from New England Review, Volume 32, Number 1 / 2011
What did Chinese poetry sound like in 1914 to speakers of English who knew nothing about the Chinese language and had to rely exclusively on translations? It sounded like this.
O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver's loom,
Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow—
See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
Round as the round moon shines in heaven
At home, abroad, a close companion thou,
Stirring at every move the grateful gale.
And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills
Cooling the dying summer's torrid rage,
Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf,
All thoughts of bygone days, like them bygone.
This translation, by Herbert Giles, sounds today like a mockery of Chinese poetry. But you must remember that when the translation was made, there was no other way for English-language poetry to sound: if the translation was going to present itself as a poem, rather than prose, then it needed to be metered. And since Giles was not a very good poet, this translation is ineptly metered.
In 1914, Ezra Pound made what seems like a translation of the same poem. In fact, it is an adaptation of Giles's translation. Without any knowledge of Chinese, without any literal trot, with nothing but Giles's clumsy pentameters to work from, Pound produced this poem, called "Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord."
O fan of white silk,
Clear as the frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
If this translation does not sound to us like a mockery of Chinese poetry, it is because Pound invented the poetic idiom with which we now associate Chinese poetry; if the poem is in any way more scrupulously attuned to the letter or spirit of the original poem, the accuracy is purely an accident. As T. S. Eliot once remarked, Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry in the English language. How and why did that invention take place?
Recall Pound's three famous principles for writing an Imagist poem, first published in 1913 in an essay written by Pound but signed by the poet F. S. Flint:
1. Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical
phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
Although Pound knew that Giles's translation was badly written, he nonetheless saw something with which he could work, and he produced his version of "Fan-Piece" as if by feeding the translation into a computer programmed with Imagist principles. To compose in the sequence of the musical phrase: not "O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver's loom" but "O fan of white silk." Direct treatment of the thing: not "Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow" but "Clear as the frost on the grass-blade." To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation: not "And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills / Cooling the dying summer's torrid rage, / Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf" but "You also are laid aside."
Pound once admitted that his most compressed Imagist poem, the two-line "In a Station of the Metro," began as poem of thirty lines from which he distilled his famous couplet: the poem depended upon the same editorial acumen that allowed Pound to carve "Fan-Piece" from Giles's translation. But whether the Imagist poems were actually compressed from longer poems or not, they inevitably give the impression of having been compressed. The aura of the unsaid is always palpable, and that aura is the poem's tone. And without an immediately identifiable tone, a highly compressed poem would seem merely thin or perplexing, not enticing or seductive, given its dearth of narrative material.
What exactly do we mean by tone? The most semantically charged word in "Fan-Piece" is "also"—"You also are laid aside." The word suggests that the speaker of the poem shares the fate of the fan, and, more than that, the word acknowledges a more general sense of human ephemerality, a woeful recognition that everyone will one day be laid aside. But the tone of the poem—the effect of the poem's sonic patterning—is not woeful. The poem's terse, unenjambed lines, each of them weighted by adjacent stressed syllables ("white silk"—"grass-blade"), create a soundscape of controlled dignity, a tone that tells us as much or more than the meaning of the word "also." "Fan-Piece" feels riven with loss because the poem sounds stoically uninvolved with the emotional repercussions of loss.
The compression of Pound's Imagist poems, fueled by tone, has in many ways determined the direction of poetry in our language for the last hundred years. Most crucially, Imagism quickly became a limitation. The prescriptions that produced Imagist poems made no mention of length, but the second of Pound's "Don'ts"—"to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation"—inevitably encouraged a discipline that shied away from the discursive presentation of information, shrinking lyric utterance to its pithiest core. How then could a poet write a long poem at all, a poem that could be seen as a successor to The Prelude, In Memoriam, and Leaves of Grass? How could Pound write a poem of immense length while at the same time preserving the compressed intensity that distinguishes poems like "Fan-Piece" or "In a Station of the Metro"?
Pound's ultimate answer to this question would be the Cantos, the long poem on which he labored for half a century. But his first answer to this question was "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour," published in 1915. Here is the first of the poem's three sections.
I had over-prepared the event,
that much was ominous.
With middle-ageing care
I had laid out just the right books.
I had almost turned down the pages.
Beauty is so rare a thing.
So few drink of my fountain.
