Had he not been a poet, John Berryman would have been a Shakespearean scholar, and well qualified for the task, even though his drinking habit was as ungovernable as his beard. In addition to his vast knowledge of the field, Berryman had unusually sensitive instrumentation for measuring the intensity of language. As a critic, if not always as a poet, he was especially good when deciding whether a fine phrase had a deep thought behind it, or was just showing itself off. And he was very convincing when he argued that Shakespeare had the same priorities.
According to Berryman, the older and better Shakespeare got, the more he was concerned that the verse should spring from what we might call a deeper consideration. Berryman pushed this line to the point of feeling able to say that if a stretch of verse in one of the plays seemed sufficiently preoccupied with the question of how the words needed thought to spring from, then Shakespeare might well have written that passage later in his career, even if it was inserted in a play dating from earlier on. Berryman said as much about the interchange between the king and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. The interchange—which is really a paean to Bertram’s father, addressed to the son by a king who doesn’t mind holding his interlocutor captive while he explores the subject so as to pin down every nuance—is not a passage which does very much for the plot of the play into which it has been introduced. It is more like a little play all on its own.
Coleridge once said that Polonius, in Hamlet, is the embodiment of a reputation for wisdom no longer possessed. The king in All’s Well really is wise, but he has Polonius’s habit of worrying at a point while his interlocutor, usually much younger, sneaks impatient glances at the nearest sundial. But Shakespeare, this time, isn’t making a joke of it. The king is on to something that interests the playwright as a matter of professional conviction. We could quote from the scene for as long as it lasts, and indeed one short bit is reasonably well known, although nothing like as well known as most of the Shakespearean “old man’s wisdom” quotations that we carry around in our heads if we have lived long enough. The king says:
Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home,
I quickly were dissolved from my hive,
To give some laborers room.
Instruct the actor (if necessary at gunpoint) to hit the hidden extra stress in the word “dissolvèd,” so that the second line, which must be expressed as a wish, becomes as rhythmically forceful a pentameter as the first, and you’ve got one of those little show-stopping moments that should happen every few minutes as the night goes on. Unless they are badly spoken, they don’t really stop the show, of course: but they do lift the listener’s heart, to make him forget time as the fragments of deeper consideration join up throughout the evening.
There is a lot more in the interchange, however, than that fine idea. The king has been considering wisdom, and the speaking of wisdom. And he wants to tell Bertram that his, Bertram’s, father was the embodiment of how that should be done. To make sure that Bertram gets the message, the king wields his monarchical privilege of repeatedly telling Bertram what he, Bertram, must know already, and even takes the liberty of quoting one of Bertram’s father’s speeches: something that Bertram could probably have done better, except that he—and this is the armature of the scene’s dynamics—is too young to feel yet what the king has come, through time, to know is true.
“Let me not live,” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain; whose judgements are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.”
These lines about a judgment being had only so it can be snazzily dressed up to fit the fashion have a nice symmetry with the more famous passage, in the same play, where old Lafeu warns young Bertram against the showmanship of the fop Parolles: “there can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes.” You could easily quote it as verse, but Lafeu, as it happens, is expressing himself in prose: the kind of toughly, densely-argued prose that Hamlet uses when he gets down to bedrock.
There is a notion of bedrock throughout Shakespeare’s work almost to the end: a notion that the essential meaning, the deeper consideration, has to be protected against all transient distortions, including the poet’s own gift for ... what? Well, the answer is in the opponent’s name: Parolles. Words. Words are the bewitching enemy, the beautiful seducer.
The threat posed by the spectacular expression that outruns its substance was a long-running theme in Shakespeare, and is surely one of the preoccupations that now make him seem so modern. Though he seems modern in every age—modern all over again—he seems especially modern in ours, when we look at him from the angle of analytical philosophy, a school of thought which has, at its tutorial center, a concern for scrupulosity of language: the scrupulosity that was incarnated by Wittgenstein, and as much in his likes as his dislikes. Wittgenstein’s admiration for Mörike depended on the poet’s determination that the word should not exceed the thing. We should be slow to read back from the grim philosopher agonizing over a conceptual nuance for weeks on end in his cold digs to the fluent playwright composing a whole different version of act v on Monday night before the new play opened on Tuesday, but it still seems legitimate to propose that Shakespeare was concerned enough by the capacity of his own facility to fly off by itself, and thus to want it anchored to something solid.
