Posts Tagged ‘e.e. cummings’

Stanzas in My Head: Hayden, Raleigh, and Browning

August 18, 2013
Robert Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
   Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten–
   In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

(In other words, “I’ll choose my own life, Mister.” Marlowe’s shepherd painted a lovely portrait of a life for two, but he didn’t ask the nymph for her input until he was finished. That’s why I find the feminism of Raleigh’s nymph so appealing.)

No one has ever asked me to recite the fourth stanza of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh. But my brain is constantly preparing itself for the task. Often I’m riding my bicycle when those twenty-seven marvelously collocated words decide to flow across my consciousness.

How long do I stretch out the three soons? (Listen to how Nancy Wickwire does it) How long do I pause after break and wither? How much sarcasm can I pack into the first syllable of reason? How long do I pause after reason and how hard do I hit the first syllable of rotten?

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
   South and North,

And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
   As the sky,

Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force–
   Gold, of course.

Oh HEART! oh blood that freezes, blood that BURNS!
   Earth’s returns

For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
   Shut them in,

With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
   Love is best.

Love or war, which is better? It seems like such an easy question. So why do we waste so much of ourselves making war when we could be making love? The final stanza of Robert Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins” reminds us how absurd our priorities can be.

I love the way Steven Pacey reads “Love Among the Ruins.” He emphasizes the word heart as a hinge upon which the entire poem turns. He also emphasizes burns at the end of the line. Browning’s exclamation points suggests this reading is correct.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
WHAT did I know, what did I KNOW
of love’s AUStere and LONEly offices?

So e.e.cummings isn’t the only poet whose father moved through dooms of love.

In marked contrast to Pacey’s reading of “Love Among the Ruins,” Robert Hayden’s rendition of “Those Winter Sundays” is subtle. In the penultimate line he emphasizes What a little bit and know even less. Hayden also breathes a little extra heart into the first syllables of austere and lonely in the last line.

by Richard W. Bray

I Quit Crying but I Couldn’t Stop: Wild William Faulkner in the Land of the Nominalists

April 7, 2013

William Faulkner

William Faulkner was a writer of extremes and abstractions who was ready to try just about anything to stretch the boundaries of literary convention. He strove to demolish existing paradigms which interfered with his project—to drag the entire world of fiction to a new place. Thus Faulkner would not be bridled by accepted rules of grammar, style, and syntax.

One striking and prevalent feature in The Sound and the Fury, Absolom, Absolom!, and Light in August is the use of paradox, the collision of apparent opposites. Paradox has two functions here: First, it transmogrifies the ordinary into the abstract, and then it obliterates the reader’s standard method of ordering reality. In this regard Faulkner has something in common with Expressionist painters who tried to create multiple perceptions of reality. When Faulkner is at his most successful, his writing is fresh and exciting and capable of taking its reader to new frontiers; however, when he fails, he fails spectacularly. At his worst Faulkner can be cryptic, convoluted, and painfully cumbersome.

Faulkner’s style has always been controversial. Even those who acknowledge his greatness are often annoyed by it:

No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or severely criticized for his style as William Faulkner. Yet he is a brilliantly original and versatile stylist. The condemnations of his way of writing have been in part just; all but the most idolatrous of Faulkner’s admirers must have wished he had blotted a thousand infelicities (Beck 142).

Warren Beck’s hyperbolic phrase “brilliantly original” is accurate because Faulkner’s diction is radical, particularly in contrast to what his contemporaries were writing. In some ways Faulkner reminds us of the long and winding prose of Henry James or the lurid and unrestrained world of Joseph Conrad, but even Conrad rarely approaches the extremes of Faulkner. Faulkner’s perfervid prose is less foreign to today’s readers because his various progeny, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Toni Morrison, has redefined the literary landscape in his favor.

Faulkner’s prolix fiction is in stark contrast to the muscular style utilized by many of his contemporaries, particularly Hemingway, Stevens, and Cummings. This lean approach which Panthea Reid Broughton labels nominalism was preferred by many of the hard-nosed post-WWI writers who rejected the abstract and flowery world of the nineteenth century novel. For many such writers, the bombast and idealism of earlier novels seemed insincere and incongruous with the carnage of Verdun. The harsh, ugly truth of human depravity demanded a meaner and leaner approach to literature. Prewar writers such as Henry James built elaborate edifices containing various layers of meaning in order to depict a complex and often abstract world where there were no simple truths.

