• Email
  • Print

That Old Eloquence

Not This Pig

by Philip Levine
Wesleyan, 80 pp., $2.00 (paper)

A 1-12

by Louis Zukofsky
Doubleday (Paris Review Editions), 267 pp., $4.95

After Experience

by W.D. Snodgrass
Harper & Row, 92 pp., $4.95

One of the most engaging poems in Not This Pig, Philip Levine’s second book, is “A New Day,” a parable recited to imply that in life “what we get is what we bring.” A secondary implication is that what we bring is never enough. What we get, at the end, is:

A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.

In another poem, “Possession,” people go back to a beloved place in search of old, accustomed things, “The same marked squirrels/nesting in the walnut trees”; but they find themselves standing in someone’s yard, “awed by the gladiolus/and the absence of something/they knew.” The yard had been free land once, “but now it was yours/who went in to call the law.” Many of Mr. Levine’s poems record similar occasions: he is particularly sensitive to lack, absence, finality. The time of year we may behold in him is late Fall: Summer is never there when he wants it. His special kind of darkness comes when power fails and the lights go out. Tomorrow is represented as if it were already yesterday, its promises quietly but decisively broken. “When was I young?” he asks.

This is not merely “the malady of the quotidian.” True, there are several poems in which he complains that “with no morning the day is sold.” In these transactions we always get short measure. Childhood is miserable because every evil is still ahead. But these poems enact a more exorbitant desire, a dream of innocence and new days. Mr. Levine wants morning to last all day. Every sea must be seen for the first time. The governing word in these poems is “no”: not the sign of rejection, but the mark of loved things gone, spoiled, contaminated. The poet has been everywhere before, and it was different then. So I am not sure that the poems endorse Mr. Levine’s account of them:

[These poems] mostly record my discovery of the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos—a gesture they don’t need—would have them say, “Don’t tread on me” or “Once more with feeling” or “No pasarán” or “Not this pig.”

In “Silent in America” he speaks of himself

   standing
In the clouded presence of the things I observe.

But there is no joy in that stance. The heroic idiom in which his theory speaks of discovery is not audible in the poems themselves. Often, the “people, places, and animals I am not” turn out to be experiences stained by their inception. The reason is, I think, that Mr. Levine does not discover the objectivity of his people, places, and animals with any particular satisfaction. He says he does, but the evidence of the poems goes the other way. In many poems Mr. Levine observes things as if he insisted upon looking through them to a face which they conceal; his own face, perhaps, as it was a million years ago. Some of these poems remind me of Yeats’s “A Woman Young and Old,” when the woman looking from mirror to mirror says:

No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

In Mr. Levine’s poems there is an urge to wipe clean the whole human record, the artificial mess: he would begin again, if he did not fear beginnings, knowing consequences and ends.

Of course these poems are attractive. But I am trying to account for the impression that their first effect, however engaging, is likely to be also their greatest effect. The poems do not sustain one another, so the book is only as grand as the sum of its parts. Perhaps there is not enough range or variety of feeling: certainly the feeling, wherever it starts, always moves in the same direction. Moving in this way, it often discloses things which, I concede, could hardly be seen if its direction were different. In “Above It All” Mr. Levine writes of an Air Force major:

   His eyes are young,
placid, and light blue as though
unused…

This is brilliantly conceived, and we make what we like of the tone, but the price of its achievement is that Mr. Levine cannot register light blue eyes in any other way, his angle of vision being what it is. The feeling, followed far enough in its own direction, tends to sink in despair. In “The One-Eyed King” Mr. Levine speaks of “the true despair/That comes from finding what you are.” There is also the despair of finding that every feeling turns out to be the same feeling; that, as he says in “Silent in America,” “the time will never come/nor ripeness be all.”

MR. ZUKOFSKY’s A1-12 is a long autobiographical poem, begun in 1927 and still only half-finished. These twelve chapters, privately printed in 1959, are now on public display for the first time. The work is to be completed in twenty-four chapters: Number 13 was printed some time ago, but I have seen nothing beyond that point. So perhaps the best way to read what we have is to put it beside the other collections, especially 55 Poems (1941), Anew (1946), and Barely and Widely (1958).

Mr. Zukofsky’s way of poetry was defined in his 29 Poems:

We seek of the water
The water’s love!

A new version, from “A 12,” reads:

As I love:
My poetics.

