Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982
Stylization is easy to see in the visual arts. The deer on the belt buckle is recognizably a deer, but it has been curved into an oval shape, its legs bent under its body, its neck elongated and tucked toward its breast, its shoulders folded to conform to the left side of the buckle, its flanks curved to align themselves with the right side. It is a deer, but no deer was ever seen to curl itself up in so symmetrical a way; and yet the forms have not been stretched out of plausibility entirely. They touch the limits of contortion without looking contorted. On the facades of Gothic cathedrals the vertical body of the saint is still a body, though stretched and stylized into something resembling a column. In visual forms, the mimetic is subdued to the geometric with such grace that the geometric seems almost an invention of the mimetic—as though the deer had found an oval way of being a deer, the saint a columnar way of being a body.
The best stylization seems a happy inclination of the matter, as a griffon voluntarily appears to creep its way into an illuminated letter, or as the Magi crowd willingly into the capital of a pillar. A stylization uncooperated-in by matter seems an order imposed, not discovered. There are bad stylizations as well as good ones, but it is a matter of taste to distinguish between them; and what is difficult in the visual arts becomes even more problematic in poetry.
In the first place, stylization is far less well defined in the verbal arts. The most obvious forms of it (rhyme and meter) have naturally been the easiest, and usually the least profitable, to discuss. Any literate person can be taught to write in competent meter and rhyme, and all the most forgettable poetry of past ages has been written in acceptable prosodic and stanzaic forms. To discuss how poetry discovers a stylization of its matter we must step beyond rhyme and meter and ask what the subject matter is in a given poem, and into what captivating distortion it (like the deer or the saint, the griffon or the Magi) has been cast. The distortion can be brought about by untoward images (evening “like a patient etherised upon a table”), by sudden conflation of categories (“my daughter and my ducats”), by delphic remarks (“The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”), by parody (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), by any number of odd angles.
The experienced reader feels at once the presence of stylization in a work and is pleased by it, without necessarily being able either to describe or define it. A good part of what critics do is to find words for the degree and kind of stylization they perceive. And since the matter of lyric poetry is always and everywhere the same (time passes, experience teaches, I am young, I am old, nature is beautiful, he loves me, he loves me not, someone has died, I will die, life is unjust, etc., etc.), critics of lyric poetry have only two choices—either to repeat, with entire banality, the emotional matter of the poem, or, more interestingly, to engage with the treatment of the matter, the manner of stylization that the poet has resorted to.
Of course there are “poems” innocent of stylization. Nothing in them has been curved or stretched or crowded to fit; everything is inelastic, wooden, inflexible, stubbornly its autobiographical or documentary self, stolidly there. These simple cris de coeur might as well be artless letters, and offer nothing of interest to art. At the other extreme are poems so contorted by the compressions or exigencies of manner that their matter seems at first either entirely unintelligible or recoverable only with great difficulty. Interestingly, many such poems become much easier to read over time; as in the case of Hopkins or Dickinson, poems once thought unreadable can eventually seem even transparent.
The best sign of poetic talent in a young poet, everyone agrees, is to have a gift for rhythm, the ultimate form of the stylizing of speech. Rhythm is only coarsely described by our terms for meter; as yet this best form of stylization is indescribable in any way that could adequately convey either its effects or its success. And the figures of speech are also coarse names; nothing is poetically virtuous simply by reason of being a simile or a metaphor (or, as Spenser’s learned friend E.K. would say, a pretty paranomasia). Nonetheless, it is by rhythm and a gift for arresting language that we identify a new writer as a promising poet; and then we cast rather desperately about to find words to delineate his shaping efforts.
Brad Leithauser, according to the information on the jacket of his first book, Hundreds of Fireflies, is a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer educated at Harvard. He has learned from Marianne Moore a form of compressed emblem description, from Elizabeth Bishop an unassuming visual scanning, from Robert Frost a love of rural scenes, from A.R. Ammons a telling use of modesty of voice, and from James Merrill a worldly form of narrative verse. These lessons have been assimilated beyond pastiche, on the whole, and have been brought into a tone distinguished by its mildness. Mildness is in fact Leithauser’s chief personal form of stylization. Mild poets are rare. There is a welcome lightness and sweetness in Leithauser recommending him to readers whose tastes bring them to Herbert and Schubert. And (another form of stylization) he likes, like Herbert, the compression of the proverb or the riddle. Here are three of his eleven charming “Astronomical Riddles,” bringing the unwieldy planets into the surprising stylization of brief self-description:
Small, I turn with the great. I feel the same
Call of gravity, though I have no name.
