versions!) or Sappho or Virgil or Tranströmer or Rilke or DarĂ­o or Akhmatova—it’s hard to say where I might whirl off to next, though I have some contemporary poets I want to read or reread, and I’ve been wanting to take a look at more work from the classical world. I started the morning with a poem by Gabriela Mistral, but this month I’ve been reading Robert Walser and Yeats and Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse (clearly a strong source for Tolkien), and also Mary Kinzie’s The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose. 

What do I look for? Both a sense of kinship and utter difference please me. I am lured by sound, truth, muscular strength, metaphysical boldness, beauty, fearlessness, range of subject, wideness and depth—by many things. I suppose what pulls me most surely is the sense of captured energy and life.

You ask what most annoys me. I don’t think annoyance ever comes into my writing or reading. I’m simply going to stop reading if a work seems lifeless and without energy. I’ll also stop when a poetry book seems too prosaic, as if a bit of prose had been chopped into lines, helter-skelter. I’m especially likely to put a book down when that very prosiness does not work in terms of prose syntax. I tend to get tired of poems with a narrow scope of subject and lack of depth.  Poetry is a great sea, with room for little jellyfish and sharks and right whales. Just as the sea needs every sort, poetry may need every sort of poet. Even the sorts of poets whose work a writer dislikes may be important to him or her—important in strengthening and establishing what it is the writer does like and desire to see in poems. And even a smaller talent brings joy and growth to its owner, and surely that’s good.

Some other general tendencies and popular academic trends bother me. I don’t like to see poets who are scornful of the past lives devoted to poetry. The proper stance for any poet in relation to the past ought to be one of humility in the presence of mastery. The dead should not be dead to us if their work is alive. The academy-based desire to wage war on what is called cultural appropriation can be destructive to an art that has long been a kind of Silk Road of cultural exchange. Who could possibly untangle those world-spanning threads? Likewise, the idea of rejecting all dead white male writers is destructive to young poets, particularly women. Don’t read Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer? Cut them from the English major? Just slash yourself off at the knees and be done with it! The trajectory of many ideas now trendy in the academic world is destructive to poets. The misapprehension that we still have a living avant garde in poetry and so haven’t exhausted the concepts born of Modernism is, to me, simply wrong. The academy should be a fruitful place. Too often of late, it has crafted strictures that hobble the mind.

And what do I find bothersome in my own work? I’m not exactly sorry when time shows me that a poem of my own isn’t as good as I thought it was—how terrible if I could never tell! I simply go on my path, pursuing the muse. But every poet knows that the fire in the head will never be fully matched by a poem. That’s why Yeats’s wandering Aengus spends his whole life chasing after a glimmering girl. The dream poem will always be better than the poem on the page, since no poem can quite catch the entirety of the flood that sweeps through when a poem arrives. And that’s fine. Perhaps an onslaught of perfection would put an end to future poems. 

28 comments:

  1. some stunning sentences there! "poetry is a great sea..."; "the fire in the head will never be fully matched by a poem." and others. the ocean as an allegory is particularly good. do you like haiku? it's the attempt to frame reality in 17 syllables;

    the smell of new rain
    of cloves and wet cinnamon
    rose from dusty grain

    one poet(basho?) described haiku as "a finger, pointing at the moon".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mudpuddle,

      Thank you--very kind of you to say so!

      Yes, I like Basho and lots of others. And I have some poems that use the haiku as a stanza (not sure which book those are in, though. I'd have to root around.)

      Delete
    2. the one above is mine; i started writing them while studying zen, years ago. i wrote a bunch of them and then stopped suddenly one day. don't know why... well, yes i do-it was because i had gotten everything i wanted out of my studies...

      Delete
    3. So you were done! I expect that's the best way to finish anything.

      I was wondering if that one was yours (especially since people have been leaving poems lately.) I like it.

      Delete
  2. I note the etc after the list of names; note too the absence of Larkin who could have been mixed up in the etceteras. He is of course notorious (among people who wouldn't normally read poetry) for a single line out of a biggish oeuvre but I wonder whether he's appreciated - or even known - much on t'other side of the Pond. Too profane if not?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think he is appreciated--I certainly went through a Larkin-reading time, though long ago. I haven't desired to go through another, but that doesn't mean I won't, eventually. Some people come round frequently (Yeats), and others take longer to cycle back. (I can't say that I am exactly fond of Larkin's persona, though, and perhaps that makes difference.)

      Among Western poets as a whole, here or there, I doubt you would find a reluctance to embrace the profane. You would, I think, find a reluctance to embrace the sacred, and that may be part of the common reluctance (at least I seem to see constant mention of it) to read and know the poets of the far past. Or do you think otherwise?

      Delete
  3. Hooray! I'm so glad you mentioned Blake, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Yeats. If I had to choose only one poet to read for the rest of my life, I would be hard pressed to choose one from that quartet. What about you? If you had to choose just one . . . Yeats?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeats does seem to come back to me more often than most. But luckily we don't have to choose.

      Delete
  4. You get both (sacred and profane) in Donne of course, but he's not so distant. But you've set a hare running and I've just been downstairs to check out An Arundel Tomb, wondering whether PL gsins any redemption there. Perhaps not but it does contain two of the most touching lines in modern poetry and one doesn't expect to be touched by PL:

    One sees, with a sharp tender shock
    His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.