If the poetry goes well, the poet is revealed in the things he loves, to the degree that he loves them. In “A 2” Mr. Zukofsky writes:

This is my face
This is my form.
Faces and forms, I would write you down
In a style of leaves growing.

Organic form, then, but the form starts from the object, apprehended with love. The theory is given more elaborately in an essay, published in The Criterion in 1931, on Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Mr. Zukofsky distinguished between poetry which is deployed about the self which enforces it, and poetry in which the self is content to reside, selflessly, among its materials. The Cantos are not like poetic drama or dramatic monologue: the whole work is “directed towards inclusiveness, which sets down one’s extant world and all other worlds existing within one, and interrelates them in a general scheme of people, each speaking the speech accordant with the musical measure, or having it spoken as song about them….” A footnote relates this procedure also to T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, E. E. Cummings in Him, “and perhaps one other American, at least in intention,” presumably Mr. Zukofsky himself. If we ask where Pound is to be felt in the Cantos, the answer is: “in his own lines which are all his other people.” He is to be found, that is, in the musical measure, the song while it sings of other people and other things.

Similarly, A 1-12 is full of things and people, for the good reason that “to be is better than not to be.” The presences include Bach, Henry Ford, Lenin, California, Marx, Stalin, Henry Adams, the Spanish Civil War, the Fall of France, Aristotle, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Picasso, Robert Flaherty’s film of Aran; and, lovingly, the poet’s wife Celia, his son Paul. But attention lavished upon these presences is not rewarded until everything flows in the measure, the cadence; visible things and the invisible things they imply. This is the “endless process of addition” invoked in “A 8” as the genius of the mind; invoked again in Anew, “See sun, and think shadow.” The apprehension of sun and shadow determines the cadence, “the tune’s image holding in the line.” In “A 13” “Unsaid appears said.” The affection goes both ways, as “A 12” adverts to “the kinship of what is in what is not.”

SO MR. ZUKOFSKY’S POEMS are chorales of analogy, where the self is the voice in which other things are sung. The veins of the earth, the veins of a leaf, and the ribs of the human body: we say that these are alike, having acknowledged that each is itself. Since this is a philosophic poem, too, it is necessary to go further, as in “A 12”:

The order that rules music, the same
controls the placing of the stars and the feathers
in a bird’s wing.

But the problem of poetry remains: it is like finding words for the circulation of the blood. In the poem “Mantis” the problem is to find words for “thoughts’ tortion,” the twisting of diverse thoughts: “what form should that take?” the poet asks. Organic form, yes, but where are the words, and in what order should they be set? The answer is the new melody, when it is found, personal because it cannot help being personal. If we enquire for the poet in these poems, we are directed to listen to the cadence. So in “A 12” we hear:

Since no one cares about anything he does not love
And love is pleasure that dwells on its cause…

Then of the poet’s father:

I never saw more beautiful fingers
Used to lift bootstraps.

Later:

Rabbi Pinhas:
From true prayers
I took as goodness gave,
The pupil is dark and
Receives every ray of light.

Then, for a domestic occasion, Celia and Paul:

When Paul tunes his fiddle
The piano needs tuning
He says, “I was right,
The note was right
As I played it the first time,”
You say “his ear
Is better than mine”—
That is love.

So this poet, too, is found “in his own lines, which are all his other people.” The imagination is still required, since objects do not aspire, of their own volition, to cadences that we can hear: they must be translated into our idiom. “Better a fiddle than geiger,” Mr. Zukofsky says, presumably because an Orphic poet who delights to play one can make nothing of the other.

We come back to the cadence. It is probably impossible to say what makes a cadence right. My impression is that in his early poems Mr. Zukofsky’s cadences were often wronged by pedantry, as if he thought to set the poems astir by a stirring program, his poetics, with some insistence. He seemed to think he could free his objects merely by suppressing the transitions from one to another. The result is that the melody is often constricted, as if the poet banned certain modes of the mind merely because they were also in public use. He knew and said from the beginning that the cadence was everything—

But when we push up the daisies,
The melody! the rest is accessory…

but it took him years to realize that the richest cadence comes from the imagination when nothing is suppressed. This is an elaborate way of saying that his later poems are his best, that he took some time to move in his stride. The fact is clear enough in A 1-12: in the later chapters the poet trusts his inner ear. Nothing is suppressed but the pedantry of suppression. In 1938 William Carlos Williams complained of Mr. Zukofsky’s procedures, “placing sentences, paragraphs, slices of speech in a line,” but (Williams felt) “without sequence, without ‘swing,’ without consecutiveness….” Without cadence, in fact, or the attendant energy. But cadence and energy came, eventually: in the later sections of A 1-12, especially when Mr. Zukofsky writes of his father, his family, we hear the measure and know that it is right. In “A 12” theory and practice move beautifully together:

There are places out of sight
Filled with voices.
What the mind sees
And the eyes see—the
Shape of their ground, the same.
Dreaming kings storm towns
Cry aloud, murdered,
Without moving.

