Monthly Archives: November 2010

Turning

South of 11th street, the Indianapolis Central Canal finishes its last mile and a half in a concrete basin. At, roughly, sixteen feet below the city streets, it is a welcome and mostly pleasant alternative to the ordinary urban bustle. Nonetheless, but for goldfish and mallards, it’s a lifeless display. The ecosystem is still recovering from the city’s $423,000 cleanup (completed three years ago) and battling a monthly barrage of anti-algae treatments. Before the “cleanup” the canal (especially near the government building and the State Museum) was a foul mess. Full of weeds and algae and rotting vegetation, the methane was strong and gurgled audibly. But the weeds, while hiding the concrete, gave cover to the fish; the bass, bluegill, and carp swam slowly, in and out of view in the submerged forest.

Today, the ginkgo trees have shed their nuts and the mums have begun to brown. The water’s surface gathers corner blankets of blown leaves, slowly sinking. November tannin and tea. Below, the goldfish, some with fan tails and few longer than a hand, hang two feet and deeper beneath the wind and rain. Waiting.

I miss the old, foul canal. Without another cleaning, it will return … probably within the decade. I miss, already, the seasons of increase. The bottom growth rising to the surface, fecund and rich. But the summer passed with equal violence and the fall was too warm, and now, the waiting.

A Paltry Thing

This week I read the W.B. Yeats selections in William Harmon’s The Classic Hundred Poems. The four Yeats poems (included, as are all of the poems in the book, because they are the most anthologized) are: “The Second Coming”, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, “Leda and the Swan”, and “Sailing to Byzantium”. I know each of these well enough that lines and images echo in my head at the slightest rhyme from daily life. Reading them again (now older I guess, or less willing to grant genius when I do not myself see it), I can’t help but ask: why did I ever think I liked the poetry of W.B. Yeats? Sure, they’re well-crafted, and some moments are achingly well-timed (“An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick”), but Yeats takes himself far too seriously–a lonely adherent of his own bizarre prophesies: mean spirited, hokey, violent, and escapist. Even pompous, fanatical Ezra Pound possesses more humility.

Re-given the choice, I too will chose Thomas Hardy before Yeats. Re-given the choice, I’ll even choose Edwin Arlington Robinson over Yeats … on the merits of “Miniver Cheevy” alone. After all, I believe it is the voice of Robinson (his lightly veiled self-deprecation) in “Miniver Cheevy” which gives Pound the engine to first mockingly parody Yeats’s too cute “Lake Isle” and later to savage himself and everyone else in this gone-in-the-teeth civilization. I’ll have the irony of Hardy and the sarcasm of “Miniver Cheevy”, long before the re-mythologized cultic rape and gore from Yeats. Better to have a cat steal your fleshy heart than to be memorialized by a mechanical, tittering bird in an unrealized, dandified empire of artifice.

Paradise Lost; Readers Found

I half-read and half-slept through Addison and Steele’s The Spectator in my third year of college. It was my lifestyle, not the text that failed to keep me awake. Nonetheless, I recall an appreciation for the project–two wig-donning Englishmen writing a daily on arts and culture. (For today’s readers, The Spectator would have been a blog.) Perhaps I recall less of Joseph Addison than I do of the kindness and patience of my professor, Wayne Martindale. Truthfully, I have would not (and have not, until now) read The Spectator but for his satisfaction. I did, however, keep it on my bookshelves for two decades.

In the last week I have stumbled upon Addison’s contributions to The Spectator twice … once in a discussion of his aesthetics of “wit” and again in the Norton Critical edition of Paradise Lost. I don’t think I will read the entire collection, nor even merely the Addison contributions, but there’s a familiarity I now have with Addison’s voice. He seems younger than me (in truth, he wrote most of The Spectator at exactly my current age), but there is a kind of youthfulness, a mixture of arrogance and wayfinding, in his writing that I would not have heard as a young college student. I will not attempt to explain this realization, as he did not explain many of his assertions in The Spectator.