The nominalists would have none of this: “Cummings and his entire generation seem to have developed an almost paranoid fear of the abstract phrase” (Broughton 12). This war-weary group of authors strove to depict the brutality of existence in a direct and unsentimental way. Instead of attempting to mimic their predecessors by creating new levels of understanding via innumerable and parallax depictions of distinct phenomena, the nominalists strove to simplify their art by peeling away all that was redundant and superfluous. According to Wallace Stevens, the idea was to describe, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself” (Broughton 21). Hemingway argued that the goal was to “strip the language clean, lay it bare down to the bone” (Broughton 14).

Greater clarity can often be achieved with fewer words; however, nominalism not only “ignores the complexity of reality, the evasiveness of truth,” but it also leads to smaller and smaller portrayals and eventually succumbs to minimalism, which is ultimately a meditation on futility in search of nothingness (Broughton 16). Faulkner took the opposite approach: He tried to say more with more while his contemporaries were attempting to do more with less.

Precisely because words are so inadequate to capture reality, Faulkner attempted to pile words upon words in order to create a variety of images and ideas which might add up to a fragmented picture of reality, somewhat in the manner of cubism. While the nominalists eschewed the use of abstraction, Faulkner reveled in it. Because Faulkner’s “understanding of the existential and esthetic functions of abstraction is…more balanced, complex, and sophisticated than that of, say, Ernest Hemingway who thought that abstractions were obscene, their use in art immoral,” his writing achieves things unimaginable for anyone who would attempt to “strip language clean” (Broughton xii).

Faulkner certainly enjoyed the notion of himself as an artist who was swimming upstream against contemporary fashion. In their day, Hemingway not only sold more books than Faulkner, but he was generally more cordially received by critics. This must have galled Faulkner despite innumerable claims he would make to the contrary. The following backhanded (and paradoxical) complement which Faulkner gave Hemingway reveals not only his contempt for Hemingway as an artist, but also Faulkner’s true assessment of which one of the two writers was aspiring to create great works of fiction:

I thought that he found out early what he could do and he stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure….failure to me is the best to try something you can’t do, because it’s too much [to hope for) but still try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success (Meriwether 55;88).

Faulkner also says this about Hemingway: “He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible” (Slatoff: 1960b;185).

So we can begin to understand the method in Faulkner’s madness by appreciating that he was merely trying to achieve the impossible. Although Faulkner did not write like a nominalist, he shared their ultimate goal, to depict truth with a capitol “T”. This is an extremely ambitious (indeed, Quixotic) undertaking. Faulkner was thus willing to experiment with language and the conventions of the novel in a variety of ways. This makes Faulkner a darling of the poststructuralists who are enthralled by Derrida’s concept of “free play.” John T. Matthews, deeply infected by postmodern jargon, sees Faulkner as an excellent example of someone whose “distinctive modernity involves an understanding of meaning as the infinite play of signifiers, and not as the attainment of an absolute signified, the ‘facts’ of the story itself” (118).

In other words, Faulkner was willing to break just about every rule of good writing in order to expand the possibilities of his medium. Faulkner willfully disregarded and obliterated convention because he was trying to achieve something new. In this Herculean endeavor he would omit much standard punctuation and create sentences which last for several pages. He coined many new words, often by means of adding unorthodox suffixes and prefixes (an unpainted house is “paintless”) and utilized existing words in unconventional ways (“he abrupted”). He also employed long streams, or “clusters” of verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. For example, Edwin R. Hunter has discovered a cluster in which thirteen adjectives modify a solitary noun (138). Many of these adjective and verb cluster are redundant, as though the author were sharing the writer’s process of grasping for meaning with the reader. This reflects Faulkner’s goal of accomplishing clarity by means of redundancy. But sometimes the clusters contain contradictory meanings:

Like Faulkner’s writing in general, the oxymoron involves sharp polarity, extreme tension, a high degree of conceptual stylistic antithesis, and the simultaneous suggestion of disparate or opposed elements. Moreover, the figure tends to hold these elements in suspension rather than fuse them (Slatoff 177).

Faulkner’s writing has the appearance of a slapdash project, something hastily conceived between frequent drinking binges. But the author (paradoxically) searches for clarity in a land of confusion: “his paradoxical descriptions are not pointless riddles but rather terse formulae to describe the subversion of resolved meaning, closed form, and to full representation by the language that aspires to those very achievements” (Matthews 22).

