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On Two Poets

1. FORD MADOX FORD

I first met Ford in 1937, a year or so after the publication of Buckshee, and two years before his death. Reading these poems is like stepping back in time to Ford in his right setting, France, to a moment when both he and Europe between the wars were, imperceptibly, miraculously, a little younger, hopeful, and almost at a pause in the onrush. When I knew Ford in America, he was out of cash, out of fashion, and half out of inspiration, a half-German, half-English exile in love with the French, and able to sell his books only in the United States. Propped by his young wife, he was plodding from writers’ conference to writers’ conference, finally ending up as writer in residence at Olivet College in Michigan. He seemed to travel with the leisure and full dress of the last hectic Edwardian giants—Hudson, James, and Hardy. He cried out, as if wounded, against the eminence, pomp, and private lives of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Ruskin, the false gods, so he thought, of his fathers. He was trailed by a legend of personal heroism and slump, times of great writing, times of space-filling, past triumph and past humiliation, Grub Street drudgery, and aristocratic indolence. He was the friend of all good writers, and seemed to carry a concealed pistol to protect them and himself against the shoving non-creative powers of editors, publishers, business men, politicians, college presidents, literary agents—his cronies, his vultures.

Always writers and writing! He was then at work on his last book, The March of Literature, and rereading the classics in their original tongues. At each college stop he picked up arm-loads of Loeb classics, and reams of unpublished manuscript. Writers walked through his mind and his life—young ones to be discovered, instructed, and entertained, contemporaries to be assembled, telegraphed, and celebrated, the dead friend to be resurrected in anecdote, the long, long dead to be freshly assaulted or defended. Ford was large, unwieldy, wheezy, unwell, and looked somehow like a British version of the Republican elephant. His conversation, at least as finished and fluent as his written reminiscences, came out in ordered, subtly circuitous paragraphs. His marvelous, altering stories about the famous and colorful were often truer than fact. His voice, always sotto voce, and sometimes a muffled Yorkshire gasp, made him a man for small gatherings. Once I watched an audience of three thousand walk out on him, as he exquisitely, ludicrously, and inaudibly imitated the elaborate periphrastic style of Henry James. They could neither hear nor sympathize.

LARGENESS IS THE KEY WORD for Ford. He liked to say that genius is memory. His own was like an elephant’s. No one admired more of his elders, or discovered more of his juniors, and so went on admiring and discovering till the end. He seemed to like nothing that was mediocre, and miss nothing that was good. His humility was edged with a mumbling insolence. His fanatical life-and-death dedication to the arts was messy, British, and amused. As if his heart were physically too large for his body, his stamina, imperfection, and generosity were extreme.

Ford’s glory and mastery are in two or three of his novels. He also never stopped writing and speaking prose. He had a religious fascination in the possibilities of sentence structure and fictional techniques. About poetry, he was ambivalent. He had a flair for quoting beautiful unknown or forgotten lines, yet called poetry something like “the less civilized medium,” one whose crudity and barbarism were decked out with stiff measures and coarse sonorities. Like Boris Pasternak, he preferred Shakespeare’s prose to his blank verse, and thought no poetry could equal the novels of Flaubert.

He himself wrote poetry with his left hand—casually and even contemptuously. He gives sound and intense advice to a beginning poet: “Forget about Piers Plowman, forget about Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, Morris, the English Bible, and remember only that you live in our terrific, untidy, indifferent empirical age, where not a single problem is solved and not a single Accepted Idea from the poet has any more magic…” Yet he himself as a poet was incurably of the nineteenth century he detested, and to the end had an incurable love for some of its most irritating and overpoetic conventions. His guides were always “Christabel,” the Browning of “My Last Duchess,” the Rossettis, Morris, and their successors, the decadents. He is Pre-Raphaelite to the heart. Their pretty eloquence, their passionate simplicities, their quaint neo-Gothic, their vocabulary of love and romance, their keyed-up Christianity, their troubadour heresies, and their terribly over-effective rhythms are always peeping through Ford’s railway stations and straggling free verse. For Ford and his ablest contemporaries, Hardy, Hopkins, Housman, Yeats, De la Mare, Kipling, and Pound, the influence and even the inspiration of the Pre-Raphaelites was unavoidable. Each, in his way, imitated, innovated, modified, and revolted. Ford’s early imitations have a true Pre-Raphaelite brio, but he is too relaxed and perhaps too interested in life to have their finest delicacy, conviction, and intensity. His revolt is brave and resourceful, but the soul of the old dead style remains to hamper him. Even in prose, except for The Good Soldier and Parade’s End, he had difficulty in striking the main artery; in poetry, he almost never struck it. His good phrases and rhythms grow limp or hopped up with impatient diffidence, and seldom reach their destination. The doggerel bounce and hackneyed prettiness of lines like—

The poor saint on his fountain
On top of his column
Gazes up sad and solemn

(to choose a bad example) keeps breaking in on passages that are picturesque and lovely. His shorter poems are brisk, his longer diffuse.

POUND’S FAMOUS COMMAND that poetry be at least as well-written as prose must have been inspired by Ford, though I doubt if Ford believed this a possibility or really had much fondness for a poetry that wasn’t simple, poetic, and pastoral. I heard some one ask him about Pound’s influence on Yeats’s later style. “Oh,” Ford said, “I used to tell Ezra that he mustn’t write illiterate poetic jargon. Then he’d go to Yeats and say the same thing.” This was tossed off with such flippant finality that I was sure it was nonsense. Years later, however, Pound told me the same story. He said too that Ford actually lived the heroic artistic life that Yeats talked about. There must be more to the story. Ford had no gift like Yeats for combining a conversational prose idiom with the grand style. I think he must often have felt the mortification of seeing the shining abundance of his novels dwindle away in his poetry to something tame, absent-minded, and cautious. He must have found it hard to get rid of his jingling, hard to charge his lines, hard to find true subjects, and harder still to stick to them when found. Even such an original and personal poem as “On Heaven” is forever being beguiled from the road. Yet a magnificence and an Albigensian brightness hover over these rambling steps: Ford and Pound were companions on the great road from twelfth-century Toulouse to twentieth-century London.

