Thursday, August 04, 2005


A lively exchange these days between Mark (see these four sequential posts) and one Henry Gould, whose fine, fine blog I now have stashed in my "Bookmarks" folder, on the subject of BBPs (Big Beautiful Poems) in general, and those of Pound, Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, and Crane in particular.

Since I've never actually read all of The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, or "A"--although I do know Paterson and The Bridge reasonably well--I was feeling a bit abashed by the whole discussion. Indeed, I was gearing up to read the Olson this month...but not on vacation, surely, I said to myself, hoisting all 3500 pounds of it out of my suitcase and replacing it with the equally plus-sized, but rather more attractive novels Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber (by Dana Gabaldon) and Red Mars (by Kim Stanley Robinson). Gould's most recent post, however, got me thinking--and feeling a bit less guilty in the bargain.

Crane's The Bridge, says Gould, "succeeds as a sustained reading experience, as a lyrical plot, as a continuous reading pleasure - in ways that the efforts by Pound, WCW, Olson & Zukofsky do not." Now, when you start talking pleasure, you're speaking my language: I read on:
What is the secret of difference here? It may have something to do with Crane's continued use of metrical lines - quadrimeter & pentameter iambics.
Where I come from, we call them "tetrameter," pilgrim. (Ptooi!) Still, I like where this is headed--which is:
The metric offered a bass line, a foundation, for a very crucial extension of the lyric poem into the longer sequence, and the sequence into a sequence-of-sequences, to make up the whole.
This rings true to my own experience of long metrical poems: that is, I can shift my attention somewhat, at any moment, to the simple onward chug of the meter; I can yield to it, give myself over, knowing that at any moment I can turn my attention elsewhere, to plot or character or "word painting" (as Merrill calls it early in the echt metrical Changing Light at Sandover, which I have read through several times). I won't argue the question here whether this rhythmic pleasure is biologically based or culturally programmed; suffice it to say that it's there, and at the very least adds something reliable to enjoy, as one can enjoy...I don't know, eating hot dogs at a baseball game? (My analogy-generator is on the fritz.) I read on:
What Crane's method does is stimulate a sort of "lyric objectivity". In Cantos, Paterson, "A", Maximus - by contrast - the poet is always in the foreground - maddeningly, ironically - despite the poet-histor's best efforts to import tons of supposedly objective, historical, documentary matter. (Zukofsky is probably a special case - ie. he worked his way out of this situation. But what laborious effort shows!)
Could we say, somewhat more simply, then, that in the four long poems Gould mentions here, the poet is the protagonist? That one story of each of these poems--maybe the central one, the one that holds our attention--is the struggle of the poet to write a poem, to grapple with his materials? No news there, except perhaps inasmuch as this explains where the narrative went in these long poems (a displacement, either outward, up a level, or downward, to the little local narratives that flicker in and out of view).

Later in his post, Gould muses on why "Mark & others remain unmoved" by Crane's BBP. "Mark mentions something about the authoritarianism implicit in Crane's mode of Platonic idealism," he writes.
I don't see it. What I see instead is a certain vulnerability in Crane's faith in the capability of poetic vision to offer a finished image of Eden or Paradise. The stock-in-trade of Pound, Olson & WCW is to invite the reader into the poet's unfinished struggle with the unfinished project of world-renewal. (Zukofsky, again, is a different case.) One participates in the poet's heroic though necessarily incomplete agon.

Crane's whole approach is different. He offers the image of the Brooklyn Bridge as a kind of analogical token or icon - the "Ever-Presence", the earthly, human gateway into paradisal reality. The equilibrium of the poem depends from (I should say "suspends" from), & partakes in, this glimpsed sphere of perfection. The bridge was the summa of the whole effort of American 20th-cent. writing, epitomized by Waldo Frank's paeans to Our America, etc.

It may be this Platonic-national idealism - the substance of Crane's argument, which rhymes with his notion of aesthetic beauty - that postmodern readers find hard to accept.
Two thoughts here: first, this post makes me wonder whether considering Crane and Ron Johnson as a couple (O happy thought! Those two "imparadised," or with Whitman, a threesome) might not spark some useful thoughts about the genres and poetics of "Platonic-national idealism" in the '30s and our own time, respectively. (Something for your dissertation, Josh?) Second, shouldn't we really call Crane's "token or icon" Christian, rather than strictly Platonic? It sure reads that way to me: the bridge-as-symbol-as-intersection-of-human-and-eternal comes straight out of Coleridge, if grad-school memory serves: it's a God-man in steel-cable clothing. Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, and WCW, by contrast, aren't writing Christian (or even post-Christian) verse, which is part of what makes them seem odder, more alien, less "readable" and more in need, page by page, of commentary.

(Are they all really Jewish poems, then? Gould's "unfinished project of world-renewal" sounds mighty tikkun olam-ish to me: Yours is not to complete the work; neither are you free to depart from it," etc. Too easy, this--but tempting! Tempting!)

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

- thanks, Eric, for the terminology tweak. I knew there was something wrong with "quadrimeter", but I just kept thumping along.