Like existence itself, Faulkner’s writing abounds in contradiction. Slatoff notes that “a remarkably frequent and persistent phenomenon in Faulkner’s writing is his presentation of opposed or contradictory suggestions” (174). While his contemporary John Dos Passos employed elements of journalism in order to create a photographic depiction of life, Faulkner assembled a much more vivid and complex picture of reality by suggesting that irresolvable contradictions are a fact of nature.

One of Faulkner’s most common types of oxymoron involves presenting paradoxes “which simultaneously contain elements of quiescence and turbulence” (Slatoff 175). From Absolom, Absolom! we have “furious inertness” and “blazing immobility” (182; 238); in Light in August we have “the terrific and aimless and restless idleness of men who work” and Grimm is “indefatigable, restrained yet forceful” later “he ran swiftly, yet there was no haste about him.” These paradoxes have a dizzying effect on the reader. Inert objects do not naturally suggest turbulence and fury. The sense of vertigo achieved by these oxymorons opens the reader’s mind to accept a world where the Newton’s laws of physics do not apply.

Another frequently utilized category of oxymoron in Faulkner’s writing involves the use of contradictory images of “sound and silence” which “are frequently seen as existing simultaneously” (Slatoff 1960:b 175). From Absolom, Absolom! we have “I could hear the Sabbath afternoon quiet of that house louder than thunder,”(19); in Light in August voices are heard to echo “somewhat as a meaningless sound in a church seems to come from everywhere at once.”(43-44); in The Sound and the Fury Benjy says “I quit crying but I couldn’t stop”(22). In Faulkner’s universe sound and silence do not represent opposite ends of a continuum. Instead, they are both facets of the same phenomenon and therefore inseparable.

Many of Faulkner’s paradoxes reflect his preoccupation with the fluidity and unreality of time. In Light in August Hightower has the misfortune of being “born about thirty years after the only day he seemed to have ever lived in” (66); Faulkner describes the dietitian’s dalliance which Joe Christmas witnesses at the orphanage as a “blind interval of fumbling and interminable haste” (144). Faulkner’s narrative defies all notions of linear existence. The author fractures time in order to create a universe where it seems like everything is happening at once and the past is always present. As Hightower “seemed ever to live in” the past, lines between past and present become blurred to the point where no such distinctions can be made. If sexual intercourse involves “interminable haste” it becomes a timeless phenomenon. (Hence the expression “making time”.)

Slatoff notes how “(S)ome of Faulkner’s oxymorons are brilliant and completely justified by their context; others seem mechanical or excessive.” (Slatoff: 1960a, 176). At his best, Faulkner achieved things that most other writers could only dream about. In The Sound and the Fury Jason Compson sees his mother’s face as “clairvoyant yet obtuse” and we witness how “in a quick swirl the trout lipped a fly beneath the surface with that sort of gigantic delicacy of an elephant picking up a peanut” (280 116-7); in Absolom, Absolom! Quentin contemplates the magnitude of a letter “whose bulk had raised itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation.”; in Light in August Joe Christmas watches the dietitian as “she became quite calmly and completely mad.”(138); as Joe Christmas is wondering why he is being prepared to leave the orphanage the narrator wryly notes that “five is still too young to have learned enough despair to hope” (156); Mr. Compson inverts our notions of the meaning of existence with the disturbing declaration that “(B)ad health is the primary reason for all life. Created by disease within putrefaction, into decay.”(22). All of these paradoxes achieve the narrative function of expanding the reader’s perceptions by challenging her expectations. In a world where telepathy is imperceptive, “delicacy” can be “gigantic”, “bulk” is “weightless” , “madness” is tranquil, “despair” teaches “hope” and “decay” defines existence, the reader is forced to question so many of her assumptions that she is able view reality in new and different ways.