Buckshee is Ford, the poet, at his best. It too is uneven and rambling—uneven, rambling, intimate, and wonderful. Gardening in Provence, or hearing a night bell strike two in Paris, Ford ruminates with weary devotion on his long labors, and celebrates his new young marriage—O minutes out of time, when time was short, and the air stiff with Nazi steel and propaganda! In his last years, Ford’s political emotions were to the left, but his memory, pace, and tastes were conservative. He didn’t like a place without history, a patina of dust, “Richelieu’s Villa Latina with its unvarying statu quo ante.” Above all he hated a world ruled by the “maniacal monotone of execration.” I remember how he expressed his despair of the America he was part of, and humorously advised me to give up eating corn lest I inherit the narrow fierceness of the Red Indian. In “Coda,” the last and supreme poem in this sequence, he is back in Paris, his great threatened love and symbol for civilization. In his dark apartment, he watches the lights of a taxi illuminate two objects, the “pale square” of his wife’s painting, Spring in Luxemburg, and the galleys of his manuscript, momentarily lit up like Michelangelo’s scroll of the Fates. Then he says to his wife, the painter:

I know you don’t like Michelangelo
But the universe is very large having room
Within it for infinities of gods.

Buckshee coughs and blunders a bit in getting off, but in “Champêetre,” “Temps de Secheresse,” and “Coda,” Ford finds the unpredictable waver of his true inspiration. In these reveries, he has at last managed to work his speaking voice, and something more than his speaking voice, into poems—the inner voice of the tireless old man, the old master still in harness, confiding, tolerant, Bohemian, newly married, and in France.

2. SYLVIA PLATH (1932-1963)

In the poems written in the last months of her life, and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another “poetess,” but one of those super-real, hypnotic great classical heroines. This character is feminine, rather than female, though almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head. The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea who can laugh at herself as “cow-heavy and floral in my Victorian night-gown.” Though lines get repeated, and sometimes the plot is lost, language never dies in her mouth.

Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever. She burns to be on the move, a walk, a ride, a journey, the flight of the queen bee. She is driven forward by the pounding pistons of her heart. The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse. Dangerous, more powerful than man, machinelike from hard training, she herself is a little like a racehorse, galloping relentlessly with risked, outstretched neck, death hurdle after death hurdle topped. She cries out for that rapid life of starting pistols, snapping tapes, and new world records broken. What is most heroic in her, though, is not her force, but the desperate practicality of her control, her hand of metal with its modest, womanish touch. Almost pure motion, she can endure “God, the great stasis in his vacuous night,” hospitals, fever, paralysis, the iron lung, being stripped like a girl in the booth of a circus sideshow, dressed like a manikin, tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians…apartments, babies, prim English landscapes, bee-hives, yew trees, gardens, the moon, hooks, the black boot, wounds, flowers with mouths like wounds, Belsen’s lampshades made of human skin, Hitler’s homocidal iron tanks clanking over Russia. Suicide, father-hatred, self-loathing—nothing is too much for the macabre gaiety of her control. Yet it is too much; her art’s immortality is life’s disintegration. The surprise, the shimmering, unwrapped birthday present, the transcendence “into the red eye, the cauldron of morning,” and the lover, who are always waiting for her, are Death, her own abrupt and defiant death.

He tells me how badly I photo- graph.
He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple
Frill at the neck
Then the flutings of their lonic
Death-gowns,
Then two little feet.

THERE IS A PECULIAR, haunting challenge to these poems. Probably many, after reading Ariel, will recoil from their first overawed shock, and painfully wonder why so much of it leaves them feeling empty, evasive, and inarticulate. In her lines, I often hear the serpent whisper, “Come, if only you had the courage, you too could have my rightness, audacity, and ease of inspiration.” But most of us will turn back. These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of “chicken,” the wheels of both cars locked and unable to swerve. O for that heaven of the humble copyist, those millenia of Egyptian artists repeating their lofty set patterns! And yet Sylvia Plath’s poems are not the celebration of some savage and debauched existence, that of the “damned” poet, glad to burn out his body for a few years of continuous intensity. This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.

It is poignant, looking back, to realize that the secret of Sylvia Plath’s last irresistible blaze lies lost somewhere in the checks and courtesies of her early laborious shyness. She was never a student of mine, but for a couple of months seven years ago she used to drop in on my poetry seminar at Boston University. I see her dim against the bright sky of a high window, viewless unless on cared to look down on the city outskirts’ defeated yellow brick and square concrete pill-box filling stations. She was willowy, long-waisted, sharp-elbowed, nervous, giggly, gracious—a brilliant, tense presence embarrassed by restraint. Her humility and willingness to accept what was admired seemed at times to give her an air of maddening docility that hid her unfashionable patience and boldness. She showed us poems, that later, more or less unchanged, went into her first book, The Colossus. They were somber, formidably expert in stanzastructure, and had a flair for alliteration and Massachusetts’s low-tide dolor.

A mongrel working his legs to a gallop
Hustles the gull flock to flap off the sand-spit.

Other lines showed her wit and directness.

The pears fatten like little Buddhas.

Somehow none of it sank very deep into my awareness. I sensed her abashment and distinction, and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment.

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