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By Harriet Monroe
MAX EASTMAN speaks up again for exact metrics and against the freer forms which he once called "lazy verse." This time his argument—American Ideals of Poetry he calls it—forms the preface to his new book of delicately wrought "poems and songs and sonnets," entitled Colots of Life (Alfred A. Knopf). In this thirty-page article he sums up his case, the case of a man whose lingering conservatism, chased out of other departments of his mind, finds a last refuge in art.
Why not admit that Max Eastman is one of the most vivid and exuberant of human souls—an ardent creature who works, as he lives, with passion, convinced that he would not cringe before the white light of truth ? The truth—he finds it in the old pagan clarity, uniting, across the Christian centuries, with the pitiless searching breath of modern science to bear away speculative fogs and aristocratic snobberies and humilities of faith. Like Rupert Brooke, he gives his ardor, to a cause, and would die for it in glamorous ecstasy if need were. And, again like Brooke, he sees the figure of Beauty not quite lithe and nude, as Blake saw it, or—let us venture to say—as H. D. sees it today, but decorously draped in the sheerest and most softly colored of veils—silken chiffons that fall, almost with but effort, into rhythmic folds, into wistful modern reminders of the austere Greek line.
But, in presenting the fine brief sonnets and other lyrics which are the result of his prayerful communings with Beauty, he is not sure enough of them to offer them without preliminary theory, without a plea. His plea takes the form of a contrast between Whitman and Poe, and an indictment of free verse as necessarily unrespectful of the line and therefore unstructural and formless! He quotes from Whitman's proud invitation to the poets of the future—that assertion that "there is something inevitably comic in rhyme," and that "the truest and greatest poetry, while subtly and necessarily always rhythmic and distinguishable easily enough, can never again, in the English language, be expressed in arbitrary and rhyming metre;" and over against this he sets certain "icy" admonitions from Poe's Philosophy of Composition which he thinks assert that poet's "preoccupation with 'verbal melody' " and his point that "beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem." And Mr. Eastman adds: "The details of this difference are fascinating, but the generalization of it is what will illumine the modern problems about poetry."
Well, in Mr. Eastman's generalization one gets indeed his point of view, the clever argument of a special pleader, but not much illumination. He says, "The opposition of these two characters and attitudes is complete;" when, in fact, however the personal characters of Poe and Whitman may be in contrast, their aesthetic principles are far from irreconcilable. Does Mr. Eastman seriously ascribe to Whitman "a grand contempt for beauty?" or think that Poe, in asserting, "beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem," means by beauty merely "verbal melody"—indeed, a metrically restricted verbal melody at that—and does not include spiritual motive? Does Mr. Eastman mean to imply that iambic metrics, rhyme, the pentameter line, or any other familiar instruments of English poetry, are anything but tools and aids, are in themselves structure? Does he find more "form" (much abused word!), more sheerly structural modelling, in The Raven than in that glorious elegy When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed, even though the former poem is in the school, let us say, of Houdon and the latter in that of Rodin?
To come down to our own immediate moment, does Mr. Eastman find more form—a more severely modelled classic shape—in Witter Bynner's fine Celia lyrics, or his own purely carved love sonnets in this volume, than in Carl Sandburg's Lost or The Great Hunt, H. D.'s Oread or The Shrine, Aldington's Choricos, Amy Lowell's Venus Tran- siens, or Ezra Pound's Dance Figure and certain other lyrics? Mr. Eastman may prefer strictly measured iambics to free verse—no one will deny him a right to his preference; but when he tries to ascribe to these all the architectonics of the poetic art he is treading on shoals and quicksands.
Mr. Eastman complains that the line-divisions of free verse are arbitrary, that if they were once scrambled together in any poem even the author could hardly unscramble them. But may one ask him what that alleged fact has to do with the case? If this scrambling makes prose of any piece, then it was always prose—as indeed much verse is, both bond and free. Would Hamlet's soliloquy or Antony's death-speech be any the less poetry if written out as prose, or if scrambled into irregular lines ? Is Lincoln's Gettysburg speech any the less essentially poetry, in rhythm, structure, and spiritual motive, because it happens to be printed without line- divisions ?
If the eye-test shatters Mr. Eastman's arguments, the ear- test is similarly destructive. He says: if "two or three of the most free and subtle" of the vers-librists were "to read one of their favorite passages into the ear of an instrument, it is safe to assert that there would be less identity in the actual pulsations recorded than if the same two or three were reading a passage of highly wrought English prose." Possibly; but if these same two or three were to read Paradise Lost or the Ode to the West Wind, or any other poem of subtle or sweeping cadences, there would be still less identity. Such investigations as Dr. Patterson's (sensibly approved by Mr. Eastman and thoughtlessly disapproved, in a recent Dial, by John Gould Fletcher) will turn the pitiless light of science upon the empiricism of prosody, and upon the unrhythmic misinterpretations of poetry which most readers are guilty of. A life-time of theatre-going, including more Shakespeare and other poet-playwrights than may be found on the stage today, has convinced me that ninety-nine per-cent of actors deliberately hash poetic lines into prose so that even Mr. Eastman could hardly unscramble them. And few poets, whatever their rhythmic instinct, may be trusted to read their own poems.
In short, Mr. Eastman's argument will not hold water. It is a wistful effort to give the sanctity of unalterable law to merely individual theories and preferences. ( Mr. Eastman wants poetry as a refuge from life's passion and turmoil, and he uses the great name of Poe as his authority—Poe, to whom "a poem was an objective thing," Poe, who "would take sounds and melodies of words almost actually into his hands, and carve and model them until he had formed a beautiful vessel." Ah, but Poe's passion was beauty, especially beauty as it is found in poetry, whereas Mr. Eastman's passion is life, and its enhancement through social revolution. In politics and social ethics he is a radical; but shocked conservatism must take refuge in some sacred corner of one's being, and in his case the muse presides there with draped and decorous dignity. ) H. M.