I am tempestuous, hot and cloudy. I pay no mind.
Love was intended to be rowdy, Torrid and blind.
I am the spry little
Cell. I am the riddle
Of the chicken or the egg, the miracle of birth.
But for me, none in the heavens would have any worth.
Leithauser’s quick sympathy, his humor, and his love of an elusive playfulness appear in these trifles. He is not unaware of what such orderly compressions of phenomena leave out in their will-to-stylization: another of his short poems muses on the neatness of the procession of the integers vis-a-vis negative and irrational numbers and nonrepeating decimals:
They serve as stepping stones, neat And fitting niches for the mind’s feet—
Over a swamp of roots, oddments, monstrous trailing Irrationals that never repeat.
A mind wishing to write such “Minims” (as Leithauser calls them) is of course in danger of forgetting the swamp in its passion for “neatness of finish! neatness of finish!” (Marianne Moore), However attractive the self-effacing quality of such polish may be in this era of lugubrious self-exposure in verse, it cannot be the only ingredient a poet has to offer. Leithauser branches out in two directions when he forsakes his jeux d’esprit.
One (in “Two Summer Jobs”) is a believable form of stylized auto-biography (borrowed from James Merrill) where the poet is first the ingenuous eighteen-year-old youth teaching tennis to suburban matrons, and later the twenty-six-year-old summer law clerk. Though expertly enough done, these poems are finally poems finding no stylization beyond what is offered by Merrill—his airy glitter, his penchant for puns, his jewelled effects, his tinge of evening nostalgia, his dying fall after a sparkling trajectory, his light ironies. Leithauser’s other venture is far more his own—a series of poems on animals or natural scenes, poems formed in stanzas with a pattern of delicate and unemphatic rhyme. These poems have titles like “Giant Tortoise” or “Day-break” or “Dead Elms by a River” or “Birches.” Their chief form of stylization is the framing of a scene stripped to essential detail and seen in a moment of insight,
as when, given the right light,
birches from their swampy pool
of ferns lift tall saurian
necks to browse, small heads un- seen,
in the overhanging leafage.
The gentle vegetarian birches, half harmless dinosaurs, half giraffes, are unlike “the stolid pine,” that bourgeois of the woods. Like poetry or poets, they vary as mood does:
siphoning birches vary
not merely with the seasons
but with the minute hourly
unravelings of the day
freshly hopeful at dawn in their tattered but immaculate
bandages and at dusk war-
painted,trunks smeared a savage
In this poem Leithauser is writing in syllabics, but his seven-syllable line breathes with the life of the English trimeter and tetrameter and the French octosyllabic line of the lais, even allowing itself from time to time (as “in the overhanging leafage,” the last line of the poem) to subside into that pleasant eight-syllable cadence. This meditation on birches expresses gratitude for the lightening of forest darkness offered by a stand of birches: they bring clouds into the forest, they are the feminine to the forest’s masculine, they siphon down the sun’s light, they are “becomingly multiform,” and they suggest a mild prehistoric beatitude.
The poem hints rather than declares; but we do know, by the end, that the slender birches, though not entirely gentle (they can evoke lightning on stormy days) are nonetheless a youthful presence relieving the forest’s immobility and gloom. Leithauser’s concentration of attention makes the birches pliant to his imaginative will; it is he that sees their bark as “tattered but immaculate bandages.” This is the stylization of anthropomorphism; but the birches are no sooner thus made human than they are made saurian in Leithauser’s flexible handling of their appearance.
The mystery Leithauser sees in appearances is of course a reflection of his suggestible mind, which turns things over in attraction and fear. Each of his poems repays rereading; most have a shapeliness of evolution that pleases all by itself; and on many pages the reader is struck by the writer’s interest in playing with scale, a resource frequently ignored by poets. Here is Leithauser on a patch of ground and an anthill:
long-necked dandelions sway
over a toiling community;
grain by grain,
blazing as if sweat-painted,
the ants amass a sort of pyramid
on Mayan lines: broad
base and truncated cone.
