in verse # 79 : Swift and Pound

In 1732 Jonathan Swift published “The Lady’s Dressing Room,[i]” a poem commenting on contemporary vanity.  At 144 lines, it might not seem too long to enter into this post, and I might be willing to enter it in its entirety, but Swift, as anyone who has read Travels into several remote nations of the world, in four parts / by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships, will know, Swift was, not to put too fine a point on the matter, a satirist.  That work was first issued in a bowdlerized edition in 1726, and then in an amended edition in 1735[ii], after “The Lady’s Dressing Room” was published.

But Swift was a satirist, not a satyrist, although a lady named Satira appears in the poem.  It has been controversial from the first, being considered sexist.  But at least one of the problems with that view is that the satire is more anti-humanist, which allows Swift to vent in 144 lines on every human vice, folly and defect.  He was, after all, a clergyman, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  But before that, he was born, in Dublin, to Anglo-Irish parents who had come to Dublin to seek their fortune.  His father died seven months before he was born,[iii] and his mother left him in Dublin and returned to England.  I’m sure that had nothing to do with “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which a swain, one Strephon, steals into his lady Celia’s dressing room and finds all in disarray and gross display.  After 114 highly descriptive lines laying all that out, Strephon finds himself in a bind.  As Swift has it:

Thus finishing his grand Survey, [115]
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia  Continue Reading →

in verse #78 : Pound, and Moore

I was reading The Alfred Smurthwaite family, a family history self-written and self-published, and came across this gem of youthful enthusiasm:

Rooty toot toot, Rooty toot toot
We are the boys from the Institute!
We don’t smoke and we don’t chew
And we don’t go with the girls that do
(Whispered in a quasi-pious voice)[i]

That last line appears to be a characterization of the style of the singer, rather than a fifth line of the song.  I’m not sure what a “quasi-pious voice” is, whether it means a jocular self-mocking voice, or a voice halfway between the pious and the profane.  But my interest in this song is the rhythm of the first line, and its contrast with another poem.  The rhythm is militant, not suppliant (and there was no indication of what kind of institute was meant, whether military or religious).  It matches the rhythm of the third and fourth lines of the following ditty:

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.
*****—  Snare Drum on Mars[ii]

The attribution is part of the savage jocularity of the source, Continue Reading →

in verse #76 : Why I did not post in April

I did not contribute a post from “in verse” to Dawning of a Brighter Day for two simple reasons, and one complex one.  The first simple reason is that I had spinal fusion surgery on the 29th of March to correct pinched nerves.  I was therefore in the hospital, cut off from my usual sources of information, when Jonathan Langford died on the 31st of March.  I had posted late in March, on Monday the 26th (although the entry is date-stamped Tuesday the 27th at 01:37) because that entry was a hard one for me to finish.

I was not released from the hospital until April 6th, due to complications.  And I couldn’t really sit at the computer for a week or so after, and then only in short spurts.  So I didn’t know that Jonathan Langford had died until I noticed that I had received no reminder from him in April to post punctually on the 27th.  I liked receiving his kind reminders and composing clever replies, such as “I’m on it like white on snow,” to which his replies, when he made them, were never less than pleasant, no matter how much scorn I deserved.

Continue Reading →

in verse #75 : free verse, dear love

Turns out Walt Whitman had a greater influence on fin de siècle American poetics than I had supposed.  It was his plain diction that led Pound to largely forgo archaicisms,[i] and led to the plainspeak of the Cantos, insofar as that exists.  Before going into that, however, let me allow John Tytell to place Pound in the context of this time:

As a young man Pound frequently referred to himself as a genius and at this time saw himself as connected to a great chain of poets whose lessons he could master and who could speak through him in his poems.  Much of Pound’s most successful early work was imitative — he had the best ear among poets of his generation and could mimic to perfection.  Of course he had his own taste and his struggle during the early years of his apprenticeship, from 1908 through 1912, was to forge his own voice.[ii]

This period of apprenticeship, as Tytell dates it, stretches from Pound’s publication of A Lume Spento and A Quinzaine for this Yule in 1908 through The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti and Ripostes in 1912, or about 245 pages of verse.[iii]    We saw the young Pound expressing the feelings Tytell reports in the poem “Histrion” in my December post.  I bring it back here for its value in illustrating Pound’s self-absorption:

No man hath dared to write this thing as yet, Continue Reading →

in verse #74 : verse wants to be free?

Consider this quotation from Amy Lowell:

The definition of Vers libre is: a verse-formal based upon cadence. To understand vers libre, one must abandon all desire to find in it the even rhythm of metrical feet. One must allow the lines to flow as they will when read aloud by an intelligent reader. Or, to put it another way, unrhymed cadence is “built upon ‘organic rhythm,’ or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system. Free verse within its own law of cadence has no absolute rules; it would not be ‘free’ if it had.”[i]

Photograph of Amy Lowell at Sevenels, by Bachrach, ca. 1916.

The academic tone of this definition matches her tone in the quote from last month’s post on “The Poet’s Trade”.  Lowell “never attended college because her family did not consider it proper for a woman to do so,”[ii] and this definition speaks in the tone of the auto-didact in its statement that “One must allow the lines to flow as they will when read aloud by an intelligent reader.”  As long-time readers of these posts will know, I don’t disagree with the primacy that statement gives to reading verse aloud.  It’s the overall tone, the insistence on an “intelligent reader,” that betrays a certain in-group knowingness I associate with auto-didactism.