So much barren regret,
So many hours wasted!
And now I watch, from the window,
the rain, the wandering busses.
"Their little cosmos is shaken"—
the air is alive with that fact.
In their parts of the city
they are played on by diverse forces.
How do I know?
Oh, I know well enough.
For them there is something afoot.
As for me:
I had over-prepared the event—
Beauty is so rare a thing.
So few drink of my fountain.
Two friends: a breath of the forest ...
Friends? Are people less friends
Because one has just, at last, found them?
Twice they promised to come.
"Between the night and morning?"
Beauty would drink of my mind.
Youth would awhile forget
my youth is gone for me.
Why is this poem, which is not a villanelle, called "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour"? Pound had something to say about everything, and in an essay published in the same year as this poem, he said that the villanelle achieves its greatest intensity when "the refrains are an emotional fact, which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape." This is precisely how the repetition of the line "I had over-prepared the event" functions: no matter how culpable the friends, how shaken their cosmos, the speaker must admit again that he had over-prepared the event. But the repetition of the couplet feels different—not so much a part of the unfolding emotional drama of the poem as an interruption of it, and the interruptions pace the poem: "Beauty is so rare a thing. / So few drink of my fountain." We may not yet have an inkling of what the lines mean in relation to the rest of the poem, but the lines are in themselves utterly clear, and their reappearance reassures us that a previously submerged structure is rising to the surface of the poem.
Yet this structural principle disappears from "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" after its first section: the concluding sections dwindle away, each one more compressed than the one preceding it.
("Speak up! You have danced so stiffly?
Someone admired your works,
And said so frankly.
"Did you talk like a fool,
The first night?
The second evening?"
"But they promised again:
'To-morrow at tea-time.''')
Now the third day is here—
No word from either;
No word from her nor him,
Only another man's note:
"Dear Pound, I am leaving England."
As "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" ends, it tempts us with a new structural principle. Reading the phrase "Now the third day is here" in part III, we inevitably postulate a buried narrative: this poem is about someone being stood up by two other people, a man and a woman, on three successive days. But rather than solidifying our experience of the poem, this narrative raises more questions. Who are that man and woman? Why have the meetings been planned? Why have they been postponed? None of these questions is answered. What then holds the fragmentary pieces of "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" together while still allowing them to feel like fragments that aspire to the condition of the Imagist poem? What allows a highly compressed poem to feel complete when so many of its expectations for continuity and closure are not fulfilled?
The answer once again is tone. Even when this poem asks questions, its flat, unenjambed, syntactically complete lines create a tone of unruffled control: "For them there is something afoot"—"Twice they promised to come"—"To-morrow at tea time"—"Only another man's note." The poem sustains its sonic composure in the face of an onslaught of inexplicable experience, and the shock of the final line, in which Pound shatters this tone by naming himself so boldly, depends precisely on the fact that the information presented earlier in the poem feels inadequate or even irrelevant. If we knew what event had been over-prepared, if we knew the identity of the man and the woman, if we knew where there had been dancing, then the uneasy thrill of the poem's most blatantly referential line would disappear: "Dear Pound, I am leaving England." As we process that line, our experience of the poem mirrors the experience described in the poem. We feel deeply intimate with what we do not fully comprehend—a feeling that is commonplace in human life (we often call it love) but rare in our experience of art because we expect to be the master of the poem we read. Mystery, says this poem, is a far more humane condition than mastery.. And mystery, which depends on clarity, is the opposite of confusion.
"Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" is by no means the first poem to have been made from a concatenation of shorter poems; think of Whitman's Leaves of Grass or Tennyson's In Memoriam. But each poem in these sequences, however brief, feels like a complete lyric utterance, a poem that may be comprehended whole on its own terms. Even if we haven't read any of the sections preceding it, we don't feel the absence of crucial information when we read the eighth of the 131 sections of In Memoriam, Tennyson's elegy for Arthur Hallam, a friend who died suddenly in 1833:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
The opening eight-line sentence of this gorgeous lyric, so full Tennysonian languor ("the long unlovely street"), dumps all of its sonic shimmer onto the second sentence, whose four bald syllables have none: "He is not here." What we feel in those four syllables is the absence of tone, and we experience that absence as a thrill because the long sentence preceding it is in contrast so tonally luxurious. And because syntax conspires so elegantly with tonal shift, we feel that this poem completes its action, and when we reach the end of the poem, the string of stressed syllables in the final line underscores that feeling: "On the bald street breaks the blank day."
