Celebrating the painter Elstir, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time suggests that for the great artist, the work of painting and the act of being alive are indistinguishable. For each of us, says Proust, there may be “certain bodies, certain callings, certain rhythms that are specially privileged, realizing so naturally our ideal that even without genius, merely by copying the movement of a shoulder, the tension of a neck, we can achieve a masterpiece.” The implication here is that art is not the product of the will. More than lack of ambition, it is the inability to surrender to our characteristic callings and rhythms that keeps us from fulfilling our promise.
The word surrender makes this achievement sound easy, as if the victory of each day were to wake up looking exactly like yourself. But even if we all possess certain rhythms, certain callings, not everyone is able to exist in the simple act of recognizing them. The surrender of the will is itself impossible merely to will, and we may struggle with the act of surrender more deeply than we struggle with the act of rebellion. W. B. Yeats called the moment of recognizing oneself a “withering into the truth,” and the word “wither” seems just right, for the discovery does not feel like a blossoming. Nor does it happen only once, like an inoculation. Proust’s Elstir does not inhabit himself truly until he has achieved great age.
Writers have withered into variety, excess, and vulgarity; writers have withered into purity, stillness, and restraint. Why do the latter values so often get bad press, even from artists who embrace those values themselves? In my own experience, stillness can be difficult to separate from dullness, restraint from lack of vision or adequate technique; a young writer may embrace the glamour of risk in order to avoid parsing these discriminations. What’s more, the association of artistic achievement with heroic willfulness is endemic, and it is clung to in the United States with a fierceness that belies its fragility. Lacking a thousand years of artistic craftsmanship to fall back on, the American artist is called great when he is at the frontier, taking the risk, disdaining the status quo, but also landing the movie deal. What happens to the American poet who is destined to wither into stillness and restraint, the poet whose deepest inclination is to associate risk with submission?
In his long poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Ezra Pound offers two artist figures, both of whom were masks for competing aspects of Pound’s artistic identity: the effete Mauberley, who is devoted to aesthetic perfection, and the aggressive E.P., who transgresses the small parameters of perfection. Here, in some of the most rhythmically subtle lines Pound ever wrote, is Mauberley’s fate.
Placid beneath warm suns,
Washed in the cobalt of oblivions;
Or through dawn-mist
The grey and rose
Of the juridical
A consciousness disjunct,
Being but this overblotted
Coracle of Pacific voyages,
The unforecasted beach;
Then on an oar
And I no more exist;
These quatrains are generally rhymed xaxa, but they are metered variously, so that we are sometimes asked to hear more stresses in the lines than are actually there. Listening to the final quatrain, for instance, we crave three firm stresses in the final line so that it matches the second line, with which it rhymes so crisply; as a result, we put an unnaturally heavy stress on the first syllable of the final line (“an”) and feel a gaping caesura between this syllable and the next, which also needs to be stressed. The line floats away, drawn out in a languorous hesitancy much like the sensibility the poem describes.
But while this section of the poem is meant to characterize Mauberley’s failure (he is the shipwrecked aesthete, going nowhere, in contrast to the Odyssean E. P.), the poem also asks us to admire the exquisite restraint of this writing, a restraint of which Pound continued to be capable but in which he indulged with increasing reluctance. The rougher, more worldly sections of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (“usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places”) forecast both the sound and the values of the Cantos, the long poem to which Pound devoted the last fifty years of his life. Ultimately, as much as he valued the stillness he first embodied in his early imagist poems and then associated with his alter ego, Mauberley, Pound wanted to be a legislator, not a craftsman. He turned away from his characteristic callings and rhythms, willing a poetry of immense energy rather than succumbing to the stillness that truly distinguishes him.
“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is probably the best poem ever written about midlife crisis, but Pound was divided against himself from the start. As a young man he told his mother that his ambition was to write the epic of the West, but at the same time he was entranced by the purest diction and syntax that the final decade of the nineteenth century had to offer. Listen to an early poem by W. B. Yeats, originally called “Breasal the Fisherman,” to which the young Pound was devoted.
