Oct 242006

Discoveries of unpublished poems by famous poets depress me. We already suffer from an enormous glut of poetry — even, perhaps especially, by famous poets — and of art of all sorts. A law that required artists to burn half of their finished product, the way Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls, would vastly improve public taste. Poems are generally left unpublished when their author does not think they merit publication. There are exceptions, and accidents. A pretty good Philip Larkin poem escaped publication because of girl trouble. Wallace Stevens omitted one of his best poems, “The Course of a Particular,” from his collected verse, although he fortunately remembered to publish it elsewhere. But nearly always the poem is no good. Sometimes it’s not by the famous poet either.

Reading Robert Frost also depresses me. Frost is a popular poet, the closest thing to a poet laureate America ever had. He read at Kennedy’s inauguration, and he is said to have made a living from poetry. There are several reasons for this. Frost usually, and always at his best, writes short rhymed iambic poems; his readers feel assured that they’re reading honest-to-god poetry and not that sissy modern stuff. His themes are simple, his settings are rural, and his vocabulary is small. Frost looks the part, the very model of the crusty New England sage. His name doesn’t hurt either; it’s as good as Cary Grant’s, and he was born with it. Frost also has considerable talent (his best poems are probably here and here), but this is incidental.

I wrote in my last post about characteristic moments in the work of an artist. There is no need to search in Frost: his chief characteristic is a vacillating, go-with-the-flow pseudo-profundity that plays, and pays, especially well in America, and it is everywhere. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, perhaps, but one could also do a great deal better. Frost is perfectly satisfied with himself, and resents any attempt at improvement:

Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
(“Build Soil”)

Frost hedges this passage a bit with “rate,” but its import is obvious. He is openly hostile to intellect:

So if you find you must repent
From side to side in argument,
At least don’t use your mind too hard,
But trust my instinct – I’m a bard.
(“To a Thinker”)

No thanks. But it is a very American attitude.

To be fair, “The Road Not Taken”, his most famous poem, is celebrated principally because it is misread. It is usually thought to counsel leaving the beaten path, which is pretty pallid moral advice but is not what Frost has in mind. Its title, often misremembered, significantly, as “The Road Less Traveled,” refers to the path that the narrator doesn’t take, not the one he does. The narrator, confronted with the fork in the road, is “sorry that he could not travel both and be one traveler.” Neither path is much less traveled at all: “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” The traveler’s difficulty is, having chosen one, he misses his chance to choose the other, because “way leads on to way.” The poem does not advocate the road less traveled; it is about the agony of having to choose at all. Had the traveler chosen the way more traveled by, that, too, would have made all the difference. There is something sneaky about his putting the narrator on the less-traveled road, when either road serves the logic of the poem. I suspect Frost of intentionally inviting the common misreading.

Last month’s discovery of an unpublished Frost poem, therefore, occasioned no joy in the GotM household. The complete poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” is available only to subscribers to the Virginia Quarterly Review, which leaves you and me out. But I can piece it together from scattered quotations; and since I am too puny, I trust, for the VQR to sue for copyright infringement, here it is:

On the backside of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.

It is late in an afternoon
More grey with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow
When it is blue jay and crow
Or no bird at all.

So someone heeds from within
This flurry of bird war,
And rising from her chair
A little bent over with care
Not to scatter on the floor

The sewing in her lap
Comes to the window to see.
At sight of her dim face
The birds all cease for a space
And cling close in a tree.

And one says to the rest,
“We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.”

Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.

On that old side of the house
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.

Frost has one of the best ears among 20th-century poets, and it shows to advantage especially in the first and last stanzas. In the second stanza the grammar wanders. Frost’s preternaturally articulate animals make an egregious appearance (see “The Oven Bird,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and passim). Is it me, or is there something ridiculous about blue jays discussing the First World War? The central comparison, of fighting men with fighting birds, is trite. It is not among Frost’s best hundred poems, and if it had never been found no one would mourn its lack.

Its discoverer, Robert Stilling, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, likes it better than I do:

“War Thoughts at Home” dwells in that moment before darkness, doubting the necessity of the bravery that drives a soldier-poet like Thomas [Edward, a friend of Frost’s who was killed in the war] to enlist. Its doubt stands at odds with the poet’s own stoic convictions about war and violence. And the ending, dead on a side track? This is neither fire nor ice, but this is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend. These stanzas’ troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.

Stilling is shilling for his discovery, and who can blame him? I made too much fuss about a couple of unpublished poems myself, and I’m not bucking for tenure. But my God, Frost made a career out of a “troubling lack of conviction.” If he had abandoned poems on that account there would be nothing left. What we have, in short, is the spectacle of an ambitious graduate student, who has not read Frost with much attention, making his career on the back of a poem that Frost regarded, correctly, as unworthy of inclusion in his permanent work. Which is most depressing of all.

