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, June 18, 2016

A singing muse


Here's a challenging-for-poets and intriguing-for-readers paragraph from Bruce Bawer's review essay about Paul Mariani's biography of Wallace Stevens. While I haven't read anything else by Bawer, I have a strong interest in approaching music in poetry--in the recovery of joy in sound play--and so his thoughts interest me. (The emphases in black below are mine.) He concludes:
We began with Frost and Williams. Of Stevens’ contemporaries, it was these two, above all, with whom he felt competitive, setting his preoccupation with the abstract up against their firm embrace of reality, of what Williams called “no ideas but in things.” But it was Marianne Moore to whom Stevens felt a real “kinship,” as he put it—which is scarcely a surprise, given that Moore, like him, had worked up her own rich, fastidious private language in poems that often resisted interpretation. (This, Stevens argued, was what good poetry should do.) As Mariani reminds us, it was, of all people, Williams—whose aggressive lifelong struggle to cultivate a plain, unreflective, “anti-poetic,” contemporary-sounding, patently New World voice continues to influence American poetry far more than Stevens ever did—who pointed out that, in the last analysis, readers are drawn to Stevens’ work not by his ideas but by the beauty of the language in which he expresses them; by, that is, the sheer music of his lines. It is, alas, a species of music that Williams himself fought against successfully—and that is, largely as a result of that effort, notable in most of the American poetry of our own day only by its near-total absence. Paradoxical though it may seem, in short, Stevens, while widely recognized as the greatest of them all, has not had anywhere near the impact on his successors that his inferiors did—which goes a long way toward explaining why American poetry today is so much less than it was, and than it might be.
And what do you say about that?

9 comments:

  1. Not being anything like an expert in poetry, but taking my cue from Harold Bloom, I am limited in my response to a 3-word allusion: anxiety of influence.

    As always, you've kick-started the neurons in my brain. I'm thinking again. This time I'm thinking about those 3 words.

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    1. Hah. On the Facebook link to this, John O' Grady said, "When will American poets and those who write about poetry escape the influence of Harold Bloom?"

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  2. i get the same feeling from John Donne. that he has his own private language which is lovely, but hides things from the reader(at least this reader) and hints at secrets personal and arcane... but it flows in a sinuous way...

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    1. Some of Stevens's poetry is, I think, very accessible. But you are right, some does not let the reader in without a good deal of analysis.

      I like Donne very much, but he's certainly not as easy to follow as Herbert or Marvell or Vaughan, say.

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    2. hard to beat sydney... have you read "Arcadia"?

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    3. You mean Sidney's "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia?" Just bits in grad school. I've read the sonnets and the Defense many times. I ought to read all of Arcadia...

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  3. To be attracted to a poet by his or her ideas sounds like a bad way of finding poetry. I don't quite agree with Mallarme's supposed remark to Degas that poems aren't made of ideas but of words; but without a feeling for the language, the ideas are dead on the page. How many forgotten poets wrote now unreadable heroic couplets around the same ideas that Pope used--used probably without understanding them? I think it significant that T.S. Eliot, one of the few poets I can think of who had solid understanding of philosophy, steadily in his critical work expressed a distrust of ideas in literature.

    I don't think that Williams was entirely unmusical, though his taste ran much less to iambic pentameter. I can't say about the influence on more recent poetry.

    Measured by what I can remember without reaching for a book, my preference seems to be for Stevens: I might be able to repeat more or less faithfully a couple of dozen of his lines, taken from early and late work--"Sunday Morning", "Susannah and the Elders", etc. early, and one or two later.

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    1. I think we're in an age that does often look first for ideas, for correct thinking and political slant in poetry. But "message" kills poetry all the time, no matter how well meant--perhaps even more so if well meant! And the ideas of one age are the revulsion of another.

      Perhaps it is simply harder for a Moore or a Stevens to be a influence because they are so much and so peculiarly themselves. In contrast, a Williams may be more inviting, more imitable, at least in embrace of "things" and in seeming freedom from tradition. (To me, the Modernists who move toward free verse still appear to have rhythm in their bones. Now it appears that those who write only free verse are generally more prosaic.)

      When I was in high school and college, I was fond of Eliot and Williams in a way I am no longer. But I still love Frost and Stevens.

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    2. Not sure that was clear... I would say with Cynthia Ozick that literature is for humanity, and that to move too closely to the worship of language for its own sake is wrong. So I do not suggest a poetry barren of thought!

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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.