It might seem madness to suppose that Shakespeare shared the same conviction about the seductive power of words as Wittgenstein, but it should be possible at least to entertain the notion that Shakespeare could not have created his most evocative enchantments without a notion of limit and precision; and all precision, in language, eventually depends on a disciplined adherence to thought. The process of composition might produce a new thought—always one of the best reasons for composing in verse at all—but the new thought, too, has to test out, meeting a standard of quality if not of contiguity. Although the combination of thoughts might fiercely resist being reduced to a prose equivalent—think of almost any striking stanza by, say, John Crowe Ransom—it must be something more than a vague suggestion towards the indefinable. (If Mallarmé seems to do that, it is because he is treating the indefinable as his subject.) When, in later Shakespeare, we have trouble anchoring an image to a thought, it’s at least worth considering that the thought has gone awry—that the deeper consideration is not fully formed—before deciding that we have been granted an insight into the inexplicable. But we would not even conceive of such a possibility if we did not have, as a measure, everything that Shakespeare had already done. It’s his store of dazzling clarities that warns us against the assumption that there might be a further profundity in the obscure.
* * *
Shakespeare in his last years was still young, even by the standards of the time. We tend to think of men of genius, in the long age before modern medicine, struggling to make it past the age of fifty, but the tendency takes a battering when it runs into the case of, say, Titian, still painting at the age of ninety. It seems fair to say, however, that the later Shakespeare was getting on, and fair also to look on his later work as a field of study that might help illuminate all that happened earlier. Perhaps there are developments occurring that we don’t quite grasp because we ourselves aren’t old enough. As my own dotage approaches, heralded by instances of forgetfulness that I would list here if I could only remember them, I fall further and further out of love with the common idea that lyrical talent, like the talent for original mathematics, burns out early. I would like to think that a lifetime of experience gives me more to say, and that any early exuberance which I can no longer summon was partly the product of an emptier head. Give me maturity or give me death.
Mature to a fault even when he was young, Samuel Menashe has spent a long lifetime avoiding publicity. It was a measure of his self-effacement that the Poetry Foundation felt compelled to give him, in 2004, its Neglected Masters Award. The neglected master’s most recent and perhaps climactic collection, New and Selected Poems, which contains ten more poems than his 2005 Library of America compilation, was published in America in 2008, but I am ashamed to say that I never noticed it until it was re-published in Britain later on by Bloodaxe Books. Since his name has always been slightly less obscure in Britain than in America—after wwii he was taken up in London by the poet Kathleen Raine—I was intermittently aware of him, but from this book I can get his full force, which is no noisier than a bug hitting your windshield, except that it comes right through the glass. Take the poem called “Beachhead”:
The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds
That’s the whole poem, and there is a whole war in it. Like Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, Menashe was a soldier in the last campaigns of the war in Europe. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, in which thirty German divisions were stopped only at the price of nineteen thousand dead GIs. Menashe must have seen terrible things, but none of them is evoked directly in his poetry. It is remarkable, and instructive, how little either Wilbur or Hecht wrote directly about what they had seen, but even more remarkable was that Menashe—rather like J.D. Salinger, who also saw it all from close up—wrote even less. Yet he wrote about the helmet in the sand, and somehow his wealth of sad experience is in that single tiny haiku-like construction. It makes his war a nation’s war. The deeper consideration is that he was one among many, and, unlike too many, he lived to speak. That he speaks so concisely is a condition of his testament: consecration and concentration are the same thing. This is a world away from the expression of the self. This is bedrock.
All Menashe’s poems give the sense of having been constructed out of the basic stuff of memory, a hard substratum where what once happened has been so deeply pondered that all individual feeling has been squeezed out and only universal feeling is left. The process gives us a hint that the act of construction might be part of the necessary pressure: if the thing was not so carefully built, the final compacting of the idea could not have been attained. There could be no version of a Menashe poem that was free from the restrictions of technique, because without the technique the train of thought would not be there. Even when he writes without obvious rhyme, he has weighed the balance of every syllable; when he uses near rhymes, the modulations are exquisite; and a solid rhyme never comes pat, but is always hallowed by its own necessity.