But Faulkner, a writer who dealt in extremes, often went too far. Not all of his experiments in paradox are felicitous, and his failures are as spectacular as his successes. As Irving Howe observed, “(S)ometimes the writing breaks down in an excess of abstractions, as in the sentence which cannot be read but must be deciphered (Howe 230). If the reader is forced too frequently to lose the flow of a novel in order to stop and “decipher” it, she will eventually give up. Over the years Faulkner has certainly lost many readers who were unwilling or unable to unpack dense and convoluted passages such as this:

That blending of childlike and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects them it loves out of all reason and robs steadily and evades responsibility and obligations by means too barefaced to be called subterfuge even and is taken in theft or evasion with only that frank and spontaneous admiration for the victor which a gentleman feel for anyone who beats him in a fair contest, and withal a fond and unflagging tolerance for whitefolks’ vagaries like that of a grandparent for unpredictable and troublesome children which I had forgotten. (The Sound and the Fury 77)

Rereading this passage only heightens the sense of confusion. The passage is so abstract and so full of mindless meandering clauses (signifying nothing, indeed) that it ceases to have any meaning at all and the reader is “doomed to fail” (Slatoff: 1960b, 261).

William Faulkner’s quixotic quest to achieve the impossible has exasperated innumerable critics, including one who lamented that the novelist “searches tirelessly yet vainly for a full expression of truth, for a complete rendering of experience” (Mathews 39). One critic even suggested that Faulkner had an innate fear of success which led him to covet failure:

It is as though he is determined to avoid clarifying or finishing his ideas, almost as though he feared to take hold of them, to give them shape or realization, as though in some ways he wished to fail so that he would be able to go on trying (Slatoff: 1960b, 260).

But Faulkner’s ridiculous protestations about “seeking failure” must always be taken with a grain of salt. Such assertions are a function of false modesty which should not be construed as serious self-assessment of Faulkner’s.

All three novels discussed here fit Irving Howe’s description of Absolom, Absolom!: “Wild, twisted and occasionally absurd, the novel has, nonetheless, the fearful impressiveness which comes when a writer has driven his vision to an extreme (232). When reading Faulkner, the reader has no choice but to take the good with the bad. Paradoxically, had the author attempted to exorcise himself of the demons which caused him to have such an extreme vision, he would have forfeited the very qualities which made him a genius.

Richard W. Bray

William Faulkner and the English Language

February 11, 2012

William Faulkner

(Below are notes from a presentation I gave in graduate school.)

Question: Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even when they’ve read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

Faulkner: Read it four times.

—Interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel 1955 (Meriwether 250)

William Faulkner’s flamboyant use of language is a widely-discussed topic which includes a variety of subjects, including his use of part of speech, punctuation, long sentences, stream of consciousness, redundancy, visual imagery, metaphors, dialect, word clusters, coinages, paradox and poetics (particularly meter).

This presentation will cover some of these topics, particularly

1. Faulkner’s often playful use of parts of speech
2. The significance of sentence structure (in a historical perspective)
3. Word clusters (including redundancy)
4. Coinages (particularly with prefixes and suffixes)

Faulkner’s style is still controversial. Even those who acknowledge his greatness are often annoyed by it. According to Warren Beck:

No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or severely criticized for his style as William Faulkner. Yet he is a brilliantly original and versatile stylist. The condemnations of his way of writing have been in part just; all but the most idolatrous of Faulkner’s admirers must have wished he had blotted a thousand infelicities (142).

Placed in its historical context, Faulkner’s style can be seen as a stark contrast to the “muscular” or “masculine” style of prose utilized by many of his contemporaries, particularly Hemingway, Stevens and Cummings. During the fist part of the twentieth century, a lean style (labelled nominalism by Panthea Reid Broughton) was hailed for its commitment to Truth

Wallace Stevens’ dictum: Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself

And Cummings and his entire generation seem to have developed an almost paranoid fear of the abstract phrase. (Broughton 12)

Earnest Hemingway, Faulkner’s obvious rival, argued that writing should strip the language clean, lay it bare down to the bone. (Broughton 14)

But nomalism has its limitations. According to Broughton,

Nominalism is reductionist first of all because it ignores the complexity of reality, the evasiveness of truth. It is grounded in the assumption that truth objectively knowable, that perception is entirely accurate (16).

Faulkner took the opposite approach. Because words are so inadequate to capture reality, Faulkner piles words upon words in order to depict a variety of images and ideas which might at least add up to a fragmented picture of reality.

Faulkner on Hemingway:

I thought that he found out early what he could do and he stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure….failure to me is the best to try something you can’t do, because it’s too much (to hope for) but still try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success (Meriwether 88).

