These Jeanne Moreau-ish Bourgeois eyeballs (cast upward as, we are told, is proper to champagne sipping) led me to the entrance of the Williams College Museum of Art in a faint drizzle. Autumn has a light touch here: a burgundy fringe on the roadside, gold and blush in haptic patches on the tree crowns, like the burnish on a pear.
Inside, Modernism Concentrate: a Larry Rivers, a Diebenkorn, a deKooning, a Cornell—bang bang bang. Upstairs, a perfect Pisarro. A perfect Piero della Francesca. I wandered through the exhibition on Gerald and Sara Murphy, pausing at video of a Stravinsky ballet that made the hackles on my neck rise as I recalled the quote from Edith Sitwell’s A Poet’s Notebook that I had just been reading that morning in a coffeeshop:

Cocteau, writing in “Le Coq et l’Arlequin” (Le Rappel a l’Ordre) of a great work of this nature, the ballet Parade, of which he, Picasso, and Satie were the authors, said, “For the majority of artists a work cannot be beautiful without a plot, involving mysticism, love, or boredom. Brevity, gaiety, sadness without romance are suspect. The hypocritical elegance of the Chinaman, the melancholy of the Little Girl’s steamboats, the touching silliness of the Acrobats, all that which has remained a dead letter to the public, would have pleased them, if the Acrobat had been in love with the Little Girl, and had been killed by the jealous Chinaman, who had then been killed, in his turn, by the wife of the Acrobat—or any of the other thirty-six dramatic combinations.”

We’ll pass over the bitterness—plus ca change!—to wonder briefly if Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the mock-tragedy “Pyramus and Thisby”) was a comment on the silliness of the “thirty-six dramatic combinations.” You know: the secret lovers meet at night, but on her way to the assignation Thisby sees a lion, runs off affrighted, and leaves her scarf for the lion to mangle. Pyramus happens on the scarf and thinking Thisby a goner, slays himself. Thisby happens on slain Pyramus, slays herself, etc. All this relayed with a giggle. Silly plot, silly market for proto-liebestod!
I was at Williams for the inaugural reading of the Poetry Now series (which, if you live near Williamstown MA, you ought to check out). It was an honor to share the stage with the terrific poet Monica de la Torre and critic Michael Wood, who suggested that poets are really treating words as things in a new way. I thought that we find this use of words in Shakespeare, especially in the deployment of puns. (In the Elizabethan Age, words throw shadows.) Wood quickly agreed, and suggested this feeling for words was lost by the Romantics.
A professor in the audience wanted more clarification of this. But I think what Wood was thinking of was Shelley’s constant sublimation of poetry to music, airs, melodies, spectra. On the other hand, there’s Keats:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Hard not to think of this stanza as a sculpture (see above, casting eyes up as if to sip champagne…) rather than an air.

Originally Published: September 16th, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. September 16, 2007
     Don Share

    Yes! And then, too: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / are sweeter..." "O Attic shape! Fair attitude! ... Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!"

  2. September 19, 2007

    Hugh Kenner argued that the way poets conceptualized the poem changed fundamentally in the 17th century, and that Abraham Cowley was the transitional figure.
    Before Cowley, the poem represented a "person speaking." Afterwards, the poem represented a "consciousness observing."
    I can't reconstruct Kenner's argument off the cuff, but it feels right to me, and it may be related to your observation that the words in Elizabethan poems throw shadows. The Elizabethan soliloquy was spoken aloud; in post-Baconian poetry -- the stuff that began to try to account for the scientific method (and I don't think that Kenner alluded to Bacon) -- the soliloquy became an interior monologue. The poet imagined him- or herself to be a detached observer.
    Detached observers imagine that they don't throw shadows.
    The Romantics sought to reconnect with the Elizabethans (and the Gothic!); hence, Keats's increase in the sense of materiality-of-language, compared to the Augustans.
    Post-Cowley, prosodic procedures firmed up considerably as well. It's as if prosody became an ideal to aspire to, rather than a map to steer with that allowed for deviations.

  3. September 19, 2007
     Don Share

    Kenner said (in The Counterfeiters, pp. 48-49): "Cowley is the last poet of the Metaphysical School and about the first to be bad comically, and therefore makes a convenient jumping-off point. Let us rewrite that sentence. 'Cowley is the first poet of the Augustan School, of whose procedures a novel by-product is comic badness.' Something happened late in the seventeenth century which made possible strikingly, comically, transcendentally bad verse. One would like to be able to say what this was.... If Cowley was the first poet to risk an enterprise in which all depends on sureness of taste, and did not always manifest that sureness, it was not because he was the last Metaphysical poet but because he was the first Augustan." So Milton admired Cowley, he continues, yet Johnson found him ridiculous, discouraging us from seeing him as anything but a joke (C. is in the famous Stuffed Owl anthology of terrible verse) - and so we don't read him. We don't read him because we think of such writing as the kind in which the poet climbs onto a pedestal "so that we can tell he is writing poetry."

  4. September 20, 2007

    What good stuff this is! I misremembered Cowley -- Kenner's description immediately brought to mind "The Weeper," but that's Crashaw. I have to reread the Metaphysicals, and find a copy of that Kenner.
    But what I've really been mulling over is this distinction between person talking vs. consciousness observing. We're still conflicted -- more than ever, actually, in the wake of Confessionalism. I think of the first paragraph of Christopher Middleton's essay, "Reflections on a Viking Prow:"
    "To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the 'contents' of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where 'self-expression' has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being."
    This is possibly, like all poetics, impossibly vague - but to me it is a way out of a bad binary (person vs. consciousness).

  5. September 22, 2007

    Mr. Share, thanks for posting relevant quotes from "The Counterfeiters"! That is the book I was thinking of, a marvelous book, and a delight to read.
    Ange, "apertures upon being" sounds like the function of a "consciousness observing" to me. The aperture is a window, and it seems to me that we're hoping for a door; a way to Be in Being that is more involved, engaged, and shadow-throwing than mere picture-taking. But I plump for the "person talking" side of the binary, and I'm not sure why you feel it's a bad binary.
    By the way, thanks for the stimulating post. I just found your blogging here, via Ron Silliman, and I'm glad to have.

  6. September 22, 2007
     Don Share

    Thank you, John! By the way, Kenner's book has fascinating illustrations by Guy Davenport among its many delights!

  7. September 23, 2007

    Okay, "The Counterfeiters" is next in my library holds queue.
    John, thanks for the kind words. I think that the "person talking" has been a limiting idea in American poetry for the past 50 years or so; personhood has become rather narrowly defined in sociological and psychological terms. So when Middleton suggests that our role as poets is to discover new structures - rather than express the contents of our subjectivities - then I think that is an enlargement of possibility, one that gets beyond merely looking and recording.

  8. September 24, 2007

    Ange -- thanks, I always forget about the Confessionals, even though you'd already mentioned them! A personal weakness. I don't dislike them particularly, they just don't register deeply with me, and I keep forgetting them. Maybe because they don't register as "talking" in any way.
    The liveliest slammers discover new structures while definitely presenting as "people talking" -- or ranting, as the case may be.
    The "new structures" quest is the modernist quest, a quest I have been deeply skeptical of but which I'm coming around to again. For romantic, subjectivist reasons! "I want that new structure to have my name on it!"
    I understand that impulse.
    So did Ozymandias. Sorry if that's too obvious or sardonic a reference. I really do understand -- and share -- the impulse.
    Thanks again.