Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House
“ Vistas of inevitable simplicity and ineffable harmonies would open, so beautiful to me that I was not only delighted, but often startled. ”
Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief, Chapter 5
“ It was from the least expected quarter, the tribesmen and villagers, that the real support for Seth’s Birth Control policy suddenly appeared. ”
Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, Pp. 406-7.
“ The biblical counterpart of Odysseus, Jacob must solve the fundamental human difficulties illustrated in the pre-Abrahamic chapters of Genesis. ”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A Dangerous Place, Chapter 1: A Half-Life, p8-9
“ In that I was a member of the Cabinet, protocol provided that I step out of Air Force One behind the President and ahead of Kissinger, who was also on the journey. Somehow Kissinger invariably reached the ground ahead of me. ”
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (paperback edition), p210-1
“ I couldn’t manage to be anywhere near a nun, let alone a pair of them, without a mind awash in my none-too-pure Jewish thoughts. ”
Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever
“ It was natural to bring out the small change and jerk the handles and watch the lemons and the oranges and the cherries and the bell fruits whirl round to their final click-pause-ting, followed by a soft mechanical sigh. Five cents, ten cents, a quarter. Bond gave them all a try… ”
David Pryce-Jones, “Jews, Arabs, and French Diplomacy: A Special Report”
“ The Zionists must understand once and for all that there can be no question of constituting an independent Jewish state in Palestine, or even forming some sovereign Jewish body. ”
Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Chapter 1, General Principles of Expression
“ It is well known that cats dislike wetting their feet, owing, it is probable, to their having aboriginally inhabited the dry country of Egypt; and when they wet their feet they shake them violently. My daughter poured some water into a glass close to the head of a kitten; and it immediately shook its feet in the usual manner; so that here we have an habitual movement falsely excited by an associated sound instead of by the sense of touch. ”
Edward Lear, Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans
“ Not the least annoyance was that given me by the persevering attentions of a mad or fanatic dervish, of most singular appearance as well as conduct. His note of ‘Shaitán‘ was frequently sounded; and as he twirled about, and performed many curious antics, he frequently advanced to me, shaking a long hooked stick, covered with jingling ornaments, in my very face, pointing to the Kawas with menacing looks, as though he would say, “Were it not for this protector you should he annihilated, you infidel!” ”
Robert Graves, I, Claudius
“ The drink was as remarkable as the food, and Caligula became so lively as the meal went on that, deprecating his own generosity to Herod in the past as something hardly worth mentioning, he now promised to give him whatever it lay in his power to grant. “Ask me anything, my dearest Herod,” he said, “And it shall be yours.” He repeated: “Absolutely anything. I swear by my own Divinity that I will grant it.” ”
ore than most poets you rely on spinning a narrative thread in your poems, a sort of story that unwinds itself. I presume that is deliberate?
Thread, yes. I prefer an attenuated narrative, an interrupted, delayed narrative. Narrative, I believe, is indispensable to the lyric; it’s what makes it move instead of spinning its wheels. It’s what motivates the poem to turn, to go on, continue, rather than simply returning, over and over. Narrative provides the major formal tension to the lyric stability in a poem. It’s what causes the line to turn the corner. What is a “story” anyway but someone speaking, drawing a line that assumes a shape, a shape that becomes a figure But a line too straight is uninteresting; that’s why the “narrative” must break, bend, meander; that’s why indirection and juxtaposition are so important to maintaining the intensity, the surprise all art needs to keep the music going, the line moving. It’s the strength Keats at his best that he depends, even in the odes, on a narrative base-line; it’s what brings his lyric drama to life. It’s the weakness of Shelley that he too often substitutes the didactic in his nature for the implicit drama; whatever the narrative spine, it seems to exist in order to promote an opinion. When Keats advises Shelley to load every rift with more ore, he’s not talking decoration but narrative. Even metaphor, announced or otherwise, is an implicit narrative: “like a patient etherized upon a table” (T. S. Eliot); “Loneliness leapt in the mirrors, but all week/I kept them covered like cages” (W. S. Merwin). The subtext of narrative is time, the subtext of time is mortality, the subtext of mortality is emotion. Try to remove the narrative sense of things and you take out the heart, the cause of the effect.
Two questions about style. First, in a poem like “Hedgerows,” you utilize the definite article over and over again, nearly fifty times in fifty lines. Some critics have suggested that when a poet overuses the definite article that he or she intends to exert exclusion, to refer to things or events which the poet finds more familiar than the reader does.
“Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the,” says Wallace Stevens. I don’t believe the the is exclusionary as much as it’s denominational. Critics who suggest exclusion as a motive need to look at context. The context of “Hedgerows” — nominationally and musically — is naming, specifying, nailing down the actual. Any straying from the particulars, the the-ing, and the poem might have turned into one more pastoral glib moment. The definite article, as a separator, could become merely rhetorical — I can see that in certain poems. But in “Hedgerows” the use of the is intuitive not inventive, especially since the poem’s narrative course follows a fairly blind path (in Devon, on a one-lane two-way road between giant hedgework). For me, the definite article in the poem is a way of including the reader more directly in the literal nature of the experience. It’s part of the texture.
You have written a lot of prose about poetry, both to assess the poets of your own generation and to explore the nature of English and American poetry. In your prose I have noticed you depend heavily on the verb “to be,” as though you were writing notes toward the definition of definitions. Your prose style is quite different from that of your verse. Why?
If I may say so, this is a remarkable observation — precisely on the point. Definition is what nearly all my prose writing has been about, even the more lyrical analytical pieces. There must be a legion of reasons why my poems put different pressure on the language compared to my prose. Different parts of the brain? Obviously different purposes. Prose, critical prose, examines and explains; its thrust is expository. Poetry dramatizes; its thrust is to present. But the secret of good prose is not that far from the secret of poetry, which is narrative. When Pound says that poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose, he’s clearly talking about language, but I think he means the language of the experience, a language tied directly to some kind of grounding. In prose, however, the connective tissue is allowed to show; in poetry it is subverted, subtracted, made invisible, suggested. I think my prose enjoys the space it’s been offered, the cubicle volume. My penchant in my poems is to describe, if not complete, a circle; to bend the line severely. Prose is a way of creating so much circumference that the curve of the thinking and telling is disguised, though the good reader will ultimately see it if the good writer has written well enough to satisfy unity. Prose, for me, is exploratory too” notes toward.” I like the idea of finding my way. Thus if the lyric poem is a path, prose is a road somewhere.
As for the verb “to be”, I loathe the creative writing notion that verbs necessarily need to act, to juice the pale nouns and poor modifiers. Verbs are part, only part, of the voice of all the words. Perhaps, for me, state of being verbs are faster or more direct means between the subject and the complement. I don’t know, except that is verbs are quieter, more given to silence. Or perhaps, in my mind, all verbs are state of being, depending on what state of things, active or still, the writing is calling for.
Let me add that writing criticism, review-essays and whatnot, is one kind of prose; writing about Whistler or nature or Keats is an entirely different kind. The first is thankless, the second thankful and a lot more fun. I think I got into the criticism business in the first place because I had, and have, strong feelings about distinctions of generations. Which, like narrative, is the subject of mortality.
A Dog’s Daydream