This is verse in a style of leaves growing, the extant world and all the minor worlds certified by the propriety of the voice. So the words are found: about the finding, there is nothing to be said, except that it is a consolation to know that it can still be done.

MR. SNODGRASS has already consoled us in that way, notably in the famous title-sequence of Heart’s Needle (1959). It is usual to say that those were divorce poems as other poems are love poems or death poems. But it is more relevant to say that they were Orphic poems. Near the beginning of Heart’s Needle Mr. Snodgrass gave this idiom in the poem “Orpheus”: “All ruin I could sound was there.” Again: “And I went on/Rich in the loss of all I sing/To the threshold of waking light…” The next poem, “Papageno,” ends: “In that deft cage, he might sing true.” This is the Orphic role, turning grief into song. In a longer poem, “A Cardinal,” the bird is Orphic, commanding the universe:

The world’s not done to me;
It is what I do;
whom I speak shall be…

So the poet walked through the universe, sorrowing, singing, commanding trees and rocks: “we need the landscape to repeat us.”

After Experience, a remarkable book, is true to this idiom, to the sense of a poetic fate which is at the same time a poetic vocation. In “What We Said” the landscape repeats every human grief. The leaves are inflamed, “sick as words”; a hole in the ground closes up “like a wound.” In the sky, a partial eclipse seems to be total because of light mists and low clouds; on earth, the lover knows that his eclipse is indeed total: “Next morning you had gone.” In “Autumn Scene” “the elms repeat some shocking/News of what’s to come.” So the new poems recite “old affections,” officially denied but deviously retained in the pain of the denial, like an old photograph in the poem “Mementos.” The book is full of care for the things by which life is preserved, if it is preserved; as two lovers try to send a kite aloft, “to keep in touch with the thing.” And many poems imply a life, long ago, far away, which man and wife lived and shared. Now the objects of that life are gone, but mortally active, too, as reminders, mementos.

The Orphic poet turns grief into song by turning life into ritual, then into play; as a father plays with his lost child. Mr. Snodgrass tells himself, as if to justify the cost, that something like this has been going on, in art and thought, for a century: the destruction of matter for the energy released by the destruction. In the new book he invokes this pattern to celebrate Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” where everything, fractured, is transformed to energy, “crude, definitive and gay.” Elsewhere, Mr. Snodgrass has spoken of Freud, breaking the solid forms of personality to release energy otherwise constrained. In a poem on Monet’s “Les Nymphéas” the painter is determined to feel nothing on public authority but everything on his own authority, his will, at his own risk, with his own care:

These things have taken me as the mouth an orange—That acrid sweet juice entering every cell;
And I am shared out. I become these things: These lilies, if these things are water lilies
Which are dancers growing dim across no floor;

Mr. Snodgrass’s new poems may be received in this setting, attempts to read the fracture of his personal life as an act of destruction, a necessary act if new energy is to be released. It may be remarked at once that none of the resultant poems is as demanding, as harrowing, as the divorce sequence in Heart’s Needle; but to such memorable poems as “Home Town,” “The Operation,” “The Campus on the Hill,” and “April Inventory” the new book adds several poems, especially “Autumn Scene,” “The Platform Man,” “Vampire Aubade,” “Les Nymphéas,” and “Regraduating the Lute.”

IT COULD BE ARGUED, incidentally, that in After Experience the center of gravity has shifted from the confessional poems to a group of translations which come at the end. Three of these poems seem to me to bear a particular weight of feeling. The first is Gérard de Nerval’s “El Desdichado,” especially significant because it may be taken to resume all the occasions of grief, including those represented in Heart’s Needle:

Je. suis le Ténébreux,—le Veuf,—l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie:
Ma seule Etoile est morte,—et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Then, “Suis-je Amour ou Phoebus?” Nerval asks. The next line acknowledges the perpetuity of absent love as if to concentrate in one sentence the longing of Aurélia and Sylvie: “Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine”; in Mr. Snodgrass’s lovely cadence, “On my forehead, still, the queen’s kiss holds its fire.” The poem ends with an Orphic assertion:

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron:
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée…

—in Mr. Snodgrass’s version:

I have crossed over Acheron, trium- phant, twice,
And modulated, one by one, on Orpheus’ lyre
Sighs of the saints and the damned spirits’ cries.