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
That’s one sentence stretched over eight tetrameter lines: the metrical pattern and rhyme scheme never ruffle the syntax, which remains limpidly clear. At the same time, the metrical pattern is everywhere ruffled: though the overall feeling of the poem is iambic, not one of the lines is perfectly iambic. In the first line, the third foot is anapestic. In the second line, the first and third feet are anapests. In the third line, the second foot is anapestic, and in the fourth line, the fourth foot is anapestic. That second line (“Of the pale tide when the moon has set”) is made even wilder by the lack of an unstressed syllable between “pale” and “tide.”
Those words are very plain, strategically so. One of the great advantages of the English language, as a palate for poetry, is its multiplicity of roots: we are used to hearing our original Anglo-Saxon words nestled against imported French or Latinate words in our poetry (“seas incarnadine”), and if Shakespeare seems like the master of this effect, it is because the power of most English poetry depends on it. If we find the effect in English translations of Baudelaire or Dante, we are hearing something that poems written in French or Italian could never do, since those languages are derived almost exclusively from Latin alone. But while it’s difficult to write English poetry without taking advantage of contrasting roots, this is exactly what Yeats does in “Breasal the Fisherman,” in which there are almost no words that are not derived from the language’s Anglo-Saxon base: ebb, flow, tide, moon, set. This limitation drives the poem’s rhythmic sophistication: without the subtle variation of the metrical pattern through which the syntax moves, the poem’s almost unrelievedly monosyllabic diction would fall flat.
It’s a commonplace to think of Pound’s early imagist poems as standing in opposition to the rhymed and metered poetry that preceded them, but Pound carved his imagist poetry out of little poems like “Breasal the Fisherman.” Listen to Pound’s well-known “In a Station of the Metro,” in which a small army of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables face off against the Latinate “apparition” and “petals.”
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
There is no real syntax here; the poem is all stillness, a high lyric moment. Yet the two lines are marked by the same delicacy of rhythmic movement that distinguishes Yeats’s poem. The second line could be scanned in a number of ways, but what matters is that we hear the initial stress on the first syllable of “Petals,” then three unstressed syllables, then three strongly stressed syllables in a row (“wet, black bough”). The first syllable in this punchy triplet pulls us backward by rhyming with the initial syllable in the line, while the second and third syllables are bound together by heavy alliteration. Together, all three syllables progress in orderly fashion through vowels of increasing duration, moving from a vowel sound made in the back of the mouth (“wet”), to the middle of the mouth (“black”), to the front of the mouth (“bough”). The same thing happens in the first three stressed syllables in the second line of Yeats’s poem (“pale,” “tide,” “moon”), the vowel sounds moving from the back to the middle to the front of the mouth. This physical progression of sound in the mouth is the sensation of great poetry: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” begins Keats’s ode “To Autumn,” the sequence of vowel sounds once again gratifying our mouths with the seduction of orderly movement.
I don’t often hear these sounds in later Pound, but I do hear them in middle-period Yeats.
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
And I hear them in later Yeats as well.
Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven’s face
Then darkening through “dark” Raftery’s “cellar” drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What’s water but the generated soul?
Yeats is notoriously a poet who changed, but from the beginning until the end of his career he delighted in stanzas (or complete poems) comprising one syntactical swoop. While the stanza from “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” is obviously two sentences, the final one-liner alerts us to the length of the sentence preceding it, highlighting its elegant attenuation. And while the stanza is cast in ottava rima, the stanza Byron used for Don Juan, Yeats’s syntax retains the clarity of discursive prose: it travels through the intricate stanza as effortlessly as the underground river it describes.
