Saturday, November 30, 2013

James Russell Lowell and the American Poetic


To appropriate the observations of Whitman (who is in many ways the essential American Poet) it's worth stating clearly from the outset that, because it contains multitudes, the American Poetic is rarely consistent. It tends to run instead towards the self-contradictory; a vast population of squabbling voices, techniques, and purposes--at least when viewed superficially. As in our public discourse, we see it almost as a national virtue, and at least as a grudging fact of our existence, that we disagree about nearly everything, including the meaning and value of the foundational documents of our political system. This can seem ultimately disorganized and chaotic--and indeed it always runs the risk of becoming that. The ties that bind can, in fact, be loosed or destroyed in a nation's history--especially a nation built upon something so ephemeral as ideas. But a closer look shows that our chaos is not so complete as it might seem at first glance: that we do in fact have a foundation. The Constitution, however it might be treated on all sides, remains a functional reality. In other words, think whatever you might of it, the Constitution is something that has to be "dealt with" in one way or another. It can be appealed to, interpreted along a rather flexible spectrum, revised, and disparaged, but it remains the law of the land, and a very small group of folks, living in or near Washington, D.C., can tell us what to do based on what they read in it. And that is pretty significant, when considering the repercussions for not only the 300 million or so people who live in the US, but for all of those effected by our nation's actions globally.

With this in mind, and understanding that to agree or disagree with the documents of a nation is not the same as to acknowledge their foundational importance, we can look back to Poetics, and specifically American Poetry. We have certain poets who are absolutely foundational. Some are well known. Whitman comes immediately to mind, with his surging, enveloping, oceanic grasp and flow of Americanism. Emily Dickinson comes to mind as well, in the hyper-intense, self-focused, atomic explosiveness of individualism. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the great bridge of translation between Europe and America, who so captured the British imagination that he has a place in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner, and whose verse was monumentally set by British composers. He built more than bridge back to England, though, translating Dante and even poetic forms such as the Kalevala--finding the rhymes between the European epic forms and the American landscape. These three alone would make a fine three legged stool to rest American Poetics upon, but it would be incomplete--perhaps for a number of reasons, but one which comes immediately to mind is the work of James Russell Lowell (1819-1891).

Lowell had, and expressed, what none of the other foundational poets had in such clarity and quantity: historical and political thought, subjugated to the personal and spiritual, while more or less constantly challenging himself self-confrontationally.

It is this self-confrontation, which sometimes approaches the savage in extreme moments, combined with a sharpness of wit and satirical verve, that makes him unique among the foundational poets of America. He is the prototypical American criticizing the nation by criticizing the contradictions within himself. He is often the poet of suffering, standing in opposition to mere creature comforts; the American poet who perhaps best defined the relation of verse to the unseen; the Harvard man--born, bred, taught and prof'd there--who paradoxically pioneered rustic dialect in American literature--and, perhaps most unexpectedly, he was the privileged descendant of puritans who questioned not only his privilege, but could both praise the mettle of their convictions while questioning their theological assumptions--relating both to society.

Lowell was understood to be an important poet in his own day, but his taste for attack, exposure, and proclaiming his own historical stature won him few friends, while an increasing number of prominent critics and artists alike sought to "take him down a notch." Lowell ignored the central fact that Americans like to be flattered; and flattery is a central aspect of our public discourse, a type of coin of the realm in politics, society, and business. We don't elect people who refuse to flatter us. Our politicians must first demonstrate that they think us the best and nicest people on Earth: after that, we might give them a listen. Corporations run by a hierarchy of flattery. The same is true, by and large, in the arts.  Duke Ellington said "you're a beautiful audience and we love you madly" after each show. There was sarcasm, to be sure, because Ellington was himself a nuanced poet: but the point was made, culturally. "The audience demands it, I give it graciously, if pointedly." Those performers, however brilliant, who refuse this gesture are generally vilified. Artie Shaw, for instance, took on not only the management companies but the audiences for jazz--and paid a hefty critical and popular price. In many ways it wasn't until the work of Miles Davis in the 1950's that our musical poetic achieved a place of public stature for the openly critical of America. In terms of verbal poetic, we had to wait for the Grunge Rock movement of the 1990s before certain similarities became mainstream.

Lowell predates these accepted movements by a century, and because of this his achievement has been somewhat obscured. As an introduction to his work, I think it best to share a short piece of his which encapsulates a common set of traits we encounter in his verse: intense physical depictions of beauty combined with a subtle but bitingly sarcastic parody of wealth and station; the poet depicted as prophetic seer; the bitter, the self-challenging--and the relating of this to social action--in this case, the abolitionist cause. "An Interview with Miles Standish",  from Miscellaneous Poems (1843), while not his most famous or greatest poem, exhibits such qualities as to be a doorway into a foundational American poet, who might just now be coming more fully into his own.