The anthill as Mayan pyramid is ammassed with commensurate effort in these agglutinative lines; and the mot juste “sweat-painted” could be found for ants only by that leap we call imagination.
Jack Gilbert, too, is a poet of visible stylization. His book Monolithos comes in two parts, written twenty years apart. The first part reprints poems from Gilbert’s 1962 Views of Jeopardy, when Gilbert was the Yale Younger Poet. The second part offers a selection of new work. Unhappily for Gilbert, the book is put forth with a preposterous group of blurbs, including Terrence des Pres (“They speak of lust and the entropic heart’s détente with love”), James Dickey (“poems…not so much written to but fired at the reader, with deadly aim and intent”), and Cynthia Ozick (“[Gilbert’s language] reminds me of some old dye-worker, bent on the sadness of beauty, who presses fruit to get at the richest ink”). The jacket copy from Knopf is comically pretentious:
These are poems about lust, how it succeeds, how it fails—not as the succumbing to desire, nor the getting of flesh, but as the honoring of the impulse to know, to possess “the great knowledge of breasts with their loud nipples.”
This is the sort of language that gives poetry a bad name. It is all ineffably nostalgic, in the first place; and modern poetry, if it has any claims on us, cannot be discussed in plangent archaisms like “the getting of flesh” or “the sadness of beauty” in “some old dye-worker,” or in the metaphors of macho derring-do (deadly aim and intent at the poetry corral), or in trendy language (“the entropic heart’s détente”).
The reader who looks beyond the vulgarity of the jacket will find in Gilbert’s book an odd mixture of talent with sentimentality and bathos. The talent occupies itself with a stylization based on extreme compression of narrative and extreme simplicity of sentence-form and extreme angularity of view. This aesthetic is offered in one of the early poems, which quotes the painter Uccello on perspective: “Oh che dolce costa è questa prospettiva“). (“What a lovely thing it is, perspective”).
Perspective. A place
to stand. To receive. A place to go
into from. The earth by language.
“The black horse of the literal world,” says Gilbert, “wades in the city of grammar,” by which I take him to mean that matter—lithe, active, natural, dark, and powerful—moves half submerged in the strict, civilized forms of the linguistic code. So far so good. Another ingredient in the aesthetic is “the normal excellence of long accomplishment,” “Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.” Gilbert is interested in what lasts, what can become lapidary. His own way of being lapidary is to write in short sentences, successive short sentences, successive mostly monosyllabic short sentences. When this sort of stylization fits the topic, and only then, the poem can justify the extremely mannered version of speech this tactic produces.
“Hunger” (I quote in part) bears the strain of its fettered lines well:
Digging into the apple
with my thumbs….
Refusing the sweetness.
Turning my hands to gouge out chunks.
Feeling the juice sticky
on my wrists. The skin itching.
Getting to the wooden part.
Getting to the seeds.
Not taking anyone’s word for it.
Getting beyond the seeds.
I prefer the poems where Gilbert allows himself more liberty of syntactic movement and more modulation of tone, that is (to translate to emotional and intellectual terms), more freedom of feeling, more variety of thought. Gilbert is an intellectual poet caught in a myth usually believed to trap women rather than men, the religion of romantic love, the dream of the ultimate mystery of sex finally unveiled. The poem called “Sects” balances a disillusioned narration with testimony to the continuing power of romantic illusion:
We were talking about tent revivals
and softshell Baptists and the one- suspender Amish
and being told whistling on Sunday made the Madonna cry.
One fellow said he was raised in a church that taught
wearing yellow and black together was an important sin.
It got me thinking of the failed denomination
I was part of: that old false dream of woman.
I believed it was a triumph to have access to their mystery.
To see the hidden hair, to feel my spirit topple over,
to lie together in the afternoon while it rained
all the way to Indonesia. I had crazy ideas of what it was.
Like being in a dark woods at night
when an invisible figure crosses the stiff snow,
making a sound like some other planet’s machinery.