In a poem by Menashe, an awful lot goes on in a short space, and it might seem like cherrystone scrimshaw at first. But so does a little poem by Emily Dickinson, until you look harder. Menashe is in her tradition, packing sound together to shed light. Compared to “Beachhead,” his poem “Cargo” is gigantic, but it is still only ten short lines. Here is the whole thing:
Old wounds leave good hollows
Where one who goes can hold
Himself in ghostly embraces
Of former powers and graces
Whose domain no strife mars—
I am made whole by my scars
For whatever now displaces
Follows all that once was
And without loss stows
Me into my own spaces
For all we know, one of his scars is the memory of the Fifth Panzer Army heading towards him through a snowstorm. But what we can be sure of is that he had a lot to get over. When he finally went home to New York, he disappeared into a fifth-floor walk-up whose lack of luxury has to be seen to be believed. The Bloodaxe edition has an accompanying dvd that shows him in situ, reading his poems aloud. His voice is wonderfully rich, but everything around him spells poverty. Obviously this monk-like self-denial is part of his dedication, although you might say that he sacrificed his purity when he let a camera through the door. One is very glad, however, that his privacy was invaded, because the message of dignity in old age, after a long life of uncomplaining commitment, is one that all young poets should hear. That, and the message that there has to be bedrock beneath meaning even if the bedrock is no longer visible. Kandinsky’s abstract painting grew from the precisely drawn outlines of the church and the town square.
* * *
When proposing, as an ideal, the art of getting a lot said in a small space, one should in fairness keep room in the mind for the counter-argument by which some poets who get a little said in a long space are still saying something unique. (Think of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, whose demented sprawl contains far more lyricism than his lyrics.) As critics get older, they very easily succumb to the notion that there is no more room in the pantheon. But there is always more room in the pantheon, because the pantheon is not a burial chamber for people who have said things, it is an echo chamber for things that have been said. I was in the middle of concocting some pontifical statements about Shakespeare’s powers of compression when a long chain of memory led me back through Ovid (whose Metamorphoses Shakespeare knew by heart) to Ovid’s title The Art of Love, and from that to the niggling recollection that Kenneth Koch had written a longish poem of the same name, and that I had once thought enough of it to make a mental note that I should read it again one day.
Nowadays, dogged by the knowledge that “one day” had better be soon, I try to follow up these mental notes if I recall them. So I searched out Koch’s Selected Poems of 1991 and soon found myself enjoying a passage of his “The Art of Love” against my will—almost always the best way to enjoy anything. I like things kept short, and Koch, even in a comparatively short (for him) work like “The Art of Love,” spread himself around as if his readers had all the time in the world. The poem is a kind of how-to handbook, telling prospective lovers what to do in a variety of circumstances:
What to do when one lover is in a second-floor apartment,
the other in the first-floor one;
Openings in the ceiling, and how to make them; how to answer
“What are you doing up there on the ceiling?” if someone
accidentally comes home.
Whitman is somewhere behind the technique, or at any rate behind the conscious lack of it, but there is a Tom and Jerry cartoon behind the mental picture, and really the vividness of the image settles the question: without the casual looseness of the construction, the gag wouldn’t work. As for whether the gag is poetic: well, how is it not? Is lovemaking ever a dignified posture, even for Leda and the swan? It’s quite easy to imagine our learned quarrel continuing indefinitely, but the longer it does continue, the more it becomes certain that Koch was only one of the names among the many American informal poets who achieved effects in a conversational tone which a formal structure would probably not have allowed.
My favorite post-war Americans might be strict formalists like Wilbur and Hecht, but my appreciation of them—and of semi-formalists like Lowell and Bishop—would be weaker, I think, if I did not recognize that there were things done by ragbag technicians, or even dedicated anti-technicians, which nevertheless achieved the most concentrated possible version of an effect. Michael Donaghy was quite right to say that Ginsberg’s Howl was the result of hard reworking. But the work went into making the lines sound as if they had never been worked at even once, and the aim, surely, was to sound as if he was just saying it, without really having written it. It’s the “just saying” that the reader with book learning finds it hard to accept. He should accept it, because the rewards have to be acknowledged.
In James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” we have the perfect placement of the final sentence “I have wasted my life.” We love it when Gregory Corso cries out “I want penguin dust.” Few of these effects would have been brought into being by the pressure of a form. It’s more likely that they were brought into being by the pressure of avoiding a form. (The urge goes deep, and a long way back: Ben Jonson cursed Petrarch for his Procrustean urge to shape everything into a sonnet.) One’s chief objection, when reading such poets, should come about as a result of noting the successes; and then noting that they are few and far between. If Koch could have put more of his best moments beside each other he would be a much brighter light now.