I sat one evening in my room,
  In that sweet hour of twilight
When blended thoughts, half light, half gloom,
  Throng through the spirit's skylight;
The flames by fits curled round the bars,
  Or up the chimney crinkled,
While embers dropped like falling stars,
  And in the ashes tinkled.

I sat, and mused; the fire burned low,
  And, o'er my senses stealing,           
Crept something of the ruddy glow
  That bloomed on wall and ceiling;
My pictures (they are very few,
  The heads of ancient wise men)
Smoothed down their knotted fronts, and grew
  As rosy as excisemen.

My antique high-backed Spanish chair
  Felt thrills through wood and leather,
That had been strangers since whilere,
  Mid Andalusian heather,                 
The oak that built its sturdy frame
  His happy arms stretched over
The ox whose fortunate hide became
  The bottom's polished cover.

It came out in that famous bark,
  That brought our sires intrepid,
Capacious as another ark
  For furniture decrepit;
For, as that saved of bird and beast
  A pair for propagation,                 
So has the seed of these increased
  And furnished half the nation.

Kings sit, they say, in slippery seats;
  But those slant precipices
Of ice the northern voyager meets
  Less slippery are than this is;
To cling therein would pass the wit
  Of royal man or woman,
And whatsoe'er can stay in it
  Is more or less than human.             

I offer to all bores this perch,
  Dear well-intentioned people
With heads as void as week-day church,
  Tongues longer than the steeple;
To folks with missions, whose gaunt eyes
  See golden ages rising,--
Salt of the earth! in what queer Guys
  Thou'rt fond of crystallizing!

My wonder, then, was not unmixed
  With merciful suggestion,               
When, as my roving eyes grew fixed
  Upon the chair in question,
I saw its trembling arms enclose
  A figure grim and rusty,
Whose doublet plain and plainer hose
  Were something worn and dusty.

Now even such men as Nature forms
  Merely to fill the street with,
Once turned to ghosts by hungry worms,     
  Are serious things to meet with;
Your penitent spirits are no jokes,
  And, though I'm not averse to
A quiet shade, even they are folks
  One cares not to speak first to.

Who knows, thought I, but he has come,
  By Charon kindly ferried,
To tell me of a mighty sum
  Behind my wainscot buried?
There is a buccaneerish air
  About that garb outlandish--     
Just then the ghost drew up his chair
  And said, 'My name is Standish.

'I come from Plymouth, deadly bored
  With toasts, and songs, and speeches,
As long and flat as my old sword,
  As threadbare as my breeches:
They understand us Pilgrims! they,
  Smooth men with rosy faces.
Strength's knots and gnarls all pared away,
  And varnish in their places!               

'We had some toughness in our grain,
  The eye to rightly see us is
Not just the one that lights the brain
  Of drawing-room Tyrtaeuses:
They talk about their Pilgrim blood,
  Their birthright high and holy!
A mountain-stream that ends in mud
  Methinks is melancholy.

'He had stiff knees, the Puritan,
  That were not good at bending;
The homespun dignity of man             
  He thought was worth defending;
He did not, with his pinchbeck ore,
  His country's shame forgotten,
Gild Freedom's coffin o'er and o'er,
  When all within was rotten.

'These loud ancestral boasts of yours,
  How can they else than vex us?
Where were your dinner orators
  When slavery grasped at Texas?     
Dumb on his knees was every one
  That now is bold as Caesar;
Mere pegs to hang an office on
  Such stalwart men as these are.'

'Good sir,' I said, 'you seem much stirred;
  The sacred compromises'--
'Now God confound the dastard word!
  My gall thereat arises:
Northward it hath this sense alone
  That you, your conscience blinding,     
Shall bow your fool's nose to the stone,
  When slavery feels like grinding.

''Tis shame to see such painted sticks
  In Vane's and Winthrop's places,
To see your spirit of Seventy-Six
  Drag humbly in the traces,
With slavery's lash upon her back,
  And herds, of office-holders
To shout applause, as, with a crack,     
  It peels her patient shoulders.

'We forefathers to such a rout!--
  No, by my faith in God's word!'
Half rose the ghost, and half drew out
  The ghost of his old broadsword,
Then thrust it slowly back again,
  And said, with reverent gesture,
'No, Freedom, no! blood should not stain
  The hem of thy white vesture.

'I feel the soul in me draw near
  The mount of prophesying;           
In this bleak wilderness I hear
  A John the Baptist crying;
Far in the east I see upleap
  The streaks of first forewarning,
And they who sowed the light shall reap
  The golden sheaves of morning.

'Child of our travail and our woe,
  Light in our day of sorrow,
Through my rapt spirit I foreknow
  The glory of thy morrow;             
I hear great steps, that through the shade
  Draw nigher still and nigher,
And voices call like that which bade
  The prophet come up higher.'

I looked, no form mine eyes could find,
  I heard the red cock crowing,
And through my window-chinks the wind
  A dismal tune was blowing;
Thought I, My neighbor Buckingham
  Hath somewhat in him gritty,           
Some Pilgrim-stuff that hates all sham,
  And he will print my ditty.

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