Oct 062006

A friend offered me two free tickets to U2 at Madison Square Garden. So the girlfriend and I up and went.

Every artist has certain characteristic moments, when the mask slips and you say to yourself, “Ah. So that’s what they’re like.” For Emily Dickinson, it’s the last stanza of “What mystery pervades a well,” where she writes of nature, “To pity those that know her not/ Is helped by the regret/ That those that know her, know her less/ The nearer her they get.” For Woody Allen, the moment comes at the end of Manhattan, when Woody soliloquizes into the tape recorder about “what makes life worth living”: “Groucho Marx. Willie Mays. The second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potato Head Blues.'” Fortified by his list of approved experiences, he promptly runs across town to rekindle his romance with an adolescent Mariel Hemingway. For Quentin Tarantino, it’s “dead nigger storage,” a line that so pleased him that he assigned it to himself.

My first U2 moment is from the version of “Silver and Gold” off their live album Rattle and Hum, which Bono interrupts, before the bridge, with a monologue beginning, “Yup. Silver and gold.” He follows with an eloquent sigh that speaks louder than a hundred pairs of wrap-around sunglasses. After going on a bit about apartheid and “a man like Bishop Tutu” — this was when the whites, not the blacks, were wrecking South Africa — he winds up with, “Am I booggin’ yuh? [Yes.] Don’t mean to boog yuh. [As Robert Plant once asked: “Where’s that confounded bridge?”] OK Edge, play the blues!” OK Edge. You do that little thing.

The second is from The Unforgettable Fire, song of the same name. Here we have two of the numerous biblical references with which Bono litters his songs: “And if the mountains should crumble or fall into the sea,” and, later on, “in a dry and waterless place.” Compare the originals, King James Version. “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” Psalms 46:2. “Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint.” Deuteronomy 8:15. The striking imagery belongs to the Biblical authors; the bardic redundancy, to the modern prophet.

I own eight U2 records, which calls for an explanation.

The band simply cannot sound bad: if you woke them all from a dead sleep, held guns to their heads, and demanded that they immediately cover “Long Tall Sally,” it would probably sound terrific. A fanzine once headlined a U2 article “endless fire magic music,” which still strikes me as an apt description of Edge’s shimmery guitar and Larry Mullen’s imaginative drumming. Bono’s voice is a large reason there is a permanent ban in rock criticism on the word “plangent.” Rock music is populated with lucky men: U2’s bassist, Adam Clayton, who joined up by answering an ad and eventually learned how to play his instrument, is perhaps the luckiest.

They certainly sound great live. More than half the material was from their last two, rather weak records, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the preposterously-titled How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (easy: play the blues). At some concerts this makes the audience restive, as it waits for the hits. Not here; the fans cheered as lustily for contemporary, third-rate material like “Elevation” as they did for classics like “One” or “I Will Follow.” The fact that most of them were fifteen to twenty years younger than I am may have had something to do with this.

Of Africa we heard a great deal, and saw considerably less. Even Rush and Metallica, not your big ethnic acts, draw a few blacks when they play the Garden. For U2 the only brothers in evidence were taking tickets and working concessions. The band, it turns out, is especially popular in Boston, which makes sense if you think about it, which I never had. Halfway through the show the background video began to show a checkerboard of random faces from the audience. Instead of the desired Benetton effect, we were treated to row upon row of shanty Irish. As Bono launched into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I whispered to the girlfriend, “Do you suppose they have any idea what this song is about?” and then the alarming thought hit me that they probably did.

Bono is not above tweaking his demographic. He introduced one song with a little story about his father, “a working-class man from Dublin” — he paused for the uproarious applause — “who loved opera” — and he paused again, this time for the puzzled silence. He rendered a line from “One” (“did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head”) as “did you come to here to play Jesus (cuz I did).” A prophet needs a sense of humor.

Eventually, inevitably, prophecy obtains the upper hand. When Bono exhorts the audience to pull out their cellphones and send a message to whycantwealljustgetalong.org, “to show your support,” and everyone promptly does so, and waves his phone about in pride, and thousands of phones dot the darkness like fireflies, I can almost enjoy it, as anthropology. But human eyes should be spared certain sights. A little Vietnamese girl, aflame with napalm, running down a road, shrieking and alone. The Microsoft Windows source code. And Bono, crawling on stage, wearing over his eyes a bandana reading “COEXIST” spelled that irksome way you’ve seen, where the ex is a star of David and the tee is a cross, hands stretched out either in supplication to his audience or to find the mike stand. Behind this the video scrolled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5 of which clearly states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Too late.