On the dispersion of poetry throughout Virginia Woolf—seeds suddenly blossoming in her prose’s surface: most recently reminded of this in Between the Acts—the scenes of the village play interspersed throughout the novel, typically rendered in brilliant period style, but also poems and bits lodged or mislodged in various characters’ consciousnesses. The heroine, Isa, a secret poet, scribbling poems in a “book bound like an account book in case [her husband] suspected.”

The great tense, comic scene in the manor house’s dining room: the presiding old codger of the place Bartholomew Oliver warming to the near-mindless sensuality of the chance visitor Mrs. Manresa; Giles, Bart’s son, fiercely masculine, back for the weekend from the City, also pulsing to Manresa’s vibrations; Bart and Giles skeptical and contemptuous of Manresa’s friend, the effete artist William Dodge; Giles’ wife Isa registering all, she and Giles storing up the day’s ammunition for their erotic blowout at dusk, timed against, alongside, the war also raging: it is 1939.

“Since you’re interested in pictures,” said Bartholomew, turning to the silent guest [Dodge], “why, tell me, are we, as a race, so incurious, irresponsive, and insensitive”—the champagne had given him a flow of unusual three-decker words—“to that novel art, whereas, Mrs. Manresa, if she’ll allow me my old man’s liberty, has her Shakespeare by heart?”
“Shakespeare by heart!” Mrs. Manresa protested. She struck an attitude: “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler . . . Go on!” she nudged Giles, who sat next to her.
“Fade far away and quite forget what thou amongst the leaves hast never known . . . “ Isa supplied the first words that came into her head by way of helping her husband out of his difficulty.
“The weariness, the torture, and the fret . . . “ William Dodge added, burying the end of his cigarette in a grave between two stones.

The way the matter of “having Shakespeare by heart” emerges as social chatter, an opportunity for display and (courtesy of the author) mild ridicule; the devastating faltering theatricality of Manresa; the “rescue” of Giles by Isa, who somewhat haplessly yet brilliantly moves from Shakespeare to Keats, his “Ode to a Nightingale” (“fade far away and quite forget . . . “), lines William Dodge, the sensitive aesthete, immediately recognizes and follows with another phrase from the ode (“The weariness, the torture, and the fret . . . ).

a masterpiece of comedy, mourning, misdirection—

the use and abuse of poetry—for life—

Woolf’s imagery everywhere tinged by her immersion in poets: the graves looming in Between the Acts, the cigarette in this scene buried in “a grave between two stones,” years before the Somme—

the interment imagined in Keats’ Ode, evoked here: the proleptic interment of the war, of Woolf herself in the Ouse:

As Keats in his Ode images himself dead, buried, laid in the earth, “a sod,” no longer possessed of organs of sentience, reduced to the dirt he now dwells in: thus impervious to the nightingale’s song—

To thy high requiem become a sod.

Woolf giving us in this novel her last requiem. Channeling Keats through her characters, that terrible death-vision born of long thinking on generations, their deaths, the endless repetition and waste: as Keats addresses his nightingale, considering—

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Keats’ brother Tom had just died when he wrote this Ode; Woolf’s mother died when she was thirteen; her beloved older sister Stella died some years later; her brother Thoby still later; and now the imminent deaths in this second world war—

The undertow of Woolf’s novels a tremendous and controlled keening: putting one in mind of Julia Kristeva’s elaboration of the “semiotic” domain of language, carried within and below language, alongside and beyond its “symbolic” structure: langue, the system of language, into which any speaking subject enters, bringing with herself that pre-existing pre-linguistic texture of the chora, the bodily music and terror of laughter, crying, keening, gasping, etc.: this semiotic force upsurging throughout Woolf, in poetry, in song, in rhythmic “scraps, orts, and fragments.”

The chorus in the hedges of the village play in Between the Acts, that transhistorical chorus (chora) here mustered by the local artist-commandant, Ida La Trobe, writer and director of the annual village play; this gathering of folk through whom poetry courses—

Hark hark the dogs do bark—

These voices from the hedges in Between the Acts sounding through Jorie Graham’s Overlord (2005), with its several poems “Spoken From the Hedgerows”—a striking feedback loop here between poetry and novels; how in a time of war to “think what we are doing,” as Hannah Arendt enjoins, how to sing beyond what we are doing—

The great refrain in Between the Acts,

dispersed are we—

from a song La Trobe plays on the gramophone to signal the play’s interval—life, dispersed, in the intervals; communal life, gathered, momentarily, in song—

Consider Woolf’s gramophone vs. T. S. Eliot’s: the gramophone, instrument of mass entertainment, associated with sexual disgust in The Waste Land—after the tawdry sex scene between the typist and the young man carbuncular:

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand
And puts a record on the gramophone.

while in Woolf the machine is humanized, incorporated in the great albeit humble pageant, an instrument of communal consciousness—

dispersed are we

These eruptions of poetry punctuate her novels, bearing a crucial bodily and ontological force: the pathos and narcissism of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, endlessly muttering Cowper’s devastating lines:

We perished, each alone.

from “The Castaway.”

