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A Place for People in Lyric Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

You may remember from some twenty years ago the PBS series titled Voices and Visions, which set about presenting documentaries of thirteen classic American poets—from Walt Whitman to Sylvia Plath. Not all the presentations are of equal value, though the one on Wallace Stevens is, I think, especially good. And its beginning, its opening interview, is especially revealing. The first interviewee is a salty old New Englander who worked with Stevens for many years at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. You will recall that Stevens was an executive in and a lawyer for the company, his legal opinions themselves achieving a kind of rationalist poetry, and ranking as models of judgments. (And there is a picture, by the way, taken in 1938, of all the officers of the company posing as if graduating. In the picture, it is clear that Stevens’s reputation for intimidation of his colleagues is not based simply on an intellectual superiority; he literally towers, in height, over his fellows.) Anyway, the retired old fellow being interviewed starts off, in answer to the question, “What do you remember most about Wallace Stevens?” by saying, in one of those inimitable Connecticut Yankee accents: “Well, if you don’t count his personal life, I guess you could say Stevens was a happy man.”

The term personal comes, of course, from the same root as person, persona, and personality, all of which, at their base, hearken to the common sense of saving face, putting a face on, wearing a mask, and so forth. Yeats speaks of the poet—the first person of the poet—as revealing him- or herself only through the manifestation of the mask—perhaps, even, the manipulation of the mask: the way he, W. B. Yeats, personally, writes acutely from intense auto-biographic, ennobling experience, yet writes theatrically, too, as if he and Maud Gonne and Robert Gregory and whoever were dramatic personae or characters on the stage of the event we call a poem.

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

What does it matter that the two women in this poem, “Adam’s Curse,” are real people—Maud Gonne and her, in fact, sister, Kathleen Pilcher? In the poem itself they are figures, masks of their real-life selves, so to speak. What does it matter that they are not named as such—though the naming of literal figures in our poems would become an American habit with William Carlos Williams—that they have only an implicit identity? What does matter, I think, is that these two women are not inventions, are not expressly anonymous (“That beautiful mild woman”), are not made up for some imagined convenience for the author, who himself is the speaker-actor in the “drama,” and who is musing over what, at this moment, he is doing, which is the writing of and perfection of a poem—employing, I might add, an analogy of perceived women’s domesticity: their happy art of stitching and unstitching, like the work of the real teaching nuns in “Among School Children,” teachers Yeats observed when he was an Irish senator checking out the quality of Irish education.

What does matter is that, like language itself, the people, the human figures in and of our poems, testify by their authenticating presences to a real etymology, a true history, an actual source in our experience, whatever necessary transformative powers intervene. The distortion, refraction, mask, or protective-coloring of our sources should not lead us away from the truth of the face under the face, the fact of what is behind the mask. How much difference does it make that Maud Gonne’s “friend,” in the example above, is in real life her sister? The truth of the poem is that Kathleen Pilcher is also Maud’s “close friend” and that “friend” rhymes with the monosyllable “end.”

Our concern here is what to do with how the people in our lives live in our poems. Stevens lamented once—and I paraphrase—that life is a problem of people and that that was missing in his poems: this problem, those people. Warm bodies. I happen to think that there are lots of warm bodies in Stevens; even the snow man, it seems to me, is a warm body. What Stevens may be, indirectly, lamenting is his “personal” life, the other person in it, and who knows how many missing persons. As a young man, Stevens fell in love with a face, the mask of a face on the Liberty dime: Elsie Moll was her name, and she became, for this poet, his chief antagonist, a living manifestation of the illusion of beauty, even the necessary angel of the imagination. They were, apparently, completely incompatible. Yet she serves Stevens’s poetry as a kind of inspiriter, a conspirator, if you will, an antithetical muse, who underwrites what I find to be Stevens’s deep emotional stoicism. “It is an illusion that we were ever alive,” he writes in one of his last poems. “Regard the freedom of seventy years ago. / It is no longer air. The houses still stand, / Though they are rigid in rigid emptiness.” These poignant lines are from “The Rock,” the poem that immediately follows, in the Collected Poetry and Prose, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Stevens’s most beautiful lyric of self-reference and isolation, and his singular embrace of the reader who is or is not there.