In the stanza from “The Wild Swans at Coole” Yeats cheats a little, since the punctuation joins what could be independent clauses—clauses in which the syntax is shockingly mundane: the trees are, the paths are, the swans are. This poem is standing still. What’s more, Yeats is working not with a highly literary stanza like ottava rima but with our most predictable stanza: the first four lines are cast in common measure, the stanza we associate with ballads and hymns—iambic tetrameter lines ending in unstressed syllables alternating with iambic trimeter lines ending in stressed syllables. No great poem in the language begins by so dramatically relinquishing the means of verbal power.
The trees are in their autumn beauty;
The woodland paths are dry.
After hearing these lines, you expect something like “This poet will write poetry / Until the day he dies.”
But the third line disrupts our expectations. Yeats flips its initial iamb into a trochee (“under”), then follows this inverted foot with an anapest, giving us three unstressed syllables in a row (“Under the October”). The line’s final foot is also larded with unstressed syllables, making the whole line feel weirdly flat in a different way—not rhythmically predictable but lacking in tension: “Under an October twilight the water.” The next line begins again with a trochee (“Mirrors”), but ends with a spondee (“still sky”). Lacking its share of unstressed syllables while flaunting its stresses, this line feels punchy, especially after the flaccid line preceding it: “Mirrors a still sky.” But then the penultimate line settles into the mostly iambic regularity with which the stanza began, heralding the return of the verb to be in the last: “Are nine-and-fifty swans.” If he’d wanted to, Yeats could have written “Are fifty-nine swans,” making a trimeter line with more rhythmic energy. Why didn’t he? Why did Yeats go to such lengths to keep the language of this poem from taking flight?
This poem’s diction is not as resolutely Anglo-Saxon as that of “Breasal the Fisherman”; but combined with the bland syntax, the bald repetitions, and the lost opportunities for rhythmic variation, its purity sets a stage in which even the most restrained disruption of the poem’s decorum is going to feel like a thunderclap. The storm breaks loose in the second line of the poem’s final stanza.
But now they drift on the still water,
These Latinate words—“Mysterious, beautiful”—are not in themselves terribly unusual or challenging, but the poem makes them feel that way. The sound of these two words, wedged together to make one elegant trimeter line, feels incantatory, revelatory, a release from the poem’s almost relentlessly stolid verbal landscape.
Yeats is by no means the only poet to explore this effect. Andrew Marvell employs it for satirical ends in “Last Instructions to a Painter” when he says that a diplomatic letter “instructs our (verse the name abhors) / Plenipotentiary ambassadors.” The strategically delayed use of Latinate diction often sounds funny, but Yeats manages to keep the effect in service of mystery and incantation. In the third movement of “The Tower,” these lines of predominately monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon diction once again provide a runway for the sonic boom of revelation.
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
When I was a student, I was taught to think of the plain style in English poetry as something epitomized in the Renaissance by Ben Jonson and championed more recently by poets like Yvor Winters and Thom Gunn. I was taught to think of Yeats as a poet of large-scale rhetorical effects, and at times he is. But no matter how arcane his cosmology, no matter how obscure his thought, Yeats’s sentences exhibit a restraint related to but different from the plain style, a restraint we don’t inevitably associate with a poetry of cognitive wildness. So do William Blake’s.
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
So do Andrew Marvell’s.
What wondrous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine, and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
What exactly do these poems have in common?
The poets I’ve examined were influenced by the plain style, but each of them sits uncomfortably to the side of that tradition. Rather than fostering a poetry of direct statement, they employ extremely restrained diction in order to suggest something other, something spooky or mythic, than what the language of the poem also denotes. Reading “The Sick Rose,” we know immediately that this rose is an emblem for certain notions about human sexuality, though we also know it is a rose. Reading “The Wild Swans at Coole,” we feel that the woods, the path, and the swans are luring us into a landscape at once physical and spiritual. The poems don’t require any allegorical machinery to establish this effect: the restraint of the language itself—the immediate sense that we are being told far less than we could be told—establishes a decorum in which the clear sense of what is being said raises the mysterious specter of why it is being said.