    Slightly clumsy, but quite wilfully so, don't you think?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh, I shall have to reread that one--after I get off the treadmill, that is!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've reread it once more, and it is lovely--I like those lines, and the light thronging the grass, and the way Larkin somehow cannot help but let love have its immortal day despite "the stone finality."

      Delete
  6. Fascinating conversations, not sure I can add anything intelligent except to say I enjoyed reading it.

    I must add that Mary's new art work is very dramatic and exciting, quite different from her earlier works that you have featured, which of course are wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She will be pleased to see that comment!

      I think we will be pausing for a while after the next question (in which Mary will talks about her various ways of going-about a collage.) I'm glad you have been interested.

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Marja-leena. Will be glueing this collage down tomorrow--so keep yr fingers crossed for me!

      Delete
  7. "The proper stance for any poet in relation to the past ought to be one of humility in the presence of mastery. The dead should not be dead to us if their work is alive."

    Yes, to that, yes. Ezra Pound says that we must read past works as if they are contemporary, because we are not surpassing what has come before, but joining it. I paraphrase, but that's the gist.

    It's always a real pleasure to read what you write about poetry. I always learn something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like that idea as well. Such a strange man--so quotable, too, when he talks about art and poetry. I am afraid that no one will read "The Cantos" in a few years. Maybe just his "translations."

      And thank you--always good to have a writer say such a thing.

      Delete
    2. Or maybe just his criticism. "Oh, you know Pound was a poet, too," people will say.

      Delete
    3. Sad, I suppose, but he had a great, lively part in the times. (And a terrible part later on, but that's another tale.)

      I expect pieces like "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" will bob on through time. I don't know what to call those sorts of poems--variations?

      Delete
    4. I don't know what to call them, either. Versions? "The River-Merchant's Wife" is beautiful, moving. Worth remembering.

      Delete
    5. Yes, versions or variations on a theme, I suppose. Yes, I love that one. And I think there are others in the same vein that will last.

      Delete
    6. Pound's poems have gone out of fashion and come back in, and will repeat this pattern for another hundred years or two, I suspect. It's the way of things that are good--.

      Delete
    7. Yes, think so--and I do think the Chinese versions/variations will last. Maybe some others. And that's a lot, really. Hard to lodge anything where it will last.

      Delete
  8. " The trajectory of many ideas now trendy in the academic world is destructive to poets."

    How true, how true. I was a college student in the late '80s and early '90s, and none of my English profs told us that there was a formalist revival in poetry going on. I now assume that almost none of them even knew; I had to discover it myself twenty years later. I hardly object to them having taught us the poetry of the 1950s and 1960s; what I find objectionable in retrospect was that they taught as if those poets (Plath, Ginsberg, Baraka, et al.) had the final say on poetry itself. And then I got to grad school, where I was baffled by literary scholars competing to be postmodern philosophers...

    I've really been enjoying this conversation; Mary Bullington has a knack for questions that really unlock your word-hoard.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mary's interesting and quirky in her thinking! We've known each other forever (since college), and I often stop by her house in Roanoke.

      College is so far gone I can hardly remember, though I did have a class in Yeats (of course!) And I know that a Richard Wilbur book was one of my texts for another class. So it wasn't all free verse. And the late John Alexander Allen (aka Lex Allen) was on faculty, and his "Hero's Way: Contemporary Poems in the Mythic Tradition" was a text in some class or other. So that meant that I bumped into both free verse and formal verse. In fact, right now I'm rereading Louise Bogan's "The Blue Estuaries," and I'm sure she was in that anthology. Also, I just ordered a volume of Edwin Muir, and he was in there as well. I remember reading Anthony Hecht and John Hollander.

      But you're right, and it wasn't just the academy. I didn't really know about the large number of people writing formal verse for a long, long time. Because I was raising three children and writing novels as well as poetry, I had some gaps. Also, for a long time I somehow tended to know painters and prose writers more than poets.

      Now I'm a little more well-rounded. I've met some poets through the West Chester Poetry Conference, as Kim Bridgford asked me to be on a panel one year, and to run one another. Now she has another summer conference. And I think a lot of people find Eratosphere useful. I've met a lot of poets via the internet, certainly.

      Delete

    2. I was a grad student in English in the 1980's and I assure you that only a few of the poets among the professors knew there "was a formalist revival going on" in contemporary poetry. Most were trying so hard to master literary theory and out-duel each other in that god-awful post-modern vocabulary that they couldn't write a clean sentence, or even appreciate one.

      Delete
    3. Yes, I think that's so. I was lucky enough to be in a rather old-fashioned graduate program--changed soon after I left, so I'm grateful.

      Delete
  9. And there is this from Wikipedia about Pound:
    His political views ensure that his work remains as controversial now as it was during his lifetime; in 1933 Time magazine called him "a cat that walks by himself, tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children." Hemingway wrote: "The best of Pound's writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature."[3]
    I suspect the first part of that (i.e., the political perspective) is more true than Hemingway's assessment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, unfortunately. I do not judge his work by his mistakes--which he later regarded as such.

      Hemingway did not have the greater advantage that we have, seeing the work after much time has passed. But I think there are lasting elements in Pound's work, as I mentioned earlier.

      Delete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.