But while tone shifts crucially in Tennyson's lyric, this shift does not bear much structural weight: narrative information also guides us through the poem. By capitalizing on tone as a structural principle in the absence of much narrative information, in contrast, Pound made a more highly compressed long poem possible. Ultimately, he made the Cantos possible, but most immediately, he made possible The Waste Land, on which he worked together with Eliot during the winter of 1921. The fragmentary pieces that make up Eliot's long poem are not much like Imagist poems, but, like the pieces of "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour," they retain the virtues of Imagist poems: however elliptical, however compressed, they establish their authority with an immediately identifiable tone:
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
"They called me the hyacinth girl."
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
This passage begins with lines in a strongly prophetic tone, reminiscent of Ezekiel. But these lines are immediately superseded by four lines in German: their sound is radically at odds with what we have just heard, though if we know their source (a sailor's melancholy song to his beloved from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde), the lines seem continuous with the passage that follows, the recollection of lost erotic promise in the hyacinth garden, This passage, though very brief, contains just enough narrative material to make it feel like a complete scene. But however explicable this scene may be, the "I" who speaks the passage bears no obvious relationship to the "I" who would show us fear in a handful of dust. Then the "I" shifts again: with the swift introduction of Madame Sosostris, we move from the heartbroken to the broadly comic, only to find that the tone of this fragment not only contrasts with what we've heard so far but is itself interrupted by a different tone, suddenly lyrical and achingly sincere: "Those are pearls that were his eyes"—a line lifted from Ariel's song to Ferdinand in The Tempest.
As in "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour," we may not yet understand why these various fragments are juxtaposed, but we have no doubt about what the fragments are saying. And while the tone of Pound's poem shifts decisively in its final line ("Dear Pound, I am leaving England"), the tone of The Waste Land shifts constantly from precision to precision: "Come in under the shadow of this red rock"—"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago"—"Oed' und leer das Meer"—"Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante." Even the tone of a line in a language we may not understand feels precise: the phrase "Oed' und leer das Meer" is far more sonically provocative than the phrase "desolate and empty the sea," which translates it. The Waste Land grows coherent not because we're encouraged to look for continuities of narrative or character but because we're guided by this extraordinary clarity of tone.
Recall the question implicit in "Fan-Piece for her Imperial Lord": how can one write a long poem without sacrificing the unrelieved intensity of a highly compressed poem? "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" offered a tentative answer to that question, but by reducing further the reliance on narrative and by capitalizing more aggressively on shifts of tone, The Waste Land offered the definitive answer. Prior to The Waste Land, no poem of such length had ever been organized in this way, but since the publication of The Waste Land, many poems have been organized this way, not least the Cantos, to which Pound returned with a newly focused energy after working with Eliot. How far can the procedures of The Waste Land be pushed? How much compression can the medium of poetry withstand while still offering the poet enough tools to structure a poem of any considerable length?
Listen to the first of the thirteen thirteen-line sections of Susan Howe's "Silence Wager Stories":
Battered out of Isaiah
Prophets stand gazing
Formed from earth
In sure and certain
Who go down to hell alive
Is the theme of this work
I walk its broad shield
Every sign by itself
havoc brood from afar
Letting the slip out
Glorious in faithfulness
Reason never thought saw
Now listen to the final section and the epilogue:
Lies are stirring storms
I listen spheres from far
Whereunder shoreward away
you walked here Protector
unassuaged asunder thought
you walked here Overshadow
I listen spheres of stars
I draw you close ever so
Communion come down and down
Quiet place to stop here
Who knows ever no one knows
to know unlove no forgive
Half thought thought otherwise
loveless and sleepless the sea
Where you are where I would be
half thought thought otherwise
Loveless and sleepless the sea
Why is this poem, which tells no stories, called "Silence Wager Stories"? The poem does refer, in its opening and closing sections, to two powerful narratives about the relationship of love and death. "Who go down to hell alive / is the theme of this work," says Howe with disarming clarity, alluding to the story of Orpheus, who fails to rescue the dead Eurydice from hell. "Loveless and sleepless the sea," says Howe more enigmatically, translating the line from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that Eliot quotes in The Waste Land. Tristan and Isolde could love each other only in death.