I would argue that the better part of that definition is what is quoted in the end, and I haven’t been able to find who is being quoted there, or whether Lowell is quoting herself; but the reliance on “the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing” fits better my understanding of English meter, with its Anglo-Saxon heritage of stress harnessed with its French insistence on a metrical foot, than the first part of the definition.  And the statement “Free verse within its own law of cadence has no absolute rules” is perfectly descriptive of most of the verse of my contemporaries that Continue Reading →

in verse #73 : New poets for a new year

Nothing new about this year, really — nothing new about the poets under consideration, unless you don’t know them.  What’s new in Orem, on the other hand, is also old:  car washes.  It used to be there was only one car wash with a pull-you-thru tunnel:  SuperSonic Car Wash.  Last spring, construction started up in an empty lot in front of Costco on 800 South; Valerie and I speculated on what it could possibly be — a bank branch, a McDonalds, a drug store.  So we were suitably surprised when the sign went up:  Quick Quack Car Wash.  Just about the same time, construction began on the empty lot on Center Street opposite the post office.  It was, proudly announced some big signs, a Wiggy Wash, “North America’s Largest Car Wash,” come to rescue Oremites from sedate, nay stolid, car washes.

SuperSonic.  Quick Quack.  Wiggy Wash.  No, alliteration is not making a comeback— it never left.  But it’s been cheapened by this kind of usage.  And yet, people respond, as they always do, to beauty, to poetry — with hunger.  We recognize this response, but often make the mistake of considering it the poet’s intent.  Amy Lowell had something to say about that, and it is good to be reminded, occasionally, of what she said:

debutante

Amy Lowell as a debutante, age 16.

No one expects a man to make a chair without first learning how, but there is a popular impression that the poet is born, not made, and that his verses burst from his overflowing heart of themselves. As a matter of fact, the poet must learn his trade in the same manner, and with the same painstaking care, as the cabinet-maker.
His heart may overflow with high thoughts and sparkling fancies, but if he cannot convey them to his reader by means of written word he has no claim to be considered a poet. A workman may be pardoned, therefore, for spending a few moments to explain and describe the technique of his trade. A work of beauty which cannot stand an intimate examination is a poor and jerry-built thing. Continue Reading →

in verse #72 : Christmas poems

None of the modernist poets I am discussing at present produced what might be called traditional Christmas poems.  My attention is drawn to them by the advent of Christmas on this, the longest night of the year.[i]  So once again I interrupt myself in the stately progress of this blog to be diverted by gems glittering in the garden.  But, as I said, these select modernists did not produce traditional Christmas poems.[ii]

Robert Frost came closest, in writing a poem a year to send out for Christmas.  But even that idea was imposed on him Continue Reading →

in verse #71: Giving Thanks for a trans-American Poet

In my last post I focused on three emblematic moderns:  Frost, Pound and Eliot.  In a prior post I mentioned that Whitman and Dickinson would not begin to influence poets until a generation further on.  I was wrong.  Whitman appears to have found an exponent of his long line in a contrary American poet, one who, though born in the east, unlike Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle and Sara Teasdale did not stay there, and unlike Frost, Pound and, Eliot, moved from east to west:  I refer, of course, to Continue Reading →

in verse #70 : image, rhythm, voice

I will now take up the question of how three Western American writers — Pound, Eliot and Frost — brought in a new poetry for the new century.  I will examine the oddities and contradictions in their lives and in their poetry.  So when I make broad, sweeping generalizations like that in the first sentence, or in the next, I beg you to hear me out.  I will examine with each poet that quality most renewed in their verse:  with Robert Frost, the matter of voice in poetry; with T. S. Eliot, the matter of rhythm; with Ezra Pound, the matter of the image with which he is irrevocably associated.  This should take a couple of years.

Of the three, Pound, the most radical, spent the least time in the west.[i]  He was born in Hailey, Idaho, on 30 October 1885, where his father worked in the land office, and taken away on a train in a blizzard by a mother with pretensions of gentility 18 months later, to New York.  The family eventually settled in Philadelphia, where Homer, the father, worked in the U.S. Mint, having learned assaying in Hailey.  All of Pound’s formal education occurred in the East.  Eventually he moved abroad, first to Venice and then to London.

Frost was born in Continue Reading →

in verse #69 : Recapitulation, 19th Century

I ended my last post with this sentence:  “I will next take up the question of how three Western writers — Pound, Eliot and Frost — brought in a new poetry for the new century.”  I’m not quite ready to do that.  Those who have read this blog patiently, hoping for new insights every time, may be disappointed — or may be elated.  You may view this post, not as a recapitulation, but as a capitulation to the necessity of cleaning up a house where contractors have been reconstructing our kitchen whilst we traipsed out-of-reach through British Columbia (because our phones don’t work in Canada), and lolled in a small cabin on Gabriola Island in the Salish Sea, me reading Leonard Arrington and the writing of Mormon History[i], followed by Malcolm Lowry’s last novel, October ferry to Gabriola[ii], which I had brought along knowing we would be staying on Gabriola, and which provides a remarkable portrait of his home in Dollarton, north of Vancouver, in chapter 11, “Eridanus” — and Valerie desperate for new reading matter because none of my books interested her, until she started reading Leonard Arrington, etc.

But I wanted to note something some of you may have not noted: Continue Reading →

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