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Cutting the Marble

Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972

by Adrienne Rich
Norton, 62 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Studies for an Actress and Other Poems

by Jean Garrigue
Macmillan, 85 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The first poet is very interesting. In order to understand her, we must go into a certain room in Manhattan where a light is on over a table. A serious woman is sitting there, writing a lesson, which is the lesson of her life. On the paper we observe free verse stanzas in a near-colloquial idiom with a somewhat scientific vocabulary; they have an anonymous appearance. An occasional cockney rhyme (sister / glamor) comes up. Reading the lines gives us the illusion, at moments, of having gained an objective picture of events, even of our own thoughts:

In a bookstore on the East Side
I read a veteran’s testimony:

introduces a fact, and related materials are used to describe thought later in the poem:

Pieces of information, like this one
blow onto the heap

This is well done, so that we really believe while we are reading it that it is how thoughts behave. In this instance the idiom has justified its impersonal quality by an ability to produce convincing objective effects. It is the clean diction used by all good reporters (the method of Tolstoy when he is reporting), and it is insidious because of its invisibility. The subjective factor, with all its distortions, appears to have been edited out.

What we think of as diction is something that brings us quickly to the boil on an instinctive level, by throwing colored words at us in a way for which we are unprepared, as in the writing of Rimbaud or of Gerard Manley Hopkins; or a rigid, thrilling block of modern words, with a granite frost on it, which smashes us intellectually, like a phrase of Robert Lowell’s. Diction can then be identified by the autonomous life it leads; the poetry is already partly about the way it is written, and it becomes more difficult to paraphrase the content away from the page.

When a poet takes up a simpler idiom, like the one used by Adrienne Rich, subjects are of great importance. The presumption is that the poet has especially chosen a line that will allow her to cover ground of all kinds. Even so, we must be moderate in the expectations we form, for there are other difficulties in such a line—which, although fragmented, could be called a narrative line—and I shall try to show some of them. It becomes dangerous, rather than insidious, when there is insufficient fresh material within it; originally it did the work of prose and tends to be one-dimensional.

We must examine what is going on in the poems.

A cast of three or four men and women is living a life very close to the life of the newspapers; Manhattan is a living newspaper. There are refrigerators, airplanes, phone booths, hypodermics, chemicals, molecules, bombs—and subways, prisons, rooms where people all over the world become careworn in their efforts to face up to reality. But because these people, places, and objects are so little distinguished and personalized, we have to read minutely to assemble the essential data from which the story will begin.

There is a reason for this. The poet is careful not to impose herself on the landscape. She tries, on the contrary, to read exactly the meaning which is there, and no more, and to reproduce it without inflation. At times, a deliberately conventionalized sensibility is in fact placed so squarely before its public subject matter that we can check our emotional attitudes by it, to see whether we have them right, so to speak, as if we were checking our watches by a world clock. In the poem already quoted from, called “Burning Oneself In,” we note

the running down, for no reason
of an old woman in South Viet- nam
by a U.S. Army truck

brings about the humane but unexceptional (and slightly ambiguous) comment at the end of the poem:

in bookstores, in the parks
however we may scream we are
suffering quietly

In Miss Rich’s work, the moral proportions are valid, the protagonists are sane, responsible persons, and the themes are moving on their courses. Why is it then that we are still waiting for the poetry? At once it’s obvious what has happened. She has taken on too much, and the imagination is exhausted by the effort required to familiarize itself with all the burdens of the modern world. The syntax is not there to reinvent the material, is not allowed to do so, but only to expose it. Therefore everything hangs on the uniqueness of the poet’s personal contribution.