Though it is the briefest of the poems I’ve examined, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is the most explicit about this procedure, since it tells us that the petals on the bough are an apparition of something other than themselves. Yeats’s “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” is the most self-conscious about this procedure: the one-line sentence that concludes the opening stanza is almost sly (“What’s water but the generated soul?”), since by the time we’ve reached this line we’ve realized that, however brilliantly the poem is describing the intricate pathway of water, it’s also conjuring a world elsewhere. The rhyme of “hole” with “soul” says it all: the language of the poem rises to heaven because it cleaves to the earth.
Marvell is for me the greatest master of this effect in the English language. The very title of “The Garden,” a poem whose complexities I can only gesture toward, feels at once satisfyingly concrete and at the same time immensely suggestive. In the stanza I’ve quoted from the middle of the poem, we are treated to a cornucopia of sensuous detail—ripe apples, vines, nectarines, the “curious” peach—all of it delivered to us wrapped in lapidary couplets of seemingly effortless simplicity. But while we feel seduced by the sensuous world, just as the speaker of the poem is treated to its solicitude, we feel simultaneously that we are entering translunar paradise—a world in which the physical act of falling on the grass, sinking into its lusciousness, feels inexplicably evocative of a spiritual threshold.
The next stanza confirms this feeling, for it is itself about the mind discovering its separation from the body.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
The syntax of this poem could not be more perspicuous; the diction could not be more precise. But as in the lines by Yeats and Blake, the language feels inexplicably complex by virtue of its restraint, by virtue of implications it raises but does not acknowledge having raised. The poem does not feel like a puzzle to be solved, for its aura of otherworldliness is dispelled neither by multiple readings nor by the armada of literary critics who have attended its language so lovingly. The final four lines of this stanza are paradigmatic: the first and third lines are dominated by complex Latinate words (“transcending,” “annihilating”) while the second and fourth lines are made exclusively of simple Anglo-Saxon words, the most important word in each line used twice (“other,” “green”). The monosyllabic diction of the final line could not be plainer, but its meaning feels at least as complex as the more obviously rich line preceding it. To be asked to consider the relationship of a “green thought” and a “green shade” is to feel the simple word green grow thick with connotation; the meaning of the line feels at once utterly plain and endlessly elusive. Like the soul, to which the poem turns in the next stanza, this line luxuriates in “the various light.”
For years I knew “The Garden” better than I knew myself. For when I happened recently to return to Marvell, I was thrilled to discover that everything I love about poetry is epitomized by this poem. It was as if the poem were a house I’d lived in all my life without knowing it. It was as if the poem (along with the poems I’ve associated with it) so determined the satisfaction I derive from poetry that the deepest act of artistic originality was inevitably an act of recapitulation. If we all possess, as Proust suggests of Elstir, our particular callings, our particular rhythms, they are not original to us. The world makes us, but until we’re able to wither into the limitations of ourselves, we cannot see the world.
Some of the poems that shaped me are metered and rhymed, while others are written in free verse of varying kinds. In each case, what captured me was a quality of diction and syntax, and that quality could be found as much in the free verse of “In a Station of the Metro” as in the quatrains of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” In the wake of the various modernist disruptions of poetic decorum, however, stillness and restraint became associated with the kind of poems we call traditional, while energy and excess were claimed by the poems we call experimental. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” embodied this predicament for us almost a hundred years ago, and it shows few signs of abating. Today, the ambitious young poet writes snap-crackle prose poems, while twenty years ago she wrote mordent quatrains. It’s only a matter of moments before the pendulum swings back.
How crucial, then, the unproscribable exception. How crucial the poems that employ the language of the garden while embracing formal innovation. Poems that serve literature rather than playing to taste. Listen to George Oppen’s “Inlet,” the last poem I will discuss.