And, He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible. (Slatoff 185)

So we can begin to understand the method in Faulkner’s madness by appreciating that he was trying for the impossible. He did this by experimenting with language and the convention of the novel in a variety of ways. One method was the use of paradox in the form of oxymoron. According to Walter J. Slatoff

The oxymoron, on the one hand, achieves a kind of order, definiteness, and coherence by virtue of the clear antithesis it involves. On the other, it moves towards disorder and incoherence by virtue of its qualities of irresolution and self-contradiction….Traditionally it has often been used to reflect desperately divided states of mind (Slatoff 177)

So Faulkner attempts to achieve clarity by means of depicting confusion. (That’s a paradox.)

Hightower’s face is at once gaunt and flabby
the church has a stern and formal fury
Singing from a church is a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud
Joe Christmas’ feet move in a deliberate random manner
Armstid’s eye’s at once vague and intense
Abe Snopes’ homestead is a cluttered isolation
Eula Varner seems to exist in a teeming vacuum
Houston and the girl he is to marry: Up to this point their struggle, or all its deadly seriousness…had retained something of childhood, something both illogical and consistent, both reasonable and bizarre

Faulkner’s use of redundancy to clarify meaning is a practice which Edwin R. Hunter has labeled “word hunting.” This involves the author searching for the appropriate word not only in his mind, but on the page as well. Hunter has described eight different types of “word hunting” in the work of Faulkner. (130-132)

1. Questions the exactness of a word.
2. Comments openly about the rightness of a word.
3. Searches for a word only to come back to original.
4. Seeks openly for a word.
5. Records progress, step by step.
6. Corrects word on the spot.
7. Acquiesces in inexact word.
8. Sets down and repeats in.

Faulkner also uses the redundancy of adjective clusters to create a kind of depth in his depiction of reality. Hunter has painstakingly discovered 1416 examples of three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-, and even a thirteen-adjective clusters. (See chart).

Examples: (Hunter 136-139)

Three Adjectives–1009 examples
‘Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless
she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons…
‘Houston, followed by the big, quiet regal dog’

Four-Adjectives –268 examples
the wealcolored, the strong pallid, Iowacorncolored hair
In the glare its eyes roll with soft, fleet, wild opaline fire

Five-adjective–84 (136)
the last old sapless indomitable unavanquished widow or maid had died’
the big rambling multigalleried multistoried steamboat-gothic hotel

Six-adjective–30 examples (136-7)
a lean, loose-jointed, cotton-socked, shrew, ruthless old man
with his little high hard round intractable canon-ball head

Seven-adjective–16 examples (137)
a brawling lean fierce mangy durable imperishable old lion

Eight-adjective–4 examples (137-8)
the youth fleeing, the forsaken aging yet indomitable betrothed perusing, abject, constant, undismayed, undeflectable, terrifying not in effect but in fidelity
“These may be nine or or even ten adjective clusters. One cannot be sure.”

Nine or more adjective
he approached, chop-striding, bull-chested, virile, in appearance impervious and indestructible, starred and exalted and, within this particular eye-range of Earth, supreme and omnipotent still

Faulkner also utilizes redundancy through a process which Hunter calls “Repeated Cluster Patterns” (139-40).


a bell tinkled…high and clear and small

a belltinkled…to make that clear small sound

The little bell tinkled once, faint and clear and invisible

She just looked at me, serene and secret and chewing

She looked at me, chewing, her eyes black and unwinking and friendly

She stood in the road…her eyes still and black and unwinking

She looked at me, black and secret and friendly

We see a good indication of Faulkner’s playfulness in his uncommon use of parts of speech. One example of this is what Hunter calls Adjective Clusters.

Stem Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

his uncle told it, rapid and condensed and succinct
He shook hands with him, Charles, quick and brief and hard too

-ly-ended Adverb Clusters (Hunter 152)

he was mentally and spiritually, and with only an occasional aberration, physically faithful to her
the group commander was listening…quietly and courteously and inattentively

Faulkner’s coinages are also often amusing and playful. One way he did this was by creating negatives by adding prefixes and suffixes to a variety of words. (Hunter 176-8)

Some examples of Faulkner’s wordplay from The Sound and The Fury

Parts of speech
Jason snuffled (68)

wind chill and raw (290)

anticked (297)

he loaded himself mountainously (268)

Coinages via prefixes and suffixes:

unimpatient (87)

peacefullest (174)

unsecret (177)

unhurriedly (288)

unmindful (297)

paintless (299)


clairvoyant yet obtuse (280)


Maybe William Faulkner was greatest American novelist of the twentieth century; maybe he was an unreadable buffoon. What cannot be argued is that he continues to exert a tremendous influence upon the conventions of modern fiction.


