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Cultural cohesion, p.17
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.17

           Clive James
 

  “Not waving but drowning” was, and remains, her most famous line. No doubt the Queen asked her about it while pouring the tea. After a long time in critical oblivion, Stevie returned to ex cathedra applause in the 1960s, both as a poet and as a performer. But the pundits were outshouted by the public. Her little-girl act was a big hit on the stage, where, once again, she knew precisely what she was up to. At any poetry reading in which she participated, she was the undisputed star turn. Not drowning but waving, she took her curtain calls like Joan Sutherland. Yet there is no reason to doubt that her life was desperate to the end.

  Why do I think of Death as a friend?

  It is because he is a scatterer

  He scatters the human frame

  The nerviness and the great pain

  Throws it on the fresh fresh air

  And now it is nowhere

  Only sweet Death does this . . .

  Her poems, if they were pills to purge melancholy, did not work for her. The best of them, however, work like charms for everyone else. Barbera and McBrien were right to go in search of her. It was worth the legwork and the long stake-out. Stevie Smith is a rare bird, a Maltese falcon. English literature in the modern age, crushed by the amount of official attention paid to it, needs her strangeness, the throwaway artistry that takes every trick, the technique there is no point in analysing because you would have to go on analysing it for ever. In life, she could be a pain in the neck even to those who loved her. Her selfishness was a trial. She would heist the salmon out of the sandwiches and leave the bread to be eaten by others. Even in her work, she can be so fey that the skin crawls. But when she is in form she can deconstruct literature in the only way that counts—by constructing something that feels as if it had just flown together, except you can’t take it apart.

  The New Yorker, September 28, 1987 ;

  later included in The Dreaming Swimmer, 1992

  POSTSCRIPT

  If I had called Barbera and McBrien’s book a portent, I would have been mistaken, because it was merely a reminder. In-depth, archive-plumbing research on British literary matters has always been a field in which Americans have figured prominently. The American universities have the money to pay for the foraging expedition, and the American publishers have the patience to wait for the fat manuscript. Readers of Louis Menand’s excellent group portrait of the American nineteenth-century pragmatists The Metaphysical Club will find that all the prominent thinkers and academics spent time in Europe as if air travel had already been invented. To American scholars, the Atlantic has never been much more than a ditch: a narrower one, indeed, than the Rio Grande. But the privilege of local critics is to be stained by local colour. Visiting scholars tread a gangway above the mud. Taking a royal road into the learned circle, they meet too few philistines, and the cave doors of Grub Street are closed. On a rich diet of art and knowledge, they tend to miss the common food of custom and instinct. When I was an undergraduate in Cambridge I heard a visiting American professor deliver an address on the forms of ridicule in Swift. Judging by his ponderous delivery, he had somehow missed the point that the ridicule depended for its force on conversational ease, and one suspected that it was because he had never seen a roomful of London literati when they were hitting the sauce. It is not the same as a pack of dons passing the decanter around High Table.

  2003

  10

  GALWAY KINNELL’S GREAT POEM

  The best Hitchcock film was directed by someone else. Charade would not be as good as it is if Hitchcock had not developed the genre it epitomizes, but Hitchcock could never have created a film so meticulous, plausible, sensitive, light-footed and funny. It took Stanley Donen to do that: temporarily Hitchcock’s student, he emerged as his master. Similarly Galway Kinnell’s great poem The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is the long Ezra Pound poem that Pound himself could never have written. It could not have been written without Pound’s Cantos as a point of departure, but it is so much more human, humane and sheerly poetic that you realize why Pound’s emphasis on technique and language, fruitful to others, was barren for himself. A poetic gift will include those things—or anyway the capacity for them—but finally there is an element of personality which brings them to their full potential, and only as a means to an end. With more on his mind than Pound and fewer bees in his bonnet, Kinnell could actually do what Pound spent too much of his time teaching. Pound went on and on about making you see, but the cold truth is that in the Cantos there are not many moments that light up. Kinnell’s poem has got them like stars in heaven. It is almost unfair.

  Banking the same corner

  A pigeon coasts 5th Street in shadows,

  Looks for altitude, surmounts the rims of buildings,

  And turns white.

  Pound wanted to sound like that, but found it hard. He made it hard for himself. He was always looking for his vision of history in the way he said things. Kinnell, for the stretch of his own much shorter very long poem, has a vision of history that comes from history. The Cantos, the twentieth-century version of Casaubon’s “Key to All the Mythologies” from Middlemarch, ranges through all time and all space looking for a pattern, tracing specious lines of connection in which Pound progressively entangles himself, until finally he hangs mummified with only his mouth moving, unable to explain even his own era, a nut for politics whose political role was to be the kind of Fascist that real Fascists found naive. Kinnell’s poem, moving only in the region of New York’s Avenue C at the end of World War II, is sustained throughout by historical resonance—the very quality which Pound, yearning to achieve it, always dissipated in advance with his demented certainties.

