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Robert Francis

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.

THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION

I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.

I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”

Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.

I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”

The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.

If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:

Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”

In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.

I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.

This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!

The Base Stealer

Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!

Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”