But having made reference to these narratives, Howe's poem does not dwell on them, and to lament the lack of such continuities would be as inappropriate as lamenting that the poem has no rhyme scheme. For like The Waste Land and "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour," "Silence Wager Stories" does contain bits of narrative information; but like Eliot and Pound, Howe is careful not to let these bits of information contribute to the structure of her poem. Relieving us from responsibility for searching for a coherent narrative, voice, or even syntax, she consequently liberates us into an unmitigated attention to tone. What does Orpheus do after he loses Eurydice a second time? He sings. What does Isolde do as she joins Tristan in death? She sings.
Susan Howe is a singer, but she does not aspire to the stature of Isolde. Her songs are muted, murmured, clenched, constricted—as if the principles of compression and juxtaposition that underlie The Waste Land had reduced the poem's constituent parts from brief passages to single lines. This actually happens near the end of Eliot's poem—
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'asose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
—a passage that moves paradoxically toward closure by pushing the poem's centripetal energies to their greatest extreme. Howe's disjunctiveness is energetic; her entire poem is made of fragmentary pieces of syntax between three and eight syllables long. But in contrast to Eliot's, Howe's juxtapositions are less flamboyant, her tonal range more subdued. Because there seems only occasionally to be any syntactical relationship between the lines ("Whereunder shoreward away / you walked here"), and because the continuities of sound often feel more powerful than the continuities of sense ("Lies are stirring storms / I listen spheres from afar"), and because discontinuity of sound is more prominent than such continuities ("havoc brood from afar / Letting the slip out"), the dominant tone of the poem is resolute, dignified, cold. It registers the pressure of human feeling—grief—through the act of managing or containing it.
The poem's epilogue consequently feels like an eruption: its sonic richness, reinforced by syntactical and lexical repetition, stands at odds with the poem's stalwart refusal not only of narrative but of syntactical and even sonic continuity:
Half thought thought otherwise
loveless and sleepless the sea
Where you are where I would be
half thought thought otherwise
Loveless and sleepless the sea
Consider that final line, translated from Wagner via Eliot. My literal translation of the line from Wagner is toneless: "desolate and empty the sea." It sounds like a line in a Herbert Giles's poem: "I think that I shall always be / Desolate and empty as the sea." By creating in contrast an intricate pattern of repeated vowels and consonants ("loveless and sleepless the sea"), Howe is establishing a continuity of tone. The sound of the word "loveless" delivers us to the word "sleepless" and the word "sleep" delivers us to the word "sea." Then, seduced by this pattern of repeated sounds, we are further seduced by the repetition of the line, matched with the repetition of another line ("half thought thought otherwise") which also repeats itself internally, the syntax arranged in a chiasmic or mirror-image pattern. Within this swirling space of sonic, lexical, and syntactical repetition, a space of Tennysonian richness, the line "'Where you are where I would be" is the center, the still point. The sound of the words directs us to this line, which also repeats itself internally, and we glimpse there the possibility of what another kind of poem would present to us—a thematic center. The poem says: where you are (dead) is where I (alive) would be. I am Orpheus, singing low, but I would rather be Isolde, singing in order to be silenced, joined with you forever in death. The poem is an elegy for David von Schlegell, the American sculptor who died in 1992.
All poets are singers. All poets make works of art that, whatever else they do, seduce us from their beginnings to their ends through the simultaneous construction and dismantling of a pattern of sounds. The tonal control apparent in Howe, Eliot, and Pound is also fully apparent in In Memoriam, but in a highly compressed long poem, in the strategic absence of narrative, character, voice, argument, closure, or syntax, tone is what guides us through the poem. If we think of Tennyson's more garrulous elegy at one end of the spectrum and Howe's more compressed elegy at the other, then "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" stands midway between them. The Waste Land stands a little closer to Howe. Each poem exists by virtue of the power of what it is not.
About the Author
James Longenbach's most recent books are The Iron Key (Norton, 2010) and The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf, 2007). He teaches in the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers and at the University of Rochester, where he is the Joseph Gilmore Professor of English.
Editor: Stephen Donadio
Managing Editor: Carolyn Kuebler
Poetry Editor: C. Dale Young