Beck, Warren. William Faulkner’s Style, William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism

Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Broughton, Panthea Reid. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State UP, 1974.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury New York: Random House, 1990.

Hunter, Edwin R. William Faulkner: Narrative Practice and Prose Style. Washington,

DC: Windhover Press, 1973.

Meriwether, James B. and Michael Millgate. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with

William Faulkner, 1926-1962. New York: Random House, 1962.

Slatoff, Walter J. “The Edge of Order: The Pattern of Faulkner’s Rhetoric.” William

Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism Ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W.

Vickery. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

Richard W. Bray

Eleven Stanzas that Strike Like a Chime through the Mind

May 29, 2011

Christina Rossetti

Richard Wilbur

e e cummings

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

from Uphill by Christina Rossetti

Let Observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru:
Reark each anxious toil, each eager strife:
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’spread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venomous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
But scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
Fall in the general massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! That rages unconfined,
And crowds with crimes the record of mankind;
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heaped on wealth, not truth nor safety buys,
The Dangers Gather as the Treasures rise

from The Vanity of Human Wishes (The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated) by Samuel Johnson

We have it and it doesn’t do us any
Good because nobody gets what they
Deserve more than everybody else.

from Family Values by Robert Pinsky

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.

from Garden of Proserpine by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

from The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Ralegh

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

from Hamlen Brook by Richard Wilbur

“I see the guilty world forgiven,”
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the martyr’s blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The lovers natural and the beasts all good.”
So dreamer and drunkard sing
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with Death’s reply
From whelping fear and nesting lie,
Woods and their echoes ring.
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

from Death’s Echo by W. H. Auden

To fight aloud, is very brave —
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe —

from To Fight Aloud is Very Brave by Emily Dickinson

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

from I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why man breathe—
because my father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

from my father moved through dooms of love by e.e. cummings

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

from Provide, Provide by Robert Frost

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

October 4, 2010


We can only guess how many literature–loving undergraduate English majors have been dissuaded by the massive edifice of Literary Theory: Freudianism. Marxism. New Criticism. Structuralism. Semiotics. Feminism. Poststructuralism. Postmodenrism. Reader Response. etc. The tumescent postwar expansion of our university system along with the demise of so many literary publications has in many cases reduced the discussion of literature in this country to the “endless theorizing about what literature cryptically is” (513).

Rereading Alfred Kazin’s America, a selection of the late writer’s works adroitly and lovingly edited by Ted Solotaroff, I am transported to a less restive time when a university professor of literature like Kazin could get by simply expressing his enchantment with the written word. As Solotaroff notes in his introduction, Kazin “was not interested in literary theory or in what nowadays is called textuality” (xxi).

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s solipsistic (and rather disturbing) assertion in Self Reliance that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” is faintly echoed in Kazin’s essay To be a Critic:

To be a critic, nothing else is so important as the ability to stand one’s ground alone. This gets more important as criticism gets more standardized and institutionalized, as the critic gets more absorbed in literary theory rather than in the imaginations who are his raison d’etre (510).

Kazin always stood his ground, even when his opinions collided with hagiography. Here he is on the Lost Generation:

They had a special charm–the Byronic charm, the charm of the specially damned; they had seized the contemporary moment and made it their own; and as they stood among the ruins, calling the ruins the world, they seemed so authoritative in their dispossession, seemed to bring so much craft to its elucidation, that it was easy to believe that all roads really had led up to them (117).

And here he is describing how The Great Gatsby triumphs despite its flaws:

The book has no real scale; it does not rest on any commanding vision, nor is it in any sense a major tragedy. But it is a great flooding moment, a moment’s intimation and penetration; and as Gatsby’s disillusion becomes felt at the end, it strikes like a chime through the mind (122).

The mercurial and sometimes brilliant Norman Mailer has been an enigma for both reader and critic because his uneven output is often overshadowed by his tempestuous personality.

Mailer’s tracts are histrionic blows against the system. They are fascinating in their torrential orchestration of so many personal impulses. Everything goes into it on the same level. So they end up as Mailer’s special urgency, that quest for salvation through demonstration of the writer’s intelligence, realism, courage, that is to be effected by making oneself a gladiator in the center of the ring, a moviemaker breathing his dreams into the camera (278).