  Along and around Avenue C, in the Lower East Side, flows the whole rich experience of immigrant America and its relationship to the terrible fate of modern Europe. Blacks and Puerto Ricans and Jews and Ukrainians toil in uneasy proximity but at least they are alive and there is a law. Only the animals and the fish are massacred. An official, empty letter of condolence from a concentration camp front office to a victim’s family is quoted while a Jewish fishmonger guts the catch. It is the sort of effect which Pound, exalting it with the name of juxtaposition, practised like a bad journalist. In Kinnell’s poem it attains true complexity, principally because he has the negative capability—the sanity—to let his audience do the interpreting, from their common knowledge.

  Pound had a theory about the Jews. Kinnell knew what theories like that led to and presumed that his readers knew too. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World was one of the first, and remains one of the few, adequate works of art devoted to the Holocaust. The Hassidim walk Avenue C bent over with the weight of their orthodoxy, unassimilable as spacemen. Faced with their intransigence, Kinnell has no easy democratic message. He has the difficult one—the message that America, or at any rate the tip of Manhattan, has something to offer more interesting, and perhaps less threatening, than the prospect of homogeneity. An anti–Waste Land that sees the potential creativity in apparent chaos, his poem celebrates diversity, out of which unpredictability comes, a cultural complexity which the artist can only describe.

  Helping him to describe it is a gift for evocation which makes it advisable to leave Ezra Pound out of account altogether, since he spent, presumably from preference, little time saying that one thing was like another. The apparition of these faces in the crowd/leaves on a wet, black bough. Pound manufactured a few examples like that and then talked about them. Kinnell’s less effortful knack for the arc-light metaphor should serve to remind us that the Martian movement must have been landing its flying saucers long before they were first detected.

  We found a cowskull once; we thought it was

  From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun

  Shone into the holes through which it had seen

  Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel . . .

  All the more striking for steering clear of extravagance, that particular coup is from a po
em called “Freedom, New Hampshire.” Nowadays Les Murray studs his poems about country Australia with similar effects, but gets them closer together. Kinnell, in his shorter poems, spaced them out. There was too much else going on. He overstrained his verbs like Lowell, substituted the next-less-intelligible noun throughout the stanza like Wallace Stevens, piled on the archaic diction in a belated tribute to John Crowe Ransom, and above all indulged in rhapsodic apostrophes to the City which recalled Hart Crane the way that Crane had once recalled Walt Whitman.

  And thou, River of Tomorrow, flowing . . .

  Like so many poets, especially American poets, who consciously attempt to forge an idiom, Kinnell synthesized the idioms of other poets, many of whom had themselves been up to the same doomed trick. Forging an idiom is forgery, even when dressed up as subservience. Almost everything Kinnell wrote was in agitated, self-conscious homage to someone—William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost loomed like faces on Mount Rushmore—and too often the homage was technical. But Kinnell’s proper rhythm and true clarity were there waiting to be brought out at the moment when a strong enough subject turned him away from ambition and towards achievement. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is one coup after another, a succession of illuminations like his stunning image of the Avenue’s traffic lights going green into the far dusk. Here are the vegetable stalls:

  In the pushcart market on Sunday,

  A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.

  Icicle-shaped carrots that through black soil

  Wove away like flames in the sun.

  Onions with their shirts ripped seek sunlight

  On green skins. The sun beats

  On beets dirty as boulders in cowfields,

  On turnips pinched and gibbous

  From budging rocks, on embery sweets,

  Peanut-shaped Idahos, shore-pebble Long Islands and Maines,

  On horseradishes still growing weeds on the flat ends,

  Cabbages lying around like sea-green brains

  The skulls have been shucked from . . .

  The fish market goes on for several stanzas, at the thematic centre of the poem because the deaths of millions of humans are being called up by the deaths of millions of creatures similarly dumped from one element into another. Admirers of Elizabeth Bishop’s precisely observed poems about fish might find it daunting to note how Kinnell sees just as much detail before soaring up and out into extra relevance like Marianne Moore taking off on a broom.

  . . . two-tone flounders

  After the long contortion of pushing both eyes

  To the brown side that they might look up,

  Lying brown side down, like a mass laying-on of hands,

  Or the oath-taking of an army.

  This is magic poetry in the sense that you can’t tell how he does it and can be dissuaded from the idea that he might be a sorcerer only by the consideration that other people are billed as magicians too. What finally establishes Kinnell’s magnum opus as a successful poem, however, is its ordinary poetry—ordinary in the sense that it does not astonish, but does persuade, and even, in the bitter end, console.

  Fishes do not die exactly, it is more

  That they go out of themselves, the visible part

  Remains the same, there is little pallor,

  Only the cataracted eyes which have not shut ever

  Must look through the mist which crazed Homer.

  Compare this with Hart Crane’s famous, wilfully beautiful line about the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards Paradise and you can see what Kinnell had that Crane hadn’t. With no ordinary language interesting enough to fall back on, Crane was trying to sound as if he had a lot to say. Kinnell had a lot to say. All he needed was a theme to contain it. But for an intelligence whose attention is everywhere, sharp in all directions, a still point of focus is not easily found. On Avenue C he found it.