But she has almost edited herself out of the picture in the initial effort to “get it right.” Furthermore, as we continue to read the “narrative” line she is using, we notice that it is far more intractable than we had thought. What it can do to present facts it does very well. But once its basic character has been established in her poetry as a character of situation and event, the tone of the poetry sets hard, and it is extremely difficult to get anything else in. The line goes on quietly forcing the poet to produce more and more objective pictures in the interests of drama, tension, and news. It asks for the next action, the next scene, perhaps for the next statement—but not for the next thought. It would be impossible for example for an idea to be argued through to a conclusion. Similarly the lines can never have finish. It is not, regretfully we admit it, the ideal classical modern line, which can do every kind of work and for which we are searching; the one with which we can talk and think—cutting the marble with what Norman Douglas called “the thought-laden chisel of Lysippus.”

The only way thought and feeling can be introduced at all is on the same descriptive terms as material objects. And this, as I have shown in the first quotation, is exactly what the poet has had to do. They must match in kind and degree, or the line will not tolerate them. From now on she can only think in a certain way. The inner world that she shows us occasionally is furnished then in much the same way as the outer world; although a transfer of material objects into mental counterparts does not necessarily guarantee that we are inside, for the soul has its own landscapes.

We may perhaps conclude that the basic fault of this book lies in the nature of a subject matter already familiar being joined to impersonality of presentation the result is abstraction, or politics.

Now the actual poetry in the book is elsewhere. It’s entirely personal, and is to do with psychological survival. It appears out of nowhere, almost by accident:

Nothing can be done
but by inches. I write out my life
hour by hour, word by word

and in another poem whose intention is hard to follow, but which is in general a series of pictures and comments on the poet’s afflictions:

You give up keeping track of anniversaries,
you begin to write in your diaries
more honestly than ever.

That is a personal admission which we find illuminating because it tells us something useful about ourselves. We know now that the private face that has been turned away from us is the one that can tell us things we need to know. From this snatch, we understand that the poet is rebuilding herself; the mind is still tough and fresh, even after the intellectual toil of taking on emotions not its own, as in this good descriptive piece:

Walking Amsterdam Avenue
I find myself in tears
without knowing which thought
forced water to my eyes

It goes on, “To speak to another human / becomes a risk.” The tears are said to be evoked by a sense of outrage at certain inhuman aspects of life today, according to the poem. Tears of rage can come to our eyes in the street, but usually, if we are scrupulously truthful, from less abstract causes.

At the end of the book is a section on The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Psychologically, it is most revealing. Some people may have read the book by J-M Itard, or seen the film by François Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage. Briefly, a child left for dead in the woods in eighteenth-century France manages to survive. Some years later he is discovered, caught, and brought back into society; a human wild animal. In the film (an extraordinary film leaving an indelible impression) we are shown the child reacting to rain falling on his head, to the taste of milk, and to the safety of the forests, with their hiding places, for they alone are trustworthy.

This child is the helpless animal within every lonely alienated human creature, every poet, who from early days has found himself cut off from the minds of his fellows. He does not know how to make contact with them; his only relationship is with Nature. I suspect that it’s for this reason above all others that he has entered Miss Rich’s imagination.

We can see that when her intellect and her ethics have got her into a corner once again in the name of poetry, and there seems to be no way out, nevertheless she manages to write in her lesson book:

stones on my table, carried by hand
from scenes I trusted

This is not from the section on the wild boy; but they are certainly the stones touched, or carried, by the hand of the wild boy of Aveyron. In an attempt at wholeness the urban citizen must engross his experience within herself, for it is the part of her own story which is missing, and this is the moment in life when she needs it for her survival. In order to go back to the necessary depth, she takes the only route available from her room in the city, and makes the journey at night in her dreams:

The most primitive part
I go back into at night
pushing the leathern curtain
with naked fingers
then
with naked body

The regression is to an almost sub-human ancestor, frightening to consciousness, but essential to spirit. The day consciousness of the poet appears to stand in direct opposition to the unconscious dreamer of the night—the compensating self, who is doing all the real work, and who rights the balance by releasing buried aspects of her personality. It’s no wonder that while this vital process of unification was going on the poetry regularly escaped from stanzas about current affairs. If we carelessly forget that Orpheus was especially famous for playing to wild beasts, trees, and stones, the myth which is active within us will remind us of its own accord.

Il faut être absolument moderne; but there can also be an out-of-date modernness. Early poems by Miss Rich, such as “The Raven,” “After Dark,” and “In the Woods” (those essential woods) are more modern than many in her present book. That the contemporary nerve is wide awake in her poetry is shown in ways that pass unnoticed. For example, as we read forward we are struck by the observation that this poet never writes a love poem from which she cannot learn something useful psychologically; which forms an amusing and relevant comment on our society.

The reverse is true of Miss Garrigue, who would not have to have reasons. She would write it for its own sake.

This is her last book of poems; she died in December, 1972. We follow her into romantic territory, but we have misgivings when we observe that she has grasped the nettle—an overtly poetic manner—which has been fatal to so many other good poets before her.

Romantics (and not only romantics) tend to be lazy about first principles. By a continuous process of effort on many levels, a poem is shaken free from all that is not the poem. This is the first step, done if possible well away from a sheet of paper. It is the work; brutal, classical precision work to isolate, develop, and organize. Everything important is decided there and then, in order to get a poem out alive from the rapid, egocentric thought-flow of the normal mind. It’s especially hard on lyric-romantic writers who have already swallowed the world and all its poets entire. Every burr sticks to their verses.

It emerges gradually that Miss Garrigue has taken up her rich, mannered style with her eyes open. There are prose stanzas in this book in which that style is dropped, and they are good. But they do not contain those lines of poetry which appear in her other verse. Her style, then, is the only way in which she can realize her potential for certain thoughts; thoughts which cannot form in the mind unless the emotional conditions are propitious to them and the clock is turned back. They cannot form in this mind and be recognized as poetry unless they resemble what has already been poetry. For she has no vision of a lyric poetry which is new is kind.

Having made these reservations, we must try to look at her work on its own terms, and there will be rewards which will make the effort worth while. With regard to other voices in her poetry, this is a good moment to remind ourselves of the continuous tradition of licensed romantic borrowing throughout history; without it, our best poets would be out of court straight away. We learn to think and feel for ourselves only by first thinking the thoughts of others, and feeling what they felt. By these means, we learn what it is to do these things.

There are some bunglers, of course. Keats, young, ill and in a hurry, lifted words and mood from the first four lines of one of the Epodes of Horace in order to get off the ground with “Ode to a Nightingale”(Epode no. XIV, in Dr. John Marshall’s translation: “Why ‘tis that languorous sloth can thus so strongly bind / My inmost heart and mind, / As though some Lethé draught, I down parched throat had cast”). Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” began in stanza thirteen of “La Bouteille à la mer” by Alfred de Vigny. Dylan Thomas took over Edith Sitwell’s territory and vocabulary. And so on. But each of these poets managed to pull a whole poem out of the pie which we recognize to be sui generis.

One essential aspect of Miss Garrigue’s work is the presence in it of unseen forces, in the Yeatsian sense. The flowing of a mysterious charged current, especially near water or in lonely places. She is content to record it as part of her experience, interprets it pantheistically, and regards herself as part of its experience in turn. From her text it is doubtful whether she had any deeper or more exact knowledge, and she abandons mysticism the moment it no longer serves her literary purpose.

In her case this was certainly the right decision. The subject carries for most people dangerously airy-fairy overtones. Although paradoxically they also believe that this is what poetry is really about. Perhaps they dimly comprehend that human development is morally related to other words, other dimensions, which they only sense. We can only measure the importance of these strange influences by noting what happens when we are cut off from them; shut away in cities, locked into our own thoughts which harden like concrete, we become angry and ill. Whatever the case may be, they assisted Miss Garrigue to write a fine poem, “There Is a Dark River,” from an early book The Monument Rose. Between what is actually seen, and what is only felt, she is able to intimate an other-worldly aliveness collected under dark trees.

There is a dark river flows under a bridge
Making an elbowed turn where the swallows skim
Indescribably dark in rain.

sets the scene, and although Yeats’s influence is soaked into her lines here:

Those oblivion-haunted ones who wrote
Memorable words on the window pane,
What but the diamond’s firmness gives them name?
And yet because they did it
The field is thick with spirit.

due to the beauty of the expression, the poem manages to assert itself, and in the end holds its own.

In her last book she has made an effort to bring both sensibility and manner up to date; possibly she had at last woken up to the fact that her traditional poetic abilities were strangling her. The mixture is of old and new. But she begins to know herself well enough to hear her own voice. Here it is in this good opening of “The Grand Canyon”:

Where is the restaurant cat?
I am lonely under the fluorescent light
as a cook waddles in her smoky region visible through an open arch
and someone is pounding, pound- ing
whatever it is that is being pounded

The poem goes on to describe the canyon throughout nine extremely long stanzas. Nevertheless, there is in general a much greater variety of line treatment, much firmer ground in the way of angular, dense description. She has been forced by the subject, a wholly American subject, to write a non-European poem. There is no precedent for gathering up the whole by intuition. The material defies it in any case. Thus she is thrown back on herself and writes an original poem. As a consequence, there is only one appearance of Yeats,á mere nod, a long-legged insect (never, even for Yeats, a successful image) worked into a context entirely foreign to it in the last stanza when invention was beginning to flag. The poem softens shortly afterward and closes on a conceit; and although this is welded on to the new-look verses so that the join can hardly be seen, it has in fact nothing to do with the poem’s primary conception and logic. In a natural desire to finish off by transcending gross matter, she loosens her grip and the old habits of mind reassert themselves:

under those clouds that like water lilies
enclose within them this silence received
that they graze upon and are gone.

Miss Garrigue’s line always sees further possibilities in itself, and the irrelevancies it produces, which are then carefully embedded in the poems, are usually the best part. In which case they are the poem, and the poem is the irrelevance. Here is one of her striking images: “the wind walked on the roof like a boy”—not factually accurate, but carrying an original concept of a wind (with more of Jean Giono than Dylan Thomas to it) to which we can assent. At the end of the same poem (“After Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs“), we get “As the wind threw itself about in the bushes and shouted / And another day fresh as a cedar started.” This is aesthetically satisfying. The wind, which has been personalized, now has a life of its own. The characteristics, borrowed from a boy, are amplified and add a dimension which is valid, and the poem is refreshed and lifted out of the commonplace by them.

Still, it is unwise to base a whole method of composition on a talent for phrase-making—that is a stock-in-trade merely. Now this poet has written a number of ballads and songs, and the form of these, for the above reason, is not on her side. It rejects utterly verbal fantastification and imprecise meaning. The surface of a ballad must be as tight as a drum; it is virtually plotless, the plot is one emotion. Burns goes in deeply with “My love is like a red red rose,” and continues to refine the same emotion to the core, so that what began by touching us on a physical level ends by moving us spiritually. He makes the work easy; but it’s a matter of temperament to be able to do so.

Two points should especially be mentioned with regard to Miss Garrigue’s last work. In taking her step forward the poet has uncovered a gift for quick portraits:

That man going around the corner, his pants blown out by the Wind,
That pottering, grey-faced bakery dog,

(which comes from “Free-Floating Report”), and for genuine insight. Although She had this in early days, it was often so badly placed that it might as well not have been there at all. The use of certain words, which inexorably draw after them other words of the same sort, obliterated it. Even now she does her best to destroy it by insipid diction, which is not the equal of the content in the following lines (from “For Jenny and Roger”):

Nor is their thought known to them
Till the other give the truth away.
They are hidden from their thought
Till the other finds it out.

These are worth all the struggles with an overweight baggage of derivative elegies, nocturnes, laments, soliloquies, dialogues, notes, and incantations.

Letters

Women and Poetry November 29, 1973

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