Still, everything speaks of loss. In “Regraduating the Lute” one face speaks of another:

   Keeping the strings
Tuned and under tension, we gradually
Pare away, while playing constantly,
All excess from behind the tempered face.
The way a long grief hollows the cheeks away.

The second crucial poem, I would say, is Nerval’s “Vers Dorés,” with its assertion of spirit in matter, voice in body. Strangely, Mr. Snodgrass does not give the Pythagorean epigraph, “Eh quoi! tout est sensible!” perhaps because he meets it again in the body of the poem itself: “Tout est sensible;—Et tout sur ton être est puissant!” The poem is resolutely Orphic, admonishing man to attend to the universe and its voice: “A la matière même un verbe est attaché…” If this feeling is not the source of Mr. Snodgrass’s new poems, it is their attendant spirit, moving him toward play, natural piety, and love, Mr. Zukofsky’s “pleasure that dwells on its cause.” Resistance to the Orphic invitation is given in “A Friend” and other poems, where the feeling is corrosive; of their poet it is permissible to say, as Mr. Snodgrass writes of someone else in “A Character”: “He thinks the world is his scab and picks at it.” But this resistance is occasional. Many of the recent poems try to speak the verbe of Nature by listening to it and trusting it to sound in the human words. Nerval says of that voice, giving the motto. “Ne la fais pas servir à quelque usage impie”; and to enforce the care, “Souvent dans l’être obscur habite un Dieu caché.” So the poet takes the world into his councils, the world “où la vie éclate en toute chose“: anything but self and its doomed resentment:

Respecte dans la bête un esprit agissant…
Chaque fleur est une âme à la Nature éclose;

—as Mr. Snodgrass translates:

Revere that restless spirit stirring in the beasts;
That soul, opening to Nature, which is each flower.

The connection between these two poems, in Mr. Snodgrass’s context, is that phase of the story in which Orpheus, dismembered, passes into all natural things, which then become alive and eloquent. Heart’s Needle stopped with dismemberment: After Experience has similar moments, but it goes beyond them into the natural world, listening to the voice, miming the word. Nature is not asked to be a function of self. The story is wonderfully complicated by the fact that Mr. Snodgrass also translates several of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, including those first poems in the sequence which tell of “new origins, beckonings, and change”: “Doch selbst in der Verschweigung/ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.” But a third poem, here translated, points even more resolutely toward change. In Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” the stone glistens, shining like a star. The confrontation of torso and the beholder’s eye is so demanding that every part of the stone engages in the encounter: “denn da ist keine Stelle,/die dich nicht sieht.” The last words of the poem are extraordinary: “Du musst dein Leben ändern,” as if to demand that the beholder, to be worthy of the experience, must become, like the mutilated torso against all the evidence, whole, complete, shining. “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you,” Hopkins noted. Mr. Snodgrass’s new poems accept the challenge of that look; this is their significance.

The evidence is a new note in these poems. The rhetorical finesse of “Les Nymphéas,” for instance, is a new achievement in Mr. Snodgrass’s style, a sostenuto language which, taking Heart’s Needle for granted, goes beyond it. To mark the direction the feeling takes, it is enough to point to the translated Sonnets to Orpheus (I, ix and x) where the Orphic spirit comes back from the dead and the poet invokes “the dual kingdom” as the source of calmest speech; welcoming from death, as Mr. Snodgrass translates the phrases, “the once more opening mouths/That knew already what the silence meant.” This is a classic moment in the new book. Indeed, it is already clear that the translations at the end of After Experience represent a new movement of feeling toward “inclusiveness,” to use Mr. Zukofsky’s word and some of his meaning. The characteristic danger of Heart’s Needle was sentimentality, feeling in excess of its occasion, however poignant the occasion. But the new translations have the effect of calming the style, hiding the self, silently, among its materials. The old eloquence persists, but it is richer now because it listens to other voices and knows something of what silence means.

  • Email
  • Print