Mary in the noisy seascape
Of the whitecaps
Of another people’s summer
Talked of the theologians so brave
In the wilderness she said and off the town pier
Rounding that heavy coast of mountains
The night drifts
Over the rope’s end
Brilliant beneath the boat’s round bilges
In the surface of the water
Shepherds are good people let them sing
the little skirts life’s breasts for what we can have
Is each other
Breath of the barnacles
Oppen’s diction is severely winnowed: only a handful of words derived from French or Greek (“brilliant,” “barnacles,” “theologians”) disrupt this English seascape, which is dominated by nouns that sound like Anglo-Saxon kennings (“whitecap,” “breakwaters,” “hencoops”). The syntax is similarly plain, its difficulties not a matter of subordination but of compression and juxtaposition. Prepositions direct us up or down. Mary is in a boat talking about theologians in the wilderness. Over the boat drifts night. Beneath the boat lies heaven. Over the land floats the breath of barnacles. Over the sea float hencoops—or at least we’re tempted to see them floating there by the accumulation of unpunctuated prepositional phrases. Like “The Seafarer,” the Anglo-Saxon poem that Oppen inevitably invokes, “Inlet” is about finding the earth in the sky, the spiritual in the physical, and the poem’s language embodies the discovery the poem describes. Working in the opposite direction from Yeats, Oppen makes the most ordinary Anglo-Saxon words sound like revelation: “break-waters hencoops.” The poet who rounds the “heavy coast of mountains” to see “heaven / Brilliant beneath the boat’s round bilges” knows that the words heavy and heaven are derived from the same word, that heaven is an archaic past participle of heave. With its multiplicity of roots, English is one of the few Indo-European languages with different words for heaven and sky: in English, whatever is in heaven has been heaved there from the world below.
Each poem I’ve discussed has enacted this heavy lifting. Precision, they suggest, is not opposed to mystery. In fact, mystery depends on our attention to the particular nature of particular English words—on the way in which our language permits us to hear one kind of word (big, small) as strategically plainer and possibly even less interesting than another kind of word that means about the same thing (immense, minute). These kinds of choices are made in all English poems, not to mention everyday speech; but not all poems take strategic advantage of those choices, making what might otherwise seem like a retreat to purity, restraint, and stillness feel laden with connotation. “Shepherds are honest people; let them sing,” said the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert, Marvell’s contemporary. Slightly misquoting this line in “Inlet,” Oppen knew as well as Herbert did that rustic shepherds are notorious for saying elaborate things whenever they show up in poems. Plainness, these poets suggest, is never simple.
Neither is the road on which a poet travels to this realization, obvious as it might seem. Although he ended his life with the dignity of Proust’s Elstir, Oppen waited half a lifetime to wither into the truth of himself. As a young man, he published the preternaturally sophisticated Discrete Series in 1934. Then commenced a silence that didn’t end until almost three decades later with the appearance of Oppen’s second book, The Materials, in 1962. Exactly what made poems return to him seems obscure; even the explanations Oppen himself provided strike me as insufficient, and I suspect that his late withering seemed as mysterious to him as it does to anyone else. Less obscure to me is the sense that Oppen’s career magnifies what is at stake when any writer faces the empty page, then finds it full. More threatening is my suspicion that Oppen’s complete surrender of the will to write was itself the fuel for his astonishing achievement.
Not everyone is by nature so stoic, nor does anyone need to be—unless such stoicism distinguishes him truly. My point today is not that anyone ought necessarily to strive to write like Oppen or Marvell or any other writer. Nor is it my intention to hold up the values of purity, restraint, and stillness as inevitably superior to any other values—except inasmuch as these values seem more compatible with the acts of submission on which great art depends. “Idolatry of the forms which had inspired it,” says Proust, “a tendency to take the line of least resistance, must gradually undermine an Elstir’s progress.” Stillness and restraint will move you if such values distinguish the poems you must write—against your own will. Oppen or Marvell will matter if you learn to hear yourself by listening to them. The greatest poems we will write already exist, and the work of a lifetime is to become meek enough to recognize them as our own.
Published with the support of Ohio Wesleyan University.