One of these, as I see it, mostly unexplained assertions can be found in his appreciation of a passage from the first book of Paradise Lost, lines 789-797:

Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest Forms
Reduced their Shapes immense, and were at large,
Though without Number, still amidst the Hall
Of that Infernal Court. But far within,
And in their own Dimensions like themselves,
The great Seraphick Lords and Cherubim,
In close recess and secret conclave sate,
A thousand Demy-Gods on Golden Seats,
Frequent and full—

Writing in No. 303, Saturday, February 16, 1712, he finds here a kind of beauty–by which, I think he means: the combined impact of imaginative invention and appropriate “signifying”. This is, perhaps, Milton’s “Judgment” that he praises earlier in the paragraph–superior judgment that the poet should think to include such a fitting description. Addison writes:

As soon as the Infernal Palace is finished, we are told the Multitude and Rabble of Spirits immediately shrunk themselves into a small Compass, that there might be Room for such a numberless Assembly in this capacious Hall. But it is the Poet’s Refinement upon this Thought which I most admire, and which is indeed very noble in its self. For he tells us, that notwithstanding the vulgar, among the fallen Spirits, contracted their Forms, those of the first Rank and Dignity still preserved their natural Dimensions.

In other words, the demons shrunk themselves in order to crowd into the cramped quarters of their new temple. However, true to their deceitful and self-important characters, the most powerful demons hid themselves in a secret room and gave themselves the luxury of size and space. Greed and pride and deception, all at once.

It may be that Addison found the “Refinement” admirable because it reminded him the world we all know so well, a world in which the rich and powerful reward themselves with what they see as their just entitlements–think of the “golden parachutes” for the CEOs of failing corporations. Perhaps, Addison (like Milton) possessed a deep suspicion of the Catholic church. Perhaps the presence of a priestly “conclave” in a demonic temple, made Addison scoff with delight–a kind of partisan snickering. In any case, I do not begrudge him his pleasure.

Milton’s poetry, here, is indeed excellent … although it is far from one of my favorite passages in the poem. The fact that one reader three hundred years ago read these lines, admired them, and shared them with his friends gives me more delight. Here is the power of a shared text to draw readers together (even if to disagree) across time and space. But it was not Milton, as a great as he was, that sustains this gift; rather, it is Joseph Addison, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Bush, Stanley Fish, Gordon Teskey, Wayne Martindale and many more readers, writers and teachers. Thus with “wand’ring steps and slow” the story of Paradise Lost has made its journey from reader to reader. So shared, it is, therefore, partly an antidote to alienation. Of all that is lost, readers find readers of the poem.

First Affections: Ozymandias

This summer Robert Archambeau wrote a breezy (and yet smart) personal Biographia Literaria on his Samizdat Blog. He demonstrates a deep poetic education. Like Coleridge, he reads and writes quickly and astutely. He also consumes (or appears to comprehend) entire literary oeuvres. Therefore, he can write convincingly about his debts to Whitman, Pound, Matthias, Wordsworth, Byron, Johnson, Blake, and (now) Coleridge. (So many Romantics, why no Keats?) To be sure, these are a scholar’s debts (and undoubtedly, a reader’s and a writer’s debts too), but I wonder if there’s not also a smaller, more quotidian way to tell the history of one’s poetic affections.

Earlier this week I was rereading a few of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. This is always a good time of the year to read the opening lines of “Ode to the West Wind“, but what caught my attention and reminded me of Archambeau’s ambitious literary biography, was my long (and yet infrequent) fondness for Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. I first read the poem at the age of 13. I remember exactly where I was sitting. Facing west, at a classroom desk one seat away from the windows. My useless middle school teacher was painting her nails or reading romance novels, anything but teaching. Flipping to the back of my textbook, I discovered poetry. In “Ozymandias” it rhymed, was packed with moral irony, and echoed the biblical sensibilities that meant (and mean) so much to me. In the next couple of years I read nearly every poetry book I could find in my tiny school library.

As it turns out, I am not a devotee of Shelley’s poetry. I tire of his lurid long-windedness. Likewise, “Ozymandias” seems a bit too easy–milk, not meat–but I owe it (or should blame it) for much.