  Galway Kinnell wrote his one great tragic, celebratory poem and never anything quite like it again, possibly because it is as long as a modern epic can well be even though everything that matters is included. I think that an event drove him to begin it, and a particular historic conjunction allowed him to complete it. In Europe humanity had been brought to the point where it might have lost faith in its own right to exist; and then America had saved the world. Later on things were less simple. It was the right moment; Kinnell was the right man; and a poem was written which was wonderful against all the odds—even those formidable odds posed by the very business of being a poet at all, in an age when art has become so self-aware that innocence can be found only at the end of a long search.

  The Dreaming Swimmer, 1992

  POSTSCRIPT

  If you read Ezra Pound early on—and when I was coming of age in Australia in the late 1950s we all did—you can spend a lifetime wondering how he ever got under your skin. He was still alive when my bunch were getting started, and one of us, Richard Appleton, the black-clad glamour boy of Sydney’s Downtown Push, was in regular correspondence with him. (Though the Downtown Push was more concerned with gambling than with the arts, the occasioned poet was allowed in as long as he showed clear signs of dissipation.) A correspondence with Pound was not difficult to initiate—an indication of abject worship usually worked the trick—but it was difficult to break off, because Pound had a warehouse full of Social Credit pamphlets that he was keen to send out to the qualified reader, definable as anybody who would not throw them on the fire. Along with the pamphlets, alas, came material even more corrosive: advice on poetic technique. Appleton, who was born with a formal sense that made his meticulous carpentry poetic in itself, was among the most gifted young Australian poets of his time. But his obsession with Pound was as fatal to his mind as his impression that Benzedrine was a form of food was fatal to his body. Appleton suppressed the natural coherence of his gift in order to sound like the Cantos, an aim in which he succeeded all too well. By the time of his premature death, his poems were not only in fragments, he was calling them fragments—always a bad sign. His self-induced disintegration as an artist was a memento mori that I never forgot, and ever since, although I have never written an article devoted solely to Pound, I have made a habit of referring to him in articles written about other poets, with the hope that the references will make some other young potential epigone think twice about worshipping at the old lunatic’s altar. As time goes by, the chances diminish that anyone will think of doing so even once, which I suppose is another kind of loss. Simplified by the pitiless machinery of success, the shape of the past changes, and the disturbing aberrations pass out of history, having failed to do their work. Pound’s version of the Fascist era never arrived, and indeed it was never there, even under Fascism, although Pound managed to convince himself that Mussolini had actually read his presentation volume of the Cantos. (Admittedly, Mussolini told him so, but Mussolini also told the Italian people that they were going to win the war.) In the long run, a poet like Galway Kinnell could do what Pound vaunted himself as doing but never could: make poetry from history. Pound staked everything on that, and was bound to fail; not because he couldn’t write poetry, but because he was debarred by nature from understanding history; he thought his gift for the dogmatic epigram was a guarantee of universal scope. Having failed, he faded; gradually but beyond recovery. Even in the academy, where developmental theories of poetry are automatically favoured, his early reputation as an innovator has been swallowed up by his later reputation as a snake-oil salesman, a process aided by the sad fact that it was his second phase that he himself valued the more highly. By now the victory for forgetfulness is almost complete, and the well-funded tumulus of Poundian scholarship is eroding in the wind. But it is hard, though necessary, not to be sad, if only for all that wasted excitement, not all of which was his. Some of it was ours. There was a time when I would spread open a slim volume of the Cantos on a table of the Women’s Union cafeteria at Sydney University and sit there reading as excited as I could be. But I was excit
ed by a possibility. Read many years later, Kinnell’s poem was the actuality, and poetry, despite appearances, is all actuality: it can depart from the real, but only in order to intensify it.

  2003

  11

  LES MURRAY AND

  HIS MASTER SPIRITS

  Over the hundreds of years it has taken for the colonies of the old European empires to become nations, there have been cases—most notably, of course, the United States—where a creole literature has made an important addition to the literature of the homeland, but there has been no case quite comparable to that of Australian poetry in this century. The Spanish poetry of the Americas comes close—a history of poetry in the Spanish language that did not give Rubén Darío a crucial place would be no history at all—but even that has little to compare with the burgeoning of Australian poetry in the last hundred years. Trainee midwives on tenterhooks, Australian nationalists eager for every sign of a successful parturition from the homeland have a lot to go on. Though it remains necessary to call them unwise, it would be unwise to call them fools. What they really want is for Australia to become the new U.S.A.: the ex-colony that made it all the way to the status of world power. The more likely realization of so gullible a wish would be Australia as an extra American state—a new Alaska with a better climate, or at most a new California with a better social security system. But since it undoubtedly would also have a better literature, there is something to be said, from the cultural viewpoint, for these dreams of autarky. Barry Humphries’s yodelling alter ego, Sir Les Patterson, minister for the Yartz, has never been entirely wrong on that point: it is only by missing the larger point that his view becomes ridiculous. A culture can never flourish as a hedge against the world. It isn’t a bastion for nationalism, it is an international passport.

 
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