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
—William Cowper, “The Castaway”

Mr. Ramsay’s fiercely iterated solitude a masculine overdifferentiation? A denial or evasion of his obvious dependence on Mrs. Ramsay? An acknowledgement of the radical isolation we all, in the end, inhabit?

It would seem this refrain is for him a fetish: an impasse: a barrier to inner movement.

How people hold such lines in mind: for Woolf, a revelation of character.

The aging Mrs. Dalloway proleptically mourning and consoling herself throughout the novel via these lines—

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages—
(from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline)

Lines sounding the subliminal groundnote of her consciousness—and again like Keats’ Ode a singing unto death—

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages—
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Consider the trace appearance of the ballad “The Four Marys” (alternatively known as “The Queen’s Marie,” or “Mary Hamilton”) in A Room of One’s Own: a brilliant turn, this allusion to a traditionary (and thus by definition “anonymous”) ballad amplifying Woolf’s concern with “anonymous,” that author who may well have been a woman; for of course the point of oral tradition is that there is no “author” to any ballad—there is only communal authorization of ballads, via ongoing recreation of them—and Woolf is exploring what there is to be found in tradition for women, by women—and for all:

Woolf conjures this ballad in the first chapter of A Room of One’s Own:

"Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance)."

But these names, so casually tossed off, are the very names itemized in the last stanza of the old ballad:

Last night there were four Marys
Tonight there'll be but three
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.

And why will there be “but three”? Because by day’s end, and by ballad’s end, Mary Hamilton will be hanged: she illicitly bore the king a child and—hoping to suppress this fact—killed it; and she’s been found out. Ripped from the headlines, indeed. (Some versions of the ballad are set explicitly during the reign of James I-James VI in Scotland, James I in England: “Word’s gane to the kitchen / And word’s gane to the ha, / That Mary Hamilton gangs wi bairn / To the highest Steweart of a.’”) And thus “Mary Hamilton” is one of the several great infanticide ballads in the English and Scottish ballad tradition: cf Francis James Child’s compendium, Web versions of which can be found at www.contemplator.com.

Dead children, dead women, dead soldiers—all make their way through Woolf’s corpus via poetry. And poetry offers Woolf multiple structures of identification: call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance. And yet it is indeed a matter of importance. One could be anyone, or that one. And beyond such mourned contents, such possible selves: one sees that through poetry Woolf conjures a kind of communal chora, a transpersonal subliminal zone of contact, intimacy, and repulsion—the vibrating membranes between us so delicately, exactly, mapped.

And the violation of these membranes?

From the sublime elsewhere—

Today’s pop quiz: Billy Collins vs. William Collins: who would win??
Extra credit: how is Billy Collins (b. 1941, American poet) like and unlike William Collins (1721-1759, British poet)?

ID test: Name That Collins: which Collins is it?
—Author of “An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland”
—Author of “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”
—Suave bard of bourgeois reflection
—Suave bard of sensibility
—Possibly over-rated by his friends
—Possibly under-rated by posterity
—Once poet laureate
—Never poet laureate
—Famously underproductive
—Famously productive

Over the transom this week:
Yvonne Rainer’s memoir has just been published: dancer, choreographer, film-maker, citizen, blaster-into-space—and now memoirist.

Does Yvonne feel any kinship with Rainer Maria Rilke? Onomastics are fantastic.

Also in: the latest “fold-up”—poetry broadside—is here from Pressed Wafer, Bill Corbett’s operation out of Boston, with Cris Mattison designing as always beautifully: this month, Taylor Stoehr’s translations of Chinese poetry: his songs of the frontier ringing as frontiers everywhere rage and get violently made—

Woe to the soldiers,
once they were men!

Mail Art! Mail Art! Time to revive: Shout-Out to Dick Higgins (R.I.P.)

The poetics of space: Bachelard: and Amira El-Zein’s poem “Square is Jerusalem,” which she read at Lame Duck Books in Cambridge last spring, at a party for Arrowsmith Press’s new books: written in Arabic, translated by Karin Ryding, its refrain has stayed with me—

And this final devastating curse, or perverse blessing:

Let warfare rage
and the writings of nations
be erased.
“Square is Jerusalem,” Amira EL-Zein, translated by Karin Ryding

To transform what is into what should be: the bitter desideratum: let warfare rage—as rage it does: Amira writing most recently via email, devastated by the events in Gaza.

Playwright and poet and divagator Brighde Mullins reports from LA that she is en route to a “conference on imagination”: would that we all were in such a perpetual conference!

Imagination! —lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my song—
Wordsworth, “The Prelude”

Also just in: galleys of Paul Muldoon’s Oxford lectures and his latest volume of poems: big brain! Big word-hoard! Razzle-dazzle! Plain style begone! Though he can stick it plain as anyone.

Originally Published: July 12th, 2006

Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago. She is the author of five books of poetry: Some Say (FSG, 2017), Mz N: the serial: a poem-in-episodes (FSG, 2016), This Blue (FSG, 2014—Finalist for the National Book...