A note from guest blogger Kim Roberts (author of the fantabulous The Kimnama, publisher and mastermind behind the online Beltway Poetry Quarterly, one of the editors of Delaware Poetry Review and intrepid tourguide for literary DC) and a daybook entry on Mr. Melville and Moby Dick:
Here's an excerpt from Moby Dick by Herman Melville that I love for its tactile, sexual quality. The sailors have just killed a whale and are squeezing out the spermacetti:
The spermacetti "...had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine's bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times sperm was such a favorite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener; such a delicious mollifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.
"As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, wove almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,- literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
"Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side; the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti."
Guestblogging here at VRZHUblog is Kim Roberts, author of the fine book The Kimnama. Enjoy!
Today is the 800th anniversary of the birth of a poet named Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan but lived most of his life in Turkey. Rumi was Islamic, but from the mystical Sufi tradition, and much of his work addresses his desire to attain an ecstatic spiritual connection with another man, a wandering mystic named Shams of Tabriz. There are a number of celebrations of this big anniversary in the DC area--the University of Maryland is hosting an international Rumi conference, and the Freer Gallery of Art has a day-long celebration with readings, music, tours, and family activities. My friend Michael Gushue sent me some information about the Freer events by email, and asked me how I felt about Rumi's work. I had to admit I didn't know; I'd read so little. I know that some of his poems have been adopted by new-age practitioners--not exactly a vote of confidence in my book--and that other poems have actually appeared on greeting cards. So, in my snobbish way, I'd never really paid attention. But Michael's question made me go back and look more closely. There must be a reason, after all, that we are still reading and studying this poetry hundreds of years later.
So I pulled out two books. The first book I looked at was the shorter one of the two, which seemed like it might provide a quick introduction. And the translator, Annmarie Schimmel, is considered an international authority on Rumi.
Well, the book was awful. All the poems seemed to run together--nothing was distinct or memorable. I liked the enthusiastic tone of the poems, but that was the best I could say about them. Mostly I found them sentimental and vague. There was some good metaphoric language, but most metaphors were contained within a single line (there were no extended metaphors), so they passed by too quickly. It read like a parody of bad love poetry, all this talk about souls merging.
Also, I was confused about how to interpret these love poems written to Shams. With my modern sensibility, I wondered if it was possible that this love was only spiritual and platonic, or if there was physical desire as well.
Schimmel's translation also was strange in another way. All the poems were translated into blank verse. The iambic rhythms sounded very clunky to my ear--sing-songy and poorly handled.
So now I've started reading some poems by a different translator, Coleman Barks. Although Rumi wrote in regular meter and rhyme, Barks didn't try to duplicate that--his translations are in free verse, and with vastly improved results.
From the intro: "His life seems to have been a fairly normal one for a religious scholar--teaching, meditating, helping the poor--until the late fall of 1244 when he met a stranger who put a question to him. That stranger was the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz." No one seems to know exactly what the question was, probably something about a mystical interpretation of Quranic texts, but "The question Shams spoke made the learned professor faint to the ground." After that, "Shams and Rumi became inseparable. Their Friendship is one of the mysteries...This ecstatic connection caused difficulties in the religious community. Rumi's students felt neglected. Sensing trouble, Shams disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. Annemarie Schimmel, a scholar immersed for forty years in the works of Rumi, thinks that it was at this first disappearance that Rumi began the transformation into a mystical artist."
Rumi was inconsolable, but then he heard a rumor that Shams was in Damascus, so he sent his son to bring him back. "When Rumi and Shams met for the second time, they fell at each other's feet, so that 'no one knew who was lover and who the beloved.' Shams stayed in Rumi's home and was married to a young girl who had been brought up in the family." But the troubles and jealousies returned. "On the night of December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again. Most likely, he was murdered with the connivance of Rumi's son Allaedin..."
Rumi later had a mystical sort of realization that Shams was part of him, still inside him, talking with him still, and he believed the resulting poems were collaborations. "Rumi called the huge collection of his odes and quatrains The Works of Shams of Tabriz."
As for Rumi's forms, he appeared to have written mostly rhyming quatrains (rubaiyat) and traditional Persian ghazals (odes) and qasidas (a lyric form). He also published discourses, letters, and sermons. In the signature line of the ghazals (where the poet often inserts his own name in the final line of the poem), Rumi often substituted the name of Shams, or a reference to silence.
Here's a lovely short lyric, translated by Coleman Barks:
THE NEW RULE
It's the old rule that drunks have to argue
and get into fights.
The lover is just as bad. He falls into a hole.
But down in that hole he finds something shining,
worth more than any amount of money or power.
Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street.
I took it as a sign to start singing,
falling up into the bowl of the sky.
The bowl breaks. Everywhere is falling everywhere.
Nothing else to do.
Here's the new rule: break the wineglass,
and fall toward the glassblower's breath.
As for how to account for Rumi's relationship with Shams, Michael says, "Seems to me there's a lot of poems where how we interpret the love expressed is problematic and in fact hindered by our modern sensibilities."
I think he's really right about that! I wonder if marriages were seen in Rumi's time as more functional than romantic--and so friendships would take on a different emotional role in people's lives. Perhaps a total union with one's spouse, a merging, was unthinkable? Perhaps that was relegated only to a religious sphere?
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Kim Roberts at www.kimroberts.org