Whether formal or informal, the postwar Americans were blessed with a vast reservoir of colloquial language to draw upon. (Once, in conversation, the British critic Al Alvarez—who promoted the American heavyweights to the detriment of his own countrymen, much to the annoyance of Philip Larkin—trumped my contrary argument by saying, truly, that the Americans by now had the advantage in the spoken language: “Their gags are better.”) The verbal bounty was already apparent before wwii, in the scripts of the screwball comedies, but the war gave it a tremendous boost. It makes some sense to contend that the informal poets deliberately broke the dam of form so as to release the flood within, but it makes at least as much sense to say that the flood did the job all by itself. The free-form idioms got into everything. Before the war, S.J. Perelman wrote whole prose poems that consisted of nothing except showbiz jargon, restaurant menus, and billboards. After the war, the poets could pull the gold dust out of the air.
Considering this fact, it is remarkable how John Ashbery, by now revered as the supreme American postwar poet, decided not to avail himself of the abundance. In his poem “Pyrography” he wrote “This is America calling,” but in most of his later work the calling is not notably American, or anyway not the American of everyday flip talk. Early on, he made full use of it: most notably in “Daffy Duck In Hollywood,” which I think is one of the great modern American poems. (I would mention it less often if more critics and scholars would hail its qualities: but they seem to like him better when he says nothing that doesn’t need them to explain it.) The poem’s riches are too sumptuous to list: the brand names and cheap objects pile up like a satirical paragraph from H.L. Mencken (“a mint-condition can/Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy/Gonzales”) and resonant lines of dialogue are seemingly designed to be used against the poet by a puzzled customer (“If his/Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,/What’s keeping us here?”).
But nothing I have tried in any of Ashbery’s collections since the Daffy Duck poem was written has captured me in the same way. It is a bit like my failure to engage with the later Wallace Stevens, a failure made all the more uncomfortable for me by the fact that I was so transfixed by one of the early poems from Harmonium (“The Emperor of Ice-Cream”) that I can still recite it from memory. Like the later works, it too is hard to figure out, but every part of it is a flaring image; whereas later on, I find, and especially in the long poems, all the components link together in a blur, smooth but bland: mere words, an extended flourish by Parolles, using his hat like Osric.
I still haven’t given up on the mature Stevens, even though he seems to me to have matured in reverse, but I would be grateful for a revelation, in which all the later work became, if not clear, at least vital. Nobody should mind incomprehensibility as long as incomprehensibility is not the aim. Rimbaud didn’t set out, when he wrote Le Bateau Ivre, to be the subject of a thousand theses. He just had a lot to put in the one place. I would like to think that the same is true of the later Ashbery, and that I have so far merely failed to concentrate properly. Certainly the Daffy Duck poem, which I love so much, has bits in it that I can’t figure out. But they thrill me even as they puzzle me. There is a passage that starts:
How will it all end? That geranium glow
Over Anaheim’s had the riot act read to it by the
The rhapsody goes on unbroken for a full ten lines and I still can’t understand it. But I think the world of its movement and imagery, and if I can’t find those things in his later decades, it is always possible that I haven’t looked hard enough. I doubt, however, if I will ever now find him getting down to bedrock. For some reason he decided that such an aim wasn’t interesting enough. Shakespeare thought it was, but perhaps he did such a good job of proving it he scared everyone else off.
And there is no doubt that poetry can spring from the way a bedrock statement is rearranged to show that the lyricism, rather than in the thought, is in the arrangement, as when Anne Sexton says of the pheasant:
He drags a beige feather that he removed,
one time, from an old lady’s hat.
We laugh and we touch.
I promise you love. Time will not take away that.
By putting “that” at the end, she puts emphasis on it, as Seamus Heaney puts the emphasis on “it” when he writes “I’ll dig with it.” The syntactical bravura is not just catchy, it has become part of the impulse. If we are looking for characteristics that define Modernism, that would surely be one of them. The urge to make the syntax do tricks could emerge only after the long, founding age when the syntax was always a modest servant. But one of the paradoxes of Shakespeare, to get back to him, is that even his modesty was spectacular. In Henry v, the young king is proud of speaking “plain soldier.” And indeed, talking to a few of his plain soldiers by firelight, he is trying to express himself as simply as he can when he warns against optimism:
The man, that once did sell the lion’s skin
While the beast liv’d, was kill’d with hunting him.
So there they are, the thought and the words together, and even though, to the enchanted ear, the combination is as light as pumice, still it is bedrock, the deepest of all considerations, and as far as you can get from mere words.