Things don’t always go according to plan for American writers, as demonstrated by this cutting observation about Sinclair Lewis:

Here was the bright modern satirist who wrote each of his early books as an assault on American smugness, provincialism, ignorance, and bigotry; and ended up by finding himself not an enemy, not a danger, but the folksiest and most comradely of American novelists (99).

e. e. cummings, another brash and electric talent, is neatly summed up by Kazin:

As Cummings saw it, the world was composed of brutal sensations and endured only by fiercely desperate courage and love; it was so anarchical that all attempts to impose order were motivated by either ignorance or chicanery (127-128).

And here he is on the tempestuous Sherwood Anderson:

Anderson turned fiction into a substitute for poetry and religion, and never ceased to wonder at what he had wrought. He had more intensity than a revival meeting and more tenderness than God; he wept, he chanted, he loved indescribably (93).

Emily Dickinson is the greatest literary genius our culture has created (says me). Adrienne Rich wrote that “genius knows itself” and Dickinson “chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” Here’s how Kazin describes Dickinson’s beautifully bizarre, cheerful death wish:

In poem after poem she expressed, in her odd blend of heartbreaking precision and girlish winsomeness, the basic experience, in the face of death, of our fear, our awe, our longing—and above all, of our human vulnerability, of the limit that is our portion (402).

Kazin reflects on the singular achievement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from the perch of a dispirited and tumultuous time (1971) while taking a swipe at Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and every other notable contemporary African American writer.

Certainly more than any black writer, Ellison achieved as dramatic fact, as a rounded whole, beyond dreamy soliloquy or angry assertion, a demonstration of the lunatic hatred that America can offer, on every facet of its society, to a black man. This irrationality is more real, more solidly grounded to blacks writing out of actual oppression than is the idea of an irrational society to white writers dislocated in a country they used to take for granted and now find so much of America “meaningless” (282).

And here’s Kazin on Herman Melville’s fall and posthumous rise:

Melville may have been ditched by his own century; he became important to the next because he stood for the triumph of expression over the most cutting sense of disaster, negation, and even the most ferociously unfavorable view of modern society in classical American literature (366).

The young Ezra Pound was in many ways a generous soul who took the time to befriend and nurture younger poets. He was also an egomaniac. According to William Carlos Williams, once, when the two young poets were walking through the New Jersey countryside, Williams exclaimed that the winter wheat was coming up to meet Ezra. Pound noted wryly that it was the “first intelligent wheat” he had ever come across. (This sounds like something Sheldon Cooper might say.) Kazin discusses how this great mind eventually became so diseased:

Pound was a convinced fascist. The cruelty and death of fascism are an essential part of his epic and cannot be shrugged away in judging his work. Pound recognized his epic hero in Mussolini because fascism, like Ezra Pound, had few abiding social roots and was based on an impersonation, like Pound’s, of a mythic personage (196).

There is a sheen of other-worldliness in Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the only novelist from New England as subtle as its poets” (338).

Hawthorne, surrounded by so many moralists who thought they commanded the reality principle, created more memorably than he did anything else a sense of the unreality of existence, of its doubleness, its dreaminess, its unrealizability by anything less profound than the symbolic tale (338).

While Kazin was enthralled with the “imaginations” of our finest writers, he wasn’t afraid to take a shot at one of our most exalted figures:

Thoreau was a pure idealist, living on principle: typical of New England in his scorn for Irish immigrants, properly indignant about slavery in far-off Mississippi, but otherwise, as he wrote Walden to prove, a man who proposed to teach others to be as free of society as himself (329).

Over seven hundred thousand combatants perished in the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that point. Much good resulted from this ghastly episode in our history, but millions of lives were damaged irreparably and African Americans would not be fully emancipated and enfranchised for another century. Only God could say if such massive suffering were justifiable for any cause, but that didn’t prevent victorious Northerners from singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

The triumphant North needed proof of its saintliness, and found it in the consecration of Abraham Lincoln. The civil religion that came out of the war turned America itself into a sacred object and ritual demanded that America be its own religion—and that everybody had to believe in it. The Lincoln who never joined the Church became the god of a godless religion. Under the smug Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge, a great temple in Washington was built around a statue of Lincoln seated on a throne. Now the people truly had someone eternally to worship (400).

I’ll leave you with a final warning from Alfred Kazin.

If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text (512).

by Richard W. Bray