Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

May 27, 2010

The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.

Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

May 22, 2010

After Frost’s North of Boston, my Mayterm poetry class moved on to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. If the former was a book for which it was easy to identify the underlying structure and its implications (though the significance of those implications are by no means simplistic; one can have organization without giving up nuance), then for the latter it is almost impossible. For a book called Harmonium, there is little in it that appears harmonious, on the general or specific level. The collection is at first glance a cacophonous jumble of metaphysical ramblings and random sensory impressions, but this is primarily because the individual poems are difficult to understand.

Many of the poems, like the first one of the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” provoke interesting imagery and aural sensations, but have no deeper meaning. Some longer ones, like “The Comedian as the Letter C,” elaborate Stevens’ poetics and philosophy, and others, like “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offer sketches of his poetics in action, showing us Harmonium in microcosm. Yet, since Stevens’ poems are not typically long narratives, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is not a good exemplar of his poetry, and since it is an outline of a book of poetry, not the book itself, “Thirteen Ways” is better at showing how to fit his poems together than at being a good example of one of them.

I think “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” a poem of moderate length, comes fairly close to such an exemplar. Like the ephemeral “Earthy Anecdote,” it uses the sound of language and metaphor to convey a simple image, yet here the image fits with Stevens’ metaphysics and poetics and offers a vision of the general, not only the specific. The poem focuses on white as real yet defined by negation. The empty whiteness, akin to the winter of “The Snow Man,” is what man sees when he rationally examines the world and realizes it is unsympathetic to humanity. At the same time as this negative image is built, however, an idea of color is created that takes on a life of its own; the green and purple and yellow and blue merge with the beads and baboons into an idea of something like a rainbow. And “an old sailor,” reminiscent of the comedian Crispin, “Catches tigers / In red weather.” Through the power of the imagination he does not dream of catching them, he does catch them; imagination creates the variegated world anew.

This understanding partially explains the apparently haphazard ordering of Harmonium; it is intentionally disordered (indeed, originally grouped poems were dispersed throughout the book) because Stevens, who as a poet paints with sound, is interested in color/sound for its own sake, and to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea. Instead, he gives them no continuity at all in order to emphasize their uniqueness. Stevens searches for as many ways as he can to emphasize the importance of the imagination’s rainbow, and as no color in rainbow has precedent over any other, he can give no individual approach pride of place.

That’s my understanding of Stevens’ poetic project. And I can respect it, and the fact that he does a good job achieving it. But I still find it difficult to actually like his poetry. It’s not so much that I find his philosophy mildly disturbing (though I do); my reasons are mostly pre-rational. I can only describe them by saying that he writes with a faded pastel palette, full of watermelon green and mango and off-white. I like  some of his darker work, his winter aesthetic, e.g. “The Snow Man” and “Thirteen Ways,” but I find no beauty in his usual tropical aesthetic.

Robert Frost’s North of Boston

May 18, 2010

The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)

Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.

This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).

Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.

Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

Causal Reduction

May 15, 2010

An interesting essay:

But also an eminently frustrating one. Why? Because, while I agree with most of what the author says, I don’t buy most of her arguments. She seems to rely more on rhetoric – and she does write beautifully – than on logic. And she’s more interested in saying that we just can’t know most things than in saying what she thinks we can know.

Her basic point, though, I think is a good one; the mere fact that we can describe the mechanical functionings of our brains perfectly (and we can’t even do that) does not imply that there’s nothing more to them. She doesn’t use this language, but I think it mostly boils down to scientists thinking that because they’ve identified the material and efficient causes of things, they have proven that the formal and final do not exist. Which is kind of absurd.

Semester Wrap-Up

May 12, 2010

I turned in my last paper on Monday, and finished my last final exam today at 1:20 PM; the semester has now come to a close.

Classes begin again for me on Tuesday, however; I’m  taking a Mayterm class called “20th Century Poetry by the Book,” in which we’ll be reading:

  • Robert Frost, North of Boston
  • Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
  • W.B. Yeats, The Tower
  • W.H. Auden, Another Time
  • T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville
  • Robert Lowell, For The Union Dead
  • Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
  • Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things

All that in three weeks. Fun.

Of these poets, I’m well acquainted with Eliot, and moderately with Yeats, but I’ve only read a handful of poems by Frost, Stevens, Auden, Brooks, Bishop, and Heaney, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Lowell. But it should be a good class: I love Eliot; really like Yeats, Stevens, and Auden; and I’m sure will come to appreciate Frost, Brooks, Bishop, Lowell, and Heaney. So, expect a lot (or, at least, a little) here about modernist poetry in the next few weeks.

After that class ends, I’ll be on break for a month and a half – three weeks of which will be spent out of town – during which I’ll be frantically trying to get ready to apply to graduate schools next semester and also reading a bunch of novels to try to get a sense of what I want to do for Senior Novel. My reading list so far is:

  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
  • James Joyce, Ulysses
  • William Faulkner, Light in August
  • William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
  • Jorge Luis Borges, assorted short stories

And will almost certainly grow.

And then after that, I’m taking another summer class – American Literature, whose reading list I have not yet acquired. So, yeah. Busy summer.

I’m also going to be trying to write a 20-page paper about Hopkins and Eliot. And maybe writing a webcomic. Fun.

Homelesness and Uprootedness

May 8, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.


Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.


  • Moby-Dick
  • Pierre
  • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
  • The Confidence-Man
  • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
  • Billy Budd


  • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
  • Absalom, Absalom!
  • As I Lay Dying
  • The Hamlet
  • Go Down, Moses

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