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one . . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

When Keats, in the nightingale ode, makes reference to the world “Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow”—when Keats sets the stage this way, we know he is alluding to his brother Tom, dead just months before of the “wasting disease”; and we know that he knows that he is becoming ill himself of likely the same symptoms, symptoms that have had and will have consequences within his family; and we know how much of his medical training is backed up behind the image of the sad, last gray hairs of the old and dying, an age he will never be. I believe it is not so much the degree to which the people in our lives show up in our poems but the degree to which they stand behind them. The degree to which those who inspire us or conspire with us can become powerful and useful archetypes—not with a capital A but a quieter, intimate lowercase tension, antagonism, or presence, someone wholly other.

Robert Lowell asks: “Yet why not say what happened?” Which, I think, is different from asking to whom did it happen. Lowell’s good and great poems, for me, become less good the more they literalize, or claim to, the people breaking his heart or whose hearts he is breaking. And it may sound absurd that John Berryman should disavow any autobiographic connection to his Henry figure in the Dream Songs. But he does, and I see his point: of course the poems are about Berryman, but Berryman as Henry, no less than Berryman as Mistress Bradstreet. The actual people, places, and things name-dropped in Dream Songs are coincidental to the double identity of poet and persona. Just as there is no such point of view as omniscience in poetry, there is only the limited knowledge of the first-person pronoun, however that pronoun is manifested through its various masks: I, you, he, she, Henry, et al. And that knowledge is limited by and to those people in those landscapes, in those houses, in those rooms we share and in which we suffer. The protagonist-antagonist relationship is the fundamental meaningful tension in a poem, whether the human arrangement is between us and other people directly or us and other people indirectly, with a bird or an urn or a god intervening. “I cannot live with You— / It would be Life,” writes Dickinson, but the poem (640) cannot live without the “You.” I know lots of things, says Stevens, including “noble accents” and “lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know”; and what I know is that “A man and a woman / Are one,” even if you add a blackbird.

When Stevens asks us to take off our square hats and put on our sombreros, he is asking us to forgo our four-cornered superior rationalism in favor of the roundness, the connectiveness, the familiars of the imagination. For the literalists who see Sylvia Plath as a confessional poet and her poems as therapy for a lost father, an obsessive mother, or an unfaithful husband—they should look again at the brilliant art of the brilliant poems. Should look again at the living hand of the poet at work, shaping her material out of the clay that represents the flesh and blood of her life. Should look again at the conversion of the material into the archetypal—the father, for instance, into figure. The imagination makes from its sources, not the other way around. No poet, however manifest, is ever alone in his or her poem. Sonnets, elegies, odes, the textual landscapes of the love, grief, and thought as feeling: none of these forms is possible without other people, whether announced, alluded to, or acknowledged by their absence. People are where the narrative comes from, even when language apparently supersedes every motive behind the poem’s making: narrative is the movement of and between sentences, fragments, the words themselves.

Stevens, of all poets, asks: “What is [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their leaders to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.” And how does the poet reconcile this apparent high-minded intention with the high calling of art? Well, one way is by making sure that the people in and of our poems are worthy of the attention of the people reading them. But not because, as subjects, they are virtuous, but because they are vital: because our imaginations have made them—and ourselves—worth the bother of our art.

And worthy in the way that “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw its patches down upon me also,” as Whitman puts it. And worthy in the way that you broke your appointment and “did not come. . . . as the hope-hour stroked its sum, / You did not come,” as Hardy says. And worthy in the way that “For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time, / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, / The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning / Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply . . . / While the music lasts,” as Eliot writes in the third of the great Four Quartets.


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