I suppose Gilbert intends the pun on sects and sex; but the more interesting inventions of the poem emphasize the religious absurdity of love (as superstitious as any fundamentalist belief), while remembering how it felt to lie in bed and think that to be a couple made one the center of a world radiating outward from that sacred place, stretching “all the way to Indonesia.” And after the assumed superiority to superstition at the beginning, the poem reverts to the oldest sense of the holy, the vision in the grove, the numinous sense of the figure from another world. And yet this illumination of the selva oscura is itself phrased in the disbelieving language of the technology of UFOs; the poem remembers belief, and is in awe of love still, but cannot muster an entirely innocent language.
Gilbert has a flinty way of exposing the methods we adopt so as not to suffer from love and other pangs of sensibility. At first glance he seems to be laying bare a shocking truth:
Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.
Here the stylization is the hypothetical rhetoric; we tend to test it by a comparison with Keatsian empathy. What lies behind this poem is anger rather than Keats’s infeeling; Keats would not tolerate the inflexible either/or of Gilbert’s hypothesis—look on misery and die, or remain impervious and live. In a poem like this, Gilbert’s strictness of form seems a Procrustean bed.
The title of Gilbert’s book, Monolithos, is the name of the place in Greece where Jack Gilbert, born in Pittsburgh, lived with his wife, the poet Linda Gregg, during their marriage. The monolithic form of these poems comes in part, the book suggests, from a long reduction by isolation on a stony island, till the poet, like Robsinson Crusoe, no longer remembers civilized forms, including the more sinuous forms of speech. It is for Crusoe a revolution in sensibility to leave the ship and inhabit the island:
Robinson Crusoe breaks a plate on his way out
and hesitates over the pieces. The ship begins
to sink as he sweeps them up. Sets the table
and stands looking at history for the last time.
Knowing precision will leak from him
however well he learns the weather or vegetation,
and despite the cunning of his hands.
His mind can survive only among the furniture.
Amid the primary colors of the island, he will
become a fine thing, perhaps, but a different one.
If we place this version of Crusoe against Elizabeth Bishop’s version (“Crusoe in England”), the variant stylizations leap to the eye. Gilbert’s Crusoe has left history, precision, furniture, and mind behind in favor of timelessness, nature, the cunning of his hands, and feeling in primary colors. This is the tale of romantic primitivism—let us exchange culture for nature, the complex furniture of the ship for primary colors and isolation. But instead of the native exuberance with which this myth has usually been voiced, from Melville to Matisse, we find in Gilbert a dour flatness and a qualified regret, suggesting a fondness for the ship after all. It is hard to know which to trust more, the romantic message or the unbending unromantic formulae of statement. The dualism, however, that we see everywhere in Gilbert is here too—the culture of the ship and the colors of the island are unalterably opposed, and cannot co-exist.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, the story of Crusoe is subjected to a wholly different stylization. On the island, Crusoe recreates his lost European life as best he can, reciting Wordsworth, making a parasol and vegetable dye, dyeing a baby sheep red so as to create a divergent species, and even making up a home-grown philosophy. In Bishop’s more Horatian view, we carry civilization with us, and cannot become ” a different thing” by crossing the sea to different skies.
The reduction of images to a single image, the reduction of syntax to limited forms, the reduction of choice to bare alternatives—these make Gilbert a poet of unrelieved bleakness. Even his happiness is bleak, a stark form, never opulent:
Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind….
On our wrong side
of the island were no people, cars, plumbing, or lights.
The summer skies and Mediterra- nean constantly. No trees.
Me cleaning squid. Linda getting up from a chair.
A minimalism of this sort has a knotty truth to it, but finally it seems constricted as a medium for existence, bound in a net of its own baffled devising, a net in which it alternately struggles and goes stiff with acquiescence.
Forms of stylization, if they are successful at all, express in the end a sense of the world. The gentle world of fluid currents in Leithauser is not the bare world of Gilbert’s rigid monoliths. But each of these poets, by conveying to us a world stylized by his temperament, has fulfilled the first obligation of a writer, which is to bend the world of matter until it assumes, of its own will (or so it seems), a formal outline